Directed by: Sergei Bondarchuk
Starring: Lyudmila Savelyeva, Sergei Bondarchuk, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Viktor Stanitsyn, Oleg Tabakov
Continued from: Part Two
Part Two of Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace was a quiet and contemplative affair, an exploration of a young woman's romantic development amid conflicting emotions and temptations. By the conclusion of Part Three, there has been little character development of this sort, and Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Savelyeva) makes only a solitary appearance in an early sequence that highlights the uneasy intimacy of her relationship with Pierre Bezukhov (Sergei Bondarchuk). The director seems to have decided that personal affairs are no longer important – this episode is about war! With a brief running time of 84 minutes, War and Peace III: 1812 (1967) nonetheless contains among the most awe-inspiring depictions of conflict ever committed to film, surpassing even the grandeur of the Bondarchuk's work in Part One and later in Waterloo (1970). Over the course of his film's production, the director sustained no less than two heart attacks – as one might expect, one of these came about during his recreation of the Battle of Borodino. I really can't blame him.
This battle, which lasts the bulk of the film's running time, is a genuine battering of the senses, film-making of such overwhelming excessiveness that it just about places the viewer amidst the blasts of smoke and the shudder of cannon-fire. After somehow securing the support of the Soviet Government, Bondarchuk employed full use of their resources, and conscripted 120,000 men to help recreate the Russian Army's mighty encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte's forces. Unlike the great battle in Part One, which seemed somewhat detached and impersonal, the Battle of Borodino focuses closely on the perspective of Prince Andrei (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), who has accepted that he may be dead by the day's end, and Pierre Bezukhov, whose clean civilian attire contrasts harshly with the dirty and ragged clothing of the weary soldiers. Of course, Bondarchuk can't resist regular use of his trademark sweeping overhead shots, but every detail is so meticulously orchestrated that one can only stare in fascination. What Part Three lacks in emotional depth, it more than makes up for in pure, uninhibited chaos – the chaos engineered to perfection.
Like most extravagant war films, War and Peace (1967) boasts a curiously-duplicitous attitude towards combat. We are reminded frequently of the inanity of war, and yet Bondarchuk simultaneously celebrates its necessity; no director can expend so much effort on a battle without glorifying it to no small extent. The narrator's final words, perhaps sourced from Tolstoy's original novel, are shamelessly patriotic and no doubt designed to elicit nationalistic cheers from the Russian audience – "a moral victory which compels the enemy to recognize the moral superiority of his opponent and his own impotence was won by the Russians at Borodino." Even though the Battle of Borodino ended in a bloody stalemate, the French troops were afflicted with sufficient losses to withdraw their offensive. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (Vladislav Strzhelchik) is unsympathetically portrayed as a cold, remorseless strategist ("Never, to the end of his life, had he the least comprehension of goodness, of beauty or of truth, or of the significance of his actions…"), a far cry from Rod Steiger's interpretation just three years later.
Stay tuned for Part Four.