Tuesday, July 15, 2008

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

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

Continued from: Part Three

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

I must admit I was surprised when, following Russia's so-called "moral victory" at the bloody Battle of Borodino, Part Four of Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace (1967) opened proceedings with Field Marshal Kutuzov's reluctant retreat and Napolean's march onwards into Moscow. One suspects that the narrator's patriotic speech at the end of 1812 was perhaps a little premature, as Russia never seemed more vulnerable and defeated than the moment when French troops sidle casually into the nation's deserted capital. While it suffers from the unfocused and disjointed narrative also present in Part One, the final instalment of Bondarchuk's epic cinematic accomplishment is a brilliant and satisfying conclusion to a great story; as a proud nation is brought to its knees, the emotional register frequently strikes its ceiling. War and Peace IV: Pierre Bezukhov (1967) is arguably the picture's most important segment, when the story's primary characters place everything on the line for the future of their beloved Russia.

First and foremost, Part Four is a visual masterpiece, and Bondarchuk once again places his mark on the film with an assortment of dramatic episodes that are staggering in their intensity and attention-to-detail. During the burning of Moscow, as Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk) attempts to rescue a young girl from a fiery inferno, the characters are almost completely obscured by the blustery splinters of ash that gust across the screen. I have no doubt that the filmmakers destroyed an entire village (which they probably built themselves) in order to achieve this remarkable set-piece, and the sheer intensity of the raging red flames often gives one the impression that Pierre has, with the arrival of the French, unexpectedly descended into the sweltering pits of Hell. Later, following the withdrawal of the invading army, Bondarchuk counterpoints these visions with another sequence, an awesome, seemingly-endless overhead tracking shot of the lines of weary soldiers stumbling through a bitter snowstorm.

Part Four of War and Peace provides the ultimate test for many of the story's characters. Prince Andrei (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), who was wounded at the Battle of Borodino, must finally accept his impending death, and his final departure is preluded by an eerie dream sequence, in which Andrei wakes to observe a procession of indistinct faces marching past, the exodus of a lifetime of people, places and memories. Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Savelyeva), now an emotionally-mature young woman, must accept her past mistakes and make peace with the man whose love she had betrayed. Pierre, who had previously expressed his complete disinterest in the war at hand, must choose to defend his beloved Fatherland, even if it may cost him his life. The picture's eventual conclusion, though certainly sad, strikes just the right note of bittersweet, and we feel as though we've just completed something very special. The overriding emotion is one of hope: wars will come and go, but life goes on, and life is the most important thing of all.

Currently my #1 film of 1967:
1) Voyna i mir {War and Peace} (Sergei Bondarchuk)
2) The Graduate (Mike Nichols)
3) In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison)

What others have said:

"Bondarchuk, however, is able to balance the spectacular, the human, and the intellectual. Even in the longest, bloodiest, battle scenes there are vignettes that stand out: A soldier demanding a battlefield commendation, a crazed horse whirling away from an explosion, an enigmatic exchange between Napoleon and his lieutenants. Bondarchuk is able to bring his epic events down to comprehensible scale without losing his sense of the spectacular. And always he returns to ToIstoy's theme of men in the grip of history."
Roger Ebert, June 22 1969

"The balls and battle scenes are monumental, and Bondarchuk (who plays the bumbling Pierre, as Orson Welles would have in the 40s if he’d realized his own version with Alexander Korda) moves his camera a lot, incorporating some expressive 60s-style flourishes. Even at 415 minutes (over an hour shorter than the Soviet release) this rarely suggests the vision behind Tolstoy’s set pieces or populist polemics; his feeling for incidental detail is more evident in (non-Tolstoyan) films like The Leopard and The Magnificent Ambersons. This is a landmark in the history of commerce and post-Stalinist Russia, but not cinema. If you’d like to merely sample it, try parts one and three."

"The resulting showpiece is the Battle of Borodino, an unprecedented concert of cinematograph, man, beast, and pyrotechnics. Bondarchuk has no head for geography—armies' positions are a muddle—but you can't help thrilling over the densely orchestrated scrolling shots that tour the carnage, or the camera's bayonette-skimming zipline plunge... The novel's domestic drama is judiciously streamlined—subplots pared off, characters demoted to the background - but there's still an impulse to get everything in. Such fidelity hampers the story's ability to play in specifically cinematic terms: hence the over-reliance on voice-over to draw things together."

"The film's narrator pays some lip service to Tolstoy's determinist view of history, but what this movie is all about is spectacle -- serving up one breathtaking, eye-dazzling sequence after another, filling its wide-wide screen with extras and architecture, dressed for the occasion. Indeed, Bondarchuk seems to have realized he had the biggest opportunity any filmmaker ever enjoyed - a blank check and the unlimited use of the world's largest country for a backdrop - and he was determined to make the most of it. Amazingly, however, there's not a whiff of self-indulgence in the film, every shot is imaginative and just right, and its use of the special grammar of silent film -- iris shots, triptych panoramas, split screen -- pays respectful tribute to the great epics of D.W. Griffith and Abel Gance."

"Exhaustive, spectacular, often dazzling in its ambition and faithfulness to Tolstoy, the movie is still regarded as one of the wonders of epic cinema. The early-19th-century battle scenes between Russian soldiers and Napoleon's troops, never compromised by computer-generated effects, are the real thing. Especially during the battle of Borodino — a massive aria that doesn't quite come off — you may wish it were shorter. After a few minutes, the horror of amputated limbs, stricken horses, smoking cannons and agonizing deaths begins to pall. But this is the crucial confrontation in War and Peace, and Bondarchuk insists on devoting the better part of an hour to it."

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