Factoring in inflation, Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic, from Tolstoi, today would cost over a billion dollars. To say the least, Voyna i mir is grand in scope; it encompasses balls and battles, romance, old age and youth, philosophy, spirituality, and all things Russian. It was an official production into which the Soviet Union poured its resources as a matter of national pride: one more indication that Khrushchev’s successor, Brezhnev, was more like Stalin than like his mentor. Some heralded the result as the greatest movie ever made.
It’s not that. Too much of the 6½ hours that I have seen—the complete version, which is unavailable in the U.S., is two hours longer—is tame, with a good deal of old-fashioned pageantry. However, few films provide a better sense of three things: nineteenth-century combat; a feeling of national destiny; the outrage of having one’s land invaded, in this case, by Napoleon’s forces in 1812. Indeed, it is the second half of the film, which addresses Russia’s patriotic war against these invaders, that accounts for most of the film’s modest merit.
One applies to this War and Peace for its swirling canvas of war (some of it recorded in extended low aerial shots) and beauteous inserts of Nature whose transcendental treatment seems to blend time and timelessness, earth and eternity. There is much plot in this film, but the best passages, departures from this, take flight.
Yes, the film is better with War than with Peace. This, though, is fitting, because the war shown here took hold of the Russian imagination. Subsequent invasions and attempted invasions helped crystallize the conviction that Russia needed protection. After the Second World War, the nations that the Soviet Union converted into satellites were meant to erect a barrier against Western European mischief and ambition.
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