Sure to be among the longest, if not the best, movies to play on Seattle Screens this year is Sergei Bondarchuk’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s longest novel. Running just over seven hours, and split conveniently into four parts, the film captures something of the essence of the book, while leaving out just enough to infuriate partisans of literature in its war against cinema. Being that this is the rare adaptation of a book I have actually read, I can happily carp on the minimization of some of the best characters, the wholesale elimination of favorite scenes, and the rejection of Tolstoy’s more bizarre musings on the movements of history. But I won’t, because taken as it is, War and Peace is majestic, the missing link between the silent epics of Griffith, Gance, and Eisenstein and the historical films of Terrence Malick.
Of the four parts, three are named after the film’s three primary characters, the fourth reserved for that monumental year 1812. It begins with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, an earnest and reserved man who heads off to war only to lose both his delusions about martial honor in the battle of Austerlitz and his sickly young wife in childbirth. His story forms the spine of Part One, the longest of the sections, with the rest of the time taken up with stage-setting and character introductions, especially the two other main characters: Natasha Rostova, namesake of Part Two, and Pierre Bezhukov (Part Four). Key episodes from the book are rushed through (Pierre’s drunken revelry and disastrous marriage, Natasha’s brother Nikolai’s experience at Austerlitz, etc) but the focus remains primarily on Andrei and his view of the world. Multiple voice-overs compete for our attention, internal monologues for many, many characters, along with a narrator who at times might be Pierre but at others matches more closely Tolstoy’s own voice. These voices, with their philosophical musings, mixed with gorgeous images of the Russian countryside, make it obvious that this is a film Malick certainly saw before making The Thin Red Line or The New World. Bondarchuk goes just about as far in the direction of romantic transcendentalism as one could expect from a Soviet-era production.
The second part, Natasha’s story, is probably the best. Lyudmila Savelyeva has something of the charm Audrey Hepburn brought to the role in King Vidor’s fine 1956 version of the book, growing believably from effervescent pixie to hollowed-out saint through the course of the the story’s seven years. Her debut ball is a magnificent bit of filmmaking, dare I say Minnellian in the shear joy of her first dance with Andrei. Her fall from grace is filmed just as impressionistically, as Bondarchuk abandons the tedious recounting of dialogue and plot in favor of the mad rush of excitement and temptation that leads the poor girl into an deliriously ill-considered romance with Pierre’s dastardly brother-in-law.
The third part is mostly concerned with the Battle of Borodino, where the Russian army fought the French to a standstill on the outskirts of Moscow before ultimately retreating, setting the stage for the Bonaparte’s disastrous winter withdrawal. The battle scenes are as spectacular as everything else in the movie, with reportedly more than ten thousand extras populating vast scenes of movement and death, which Bondarchuk films in every way imaginable: split screens and wipes, helicopters and cranes and tracks and handheld cameras, POV shots and long arcing movements. It’s as glorious as it is horrific.
The final section, after these spectacular middle parts, is a bit of a let down. The focus centers on Pierre, the brains of the film (such as he is with all his deluded ideas, barely hinted at in the film), where Andrei is its heart and Natasha its soul. Various plot threads are rushed to their conclusion, new characters sent on their tragic ways almost as soon as they are introduced. Rather than building in cumulative power over the course of its massive run time (as Hu Bo’s upcoming An Elephant Sitting Still does), or capping the proceedings with an unexpected change in tone and direction (as does Satantango, that other great behemoth of Eastern European cinema), War and Peace just kind of fizzles out. It’s been more than a decade since I read the book, but if I remember correctly it kind of does the same thing. A novel that big, in length and scope and ambition, can’t ever really end though, it goes on long after you’ve put it down. Despite its length, the film doesn’t approach the all-embracing nature of the book and its failure to do so is a good argument for the claim that no film can really express the totality of a great massive novel. The movie is at its worst when it tries to stick to the novel’s plot. But at its best, it captures the same great heights of Tolstoy’s most stirring sequences.