Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Target #223: Voyna i mir / War and Peace (1967, Sergei Bondarchuk) - PART ONE

TSPDT placing: #823
Directed by: Sergei Bondarchuk
Written by: Leo Tolstoy (novel), Sergei Bondarchuk (screenplay), Vasili Solovyov (screenplay)

Few people have been daring enough to even read Leo Tolstoy's epic piece of literature, "War and Peace (1865-1869)," let alone adapt it to the cinema screen. At over 1000 pages in length, the novel is notorious for its intimidating thickness, but those who have read it will usually agree that it is one of the finest achievements in the history of literature. I've never been courageous enough to attempt the story myself, but Sergei Bondarchuk's 1960s adaptation, Voyna i mir (1967) seems an equally ambitious undertaking. At over seven hours in length – usually divided into four parts – the Soviet film defines "epic" in every sense of the word, and, with a budget of $100 million {over $700 million when adjusted for inflation}, it is also the most expensive movie ever made. Watching such a lengthy film in one sitting seemed a rather daunting task, so I've instead decided to segregate my viewing into the picture's original four parts, over four consecutive nights if possible. The experience began last night with Voyna i mir I: Andrey Bolkonskiy (1965), first released in July 1965 at the Moscow Film Festival.










I'm the first person to admit that I am disproportionately impressed by epic cinema. The story may be non-existent, the performances may be merely adequate, but if there's sufficient spectacle then I'm a sucker for it. Part One of Bondarchuk's War and Peace possesses spectacle in great abundance, and, in every frame, the picture's considerable budget has been put to excellent use. Even the most brief and discreet sequences are gloriously embellished with lavish set decoration and costuming, to such an extent that the flood of colour and creativity becomes almost overwhelming. Unlike comparable masters of epic cinema, such as the wonderful David Lean, Bondarchuk apparently has little use for precise cinematographic composition, and frequently the photography is entirely hand-held, no mean feat considering the bulkiness of those 70mm cameras. In some ways, the unexpected use of this filming style is distracting and occasionally sloppy, but it also adds a unique liveliness to the proceedings – if I'm going to have to sit through a stolid costume drama, why not brighten things up a bit with a dynamic camera?










The opening hour of Andrei Bolkonsky is a watchable but occasionally tiresome introduction of the major characters, none of which are overly interesting, with the exception of Pierre Besukhov (Bondarchuk himself), whose habit for alcohol and recklessness must be stifled following the inheritance of his father's fortune. It is only during the first bloody battle that the director finally spreads his creative wings, and Bondarchuk's magnificent cinematic scope is almost awe-inspiring to behold, as thousands of soldiers courageously fall in a breathtaking conflict amid the blood and smoke of open warfare. During these sequences, the film generally avoids spending too much time on any one character, and the director is evidently most concerned with offering an "God's eye" view of events, rather than from the perspective of war's insignificant pawns. Using this method, which he also employed to great effect in the English-language picture Waterloo (1970), Bondarchuk is able to retain the "sprawling" tone of his source material, even if such spectacle comes at the expense of any intimacy that we might have had with the story's characters.
8/10

Stay tuned for Part Two.

3 comments:

tosser/ressot said...

I think I might have rented this today. I'm not sure...

ackatsis said...

There's an easy way to tell: does it go for seven hours?

You might also conceivably have picked up the 1956 Hollywood version, which starred Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda, or the 1972 mini-series (with Anthony Hopkins, of all people!)

Anyway, if you did get Bondarchuk's version, it's well worth a look... if you've got the time. I recommend splitting your viewing into 3 or 4 sittings.

tosser/ressot said...

Woo! It is the Bondarchuk....assuming that his is the only 1967 War and Peace...


I only got Part I anyways, so I have no choice but to split up the viewing. ;)