Dir. Sergei Bondarchuk. Starring Ludmila Savelyeva, Sergei Bondarchuk, Vyacheslav Tikhonov
Unless I manage to get my hands on Satantango or, God forbid, Out 1 at some point, I think War and Peace will probably rank as the lengthiest movie I watch this year. At 421 minutes, it is one of the giants of narrative cinema, a movie so long that you can watch Doctor Zhivago twice and still have time to watch the burial of Yuri’s mother a third time if you started the movies simultaneously. In honor of the girth of War and Peace, I’m going to break this up into 42 segments, which means we’ll average one thought per ten minutes of run time:
- There’s a certain myth attached to a director’s first movie, especially if it’s something really special: Citizen Kane, They Live by Night, The Maltese Falcon, The Night of the Hunter, The 400 Blows, Ivan’s Childhood, Hunger, etc. It seems to me that a great second movie is nothing to sneeze at, though, and what absolutely amazes me is that this is Bondarchuk’s second movie as director. Mosfilm, making this great prestige movie almost certainly in response to King Vidor’s mediocre attempt a few years before, handed the keys to a guy who had directed a single movie before this. Bondarchuk’s effort is special (as we’ll chat about later on), but what stands out most about the direction is this sense that nothing is too ridiculous to give a go. I’ve always loved Orson Welles’ comment about RKO being the biggest electric train set any boy ever had, but look, War and Peace is like giving the boy an actual railway.
- War and Peace won Best Foreign Language Film at the 41st Oscars, which honored films from 1968. Aside from topping The Fireman’s Ball, which was wrong, it’s funny to me that the Academy chose the foreign movie which took the American studio epics of the last seven to ten years most literally; William Wyler wouldn’t have directed War and Peace like Bondarchuk, but I think they would have chosen many of the same beats to focus on. (Best Foreign Film is, for my money, the Oscar which either goes to absolutely the right movie or absolutely to the wrong one. A couple of years before, the Academy didn’t nominate Persona and passed over The Battle of Algiers for A Man and a Woman, which is a choice I’d really need explained to me.)
- Always pay attention to the credits. Right after they credit the assistant art directors, Vladimir Likhachev’s name comes on screen. I doubt very much that I will ever encounter Vladimir Likhachev again in my life, but I know that he got a screen to himself so we’d learn he was the pyrotechnician. Any movie that credits the pyrotechnician before the cast ain’t fooling around.
- Bondarchuk returns to his helicopter shots over and over again, which I didn’t expect at all; the sweeping shots of Nature turning into the puzzle pieces of farms and forests from thousands of feet in the air feels entirely appropriate, and given the movie’s belief in its likewise enormous themes, it’s a strong initial hint that the movie’s perspective will be vast.
- The choice to begin the movie’s plot with a dark, quiet room filled with many people we don’t know milling about is a bold choice for the movie. We have already been introduced to the vast, literally global vision of War and Peace, but to bring it into someone’s soiree in a blue-gray room is almost foolhardy. The film trusts that we’ll hang on while it introduces people here and there, while it introduces Pierre in his sadsack state, and when much the same lighting choices translate into a pretty thorough rumpus.
- Speaking of other things I was utterly unprepared for, how ’bout that bear who’s chowing down at this really incredible party? His name is “Bruin,” because soldiers have never been mistaken for original thinkers, and we are, probably for the best, saved from watching someone tie a policeman to him and throw them both in the water.
- Natasha (Savelyeva) almost literally explodes into the movie when she first appears on screen. A cry of “Here she is!” and then a medium shot, a close-up, and another closer one and then finally back, away from her face and body, allowing us to see the full effect of the nursery behind her which is lit so fully and brightly that it seems that the girl has emerged from another world entirely. Other bodies—her cousin Sonya (Irina Gubanova), her brother Petya—are there as well, but hers is the one that has been fired out of a cannon and into a room of snooty adults in the midst of judging Pierre (Bondarchuk) for his role in the Great Manbearcop Incident of 1805. War and Peace has two characters with the power to change others. One is Natasha, who sends the stoic, grim Andrei into whatever his version of topsy-turvydom is. The other is Napoleon.
- The casting of Ludmila Savelyeva is probably the most important bit in the entire film, because, as noted above, Natasha has the greatest power of any major character to change others or bring out different sides to them. May I be struck down if I ever turn into one of those “But the character is like this in the book” people or worse, “But I imagined the character like this…”, but it’s worth noting that the most important aspect of Natasha’s physical appearance in the novel is her energy. She is not conventionally beautiful—that distinction is left to someone like Helene—but her constant energy and freshness give her a kind of beauty in their own way. Savelyeva is not a great beauty, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she is a better choice for Natasha than, ah, Audrey Hepburn. Even in movies like Roman Holiday or Sabrina, Hepburn was more leonine than sprightly. Savelyeva is far less pretty than Hepburn, but she is also capable of the combustible energy that Hepburn was always much too cool to lean into.
- The death of Pierre’s father and the regal, lightfooted dance of Count Rostov takes place simultaneously, not only through cuts which direct the action back and forth but occasionally by putting them on screen at the same time. Bondarchuk will continue to do this throughout the movie as well, most notably when Andrei goes to Pierre with news that he has fallen in love with Natasha as she tells her mother the frightening depths of her feelings.
- I rather like old Prince Bolkonsky’s (Anatoli Ktorov) list of instructions for his son before he goes to war, following in his father’s footsteps. My notes are for the emperor, these papers will be of use to military historians, and these are for your edification. “If you are killed, your old man will take it very hard,” he tells Andrei after giving him a long embrace. His face squeezes together, darkens. He walks to the window, which is curtained. The camera pulls back into a wide shot, and then the old man says what he was going to say: if Andrei behaves in a way “unworthy” of his father, the shame will be rather more difficult to overcome than his son’s death would be. War has always been terrible, but there’s something to be said for the way that the Napoleonic Wars completely changed the battlefield. Andrei never disappoints his father, but his father’s campaigns did not display the sheer savagery of an Austerlitz or Borodino.
- This is a fabulous song, and the little dude up front dancing is also fabulous, and I think I’ve just joined the infantry, or at the very least signed up for balalaika lessons at the community center.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkk_FQPR9Qc
At the end of that scene there is a Russian soldier, no doubt fashioning himself a liberator of occupied Austria, who cries out, “Greetings, Russians! Greetings, Austrians! Greetings to the whole world!” It’s a little nudge to remind us that the movie follows Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and their circle, but it could just as easily be this shako-swinging youth with bright eyes and a thin mustache. To ensure we see the point, Bondarchuk points the camera up, showing us a clear blue sky which hangs above Austrians, Russians, and, yes, the French too.
- One of the strongest scenes in the entire film belongs to the turning camera showing us the terrain at Schoengrabern. For men in the military, a road is no longer a way to “work or comfort,” and a house is no longer a safe place to enter, and there are no women or children to go to. The fact of war alters the simplest truths that the peasants-turned-soldiers, themselves altered in unthinkable ways, are forced to approach. Here is the mathematical proof that war is unnatural and evil; it turns the world into disarray, ripping up meanings as shells will rend the ground itself at the battle. “Men were not brothers,” Andrei says, “but both the victims and implements of death.”
- Pyotr Bagration was a striking fellow, if his portraits are any estimate of his looks, and it’s incredible how much Giuli Chokhonelidze looks like him. It’s got to be like, the twenty-fifth most important casting of the film, but it’s a winner. Bagration ought to look like an imposing general, and he certainly does here. The right face is worth a thousand beautifully said words. (We get more of him at Borodino, and history remembes him for it, but the glory of the character in War and Peace is at Schoengrabern.)
- The plight of Captain Tushin (Nikolay Trofimov) is a dry run for what will happen at later battles, particularly at Borodino. There are some of the big explosions and men falling and dirt and mud everywhere that we come to expect from the Napoleonic battles of the film, but we are eased into the battles with the structure that Tushin’s battery provides. Schoengrabern revolves around the stubborn resistance of Tushin’s small command and his fiery refusal to leave the field of battle when he has the opportunity to blow up Frenchmen. Twice Tushin is told to withdraw from his position, and twice he goes on fighting with total unconcern for his safety. Only when Andrei gives the order a third time and details the reasons why the battery must leave its position (namely, there isn’t much of a battery left) does Tushin leave, only to find out that at headquarters he is taking an awful lot of blame for losing as much as he did. Once again, Andrei intercedes for him, Bagration desists, and we get a sense of why it is just not worth it to be a midlevel officer in an army where the nobility have all the top jobs.
- …though there’s something to be said for beautifully said words if they aren’t onscreen. War and Peace, towards the end of its first chapter, has veered dangerously close to ponderous, grim, or even in these last ten minutes or so, a little too symbolic. Andrei has his oak to occupy him and his brush with death at Austerlitz where no less a man than Napoleon notes his gallantry. (Glory is easy enough to accomplish if one has a little courage, the movie seems to say, but with the banner in his hand as he is rudely propped up by a little crop of rocks, more than a little ways toward cadaver status, it’s awfully difficult to reap the benefits of.) Pierre, driven by aggravation he cannot suppress to demand satisfaction from Dolokhov (Oleg Yefremov). Dolokhov is already shtupping Pierre’s weirdly gotten wife, Helene (Irina Skobtseva), so it seems a little unnecessary for him to grab a menu out of Pierre’s hands and then refuse to give it back; like, how much more can you rub it in? The duel is shot stylishly, emphasizing the mystery of what will happen after an overexcited Pierre decides he’s, ah, not throwing away his shot. It’s a dramatic last push in “Andrei Bolkonsky,” in other words, until we hear Natasha’s voice rushing out over a moonlit lake. The passage from the book puts it like so:“You go to sleep, but I can’t,” said the first voice, coming nearer to the window. She was evidently leaning right out, for the rustle of her dress and even her breathing could be heard. Everything was stone-still, like the moon and its light and the shadows. Prince Andrew, too, dared not stir, for fear of betraying his unintentional presence.“Sonya! Sonya!” he again heard the first speaker. “Oh, how can you sleep? Only look how glorious it is! Ah, how glorious! Do wake up, Sonya!” she said almost with tears in her voice. “There never, never was such a lovely night before!”Sonya made some reluctant reply.“Do just come and see what a moon!… Oh, how lovely! Come here…. Darling, sweetheart, come here! There, you see? I feel like sitting down on my heels, putting my arms round my knees like this, straining tight, as tight as possible, and flying away! Like this….”The words are basically repurposed, and the thought itself—folding oneself into an entirely interior, fetal presence and flying away into the darkness—is fitting with the sadness and pessimism that Pierre and especially Andrei have experienced. It’s impossible not to connect Natasha’s dream with the death of Andrei’s wife in childbirth, not with the imagery she’s using. And yet it is expressed with such blissful hope that it is obviously infectious not just for us, but for Andrei as well.
- The shot above is so perfect it makes my heart hurt. Mirror shots tend to be a little trite, a little too concerned with taking a short cut to characterization, and about as magical as making John Rhys-Davies look short in the Lord of the Rings movies. But this one jumped into my top three as soon as I saw it. (Number one is pure bias: Anton Walbrook smashes himself and reverses perspective simultaneously in The Red Shoes. Number two is pure artfulness: The Lady from Shanghai.) And this one is all about how the mirror fails to adequately show the fullness of either person’s self. In mere moments, Andrei and Natasha manage to cross paths, even make a blink of eye contact, but totally fail to recognize one another or the importance they will place upon one another in the coming years. Natasha is concerned that no one will ask her to dance even though she wants badly to do so; Andrei’s thoughts are the thoughts of adults. And so they pass one another by, leaving only the mirror to document this first pass.
- The waltz the two of them share does not last all that long, perhaps three minutes, although it is a very fine sequence. Savelyeva, a ballerina, is more than graceful enough to carry her end. Tikhonov, who has been stern and unsmiling even with the people he likes for something like three hours has this delicious little half smile. He is enjoying himself, and he is enjoying her, and she is, in her enthused teeny way, quite over the moon. Natasha moves on to other partners. The camera leaves them and runs over the chandeliers and the scores of dancing partners. The music is sublime. (It’s also deeply unlike the majority of the other original pieces in the film, which are, as one might expect, martial rather than pretty.) It becomes more and more insistent, relying more on the pleading, almost whiny tone of its violins. When it seems the music cannot hang together for another moment, when we have taken three flybys of the dance floor, we see them together again, both in white, almost alone on this densely populated floor, and then sparkling in the refracted light of chandeliers and glowing in the long rows of candles. And when the dance is over, and Natasha is rushing back to her mother and her cousin—barely visible at times behind the line of people milling in front of the camera—Andrei stands still. “If she goes to her cousin and then to another lady, she will be my wife,” Andrei thinks to himself. Would that we all fell in love so completely, rapturously, and irrevocably. It isn’t quite the equal of the affair in Anna Karenina, but in this scene, at least, it cannot be the lesser.
- Andrei explains to Natasha that their engagement is going to last longer than an engagement typically lasts, although he translates “My father is artificially holding up his blessing” as “We’re going to let you figure out who you are as a person.” Her reaction is very much the reaction of a child and not a woman, more along the lines of “I’ll die if I have to wait a year,” and it is quite possibly the most uncomfortable scene of the movie for that reason. Andrei’s love “deepens” in that moment, although his attraction to her is no longer fully sexual but has much more fatherhood in it. I am thoroughly glad that the dad expectation of marriage has been more or less expurgated from the conventional wisdom, for in the early 19th Century I think that idea might have reached its apex in nice society.
- Natasha’s dance in which she is the epitome of Russian womanhood is a very nice dance, and I’m not sure how on earth anyone could be Russian womanhood with any dance, but durnit if Savelyeva doesn’t try her best.
- The appearance of the mummers in the film is, as it is in the novel, sudden and strange. They interrupt one of those conversations about whether or souls existed before we did, and before you know it there is a great race of four troikas in the snow and then Natasha and Sonya, with drawn-on mustaches, look into a mirror where the latter sees Andrei. (The film doesn’t address the part in the novel where Nikolai kisses Sonya mostly because she’s got the mustache and eyebrows drawn on, and honestly that’s probably a lot easier for the movie to put down carefully and walk away from.) Andrei is lying down, according to Sonya’s vision, and what follows him is “blue and red.” Knowing that “blue and red” signifies Natasha’s subconscious visualization of Pierre, we can get a pretty fair understanding of what’s going to happen in the end to our heroes. It would be an easy moment for the movie to remove, but it’s one that is effective on two fronts. First, as wonky as our mustached girls are, it’s the sort of wonkiness that one expects from teenagers who have so far lived happy and unfettered lives; they are acting their age. Second, the movie could very easily have turned Tolstoy into a very safe “brotherhood of man” kind of guy, and there are certainly some lines late in the movie, stripped of their original context, which bastardize the most enthralling aspects of Tolstoy’s philosophy. But in this case it does not shy away from the mystical interest Tolstoy held, of the belief that portents and omens did exist and could suggest something of God’s intentions.
- After Natasha’s failed elopement, there are three scenes where Pierre has a chat with someone who’s not fully willing to have a chat with him. In the first, he commands Anatol (Vasili Lanovoy) to get out of Dodge and, after getting a hint from his brother-in-law, pays him off. In the second, he consults with Andrei and begs him to forgive Natasha. It’s a scene in which the old Andrei, the one who was withstanding his father’s abrupt farewells and the one who tearlessly stood by his wife while she died, has returned. It is a brilliant scene for Tikhonov—Bondarchuk, the actor-director, firmly understands when to zero in on the actor—who is never better in the film. Handsome, haughty, cold, his small, sharp nose does half the work for him. A man should forgive a fallen woman, but I cannot, he admits. In his eyes we see something of the pain he’s feeling; we are as close in on him as we get throughout the movie; he lowers his eyes once before looking back at Pierre, and Andrei’s ultimatum, that he will retract his friendship should Pierre press the issue, has acted as the armor her needed during that moment of vulnerability. The movie will give us glimpses later on of the nobility within Andrei’s character, but I think it’s fair to say that here is the “ecce homo” moment for Andrei Bolkonsky. For the majority of his life, he is this person, and that will not change except in extremis.
- It’s the third conversation Pierre has which is truly moving, and it is the first time in the entire film—four hours in!—that we really understand what Andrei means when he says that Pierre is “comical,” but that “he has a heart of gold.” There are other instances where he is vulnerable, such as when he picks a fight with Dolokhov, or when he is generous, as when he tries to convince Andrei to proffer Natasha a second engagement. But there is so much shame and regret that he allows Natasha to see in this scene, which has been building even before he wanders into that marriage with Helene. Natasha’s face is streaked with tears, but Pierre is a little weepy too when he says: “If I were not what I am, but the handsomest, most clever, best man in the world—and if I were free—at this moment I would be on my knees to beg you for your hand. And your love.” Before he says those last three words, he looks down, and we can see in his face that he knows he probably shouldn’t say it. But he does. And Natasha is glad he does, and I am glad he does. It is a moment of breathless, stupid honesty, and it is a moment in which Pierre acts faithfully to the best impulses within himself instead of acting to whatever impulses he’s gained via booze or fashion. For me it’s the single most emotional moment in the entire movie.
- I really wasn’t going to talk about Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 because I didn’t want to seem like a fanboy, but whatever, I’m here now. Natasha, etc. is about two hours and change of music. That entire musical can be squeezed into about forty minutes of War and Peace, which first of all means that Dave Malloy could be employed for the rest of his life if he wants to stick with War and Peace. More seriously, the limited timeframe to this subplot gives very little time to a character like Anatol Kuragin. He is entirely the one who shows up at the opera, seduces Natasha, gets some advice about sable coats, and then fades out of the picture almost entirely after that; there is more time to develop him as an individual in the musical, even though, curiously, they are using much of the same dialogue. I’ll grant that I’m sensitive to that section of the plot, but I genuinely wonder if the movie airbrushes a little too much of the Natasha abduction plot. It feels rushed even if we assume that Natasha is just a girl who can be taken for a ride by a man who intends to bang her and live off her money; from Anatol’s tête-a-tête with Dolokhov to the end of the chapter is seventeen or eighteen minutes, which is lightning speed for a movie that lasts as long as this one does. The fact that this includes Pierre’s talks with Andrei and Natasha means that the actual abduction happens (or doesn’t, but you get what I mean) in a flash, which is maybe a little anticlimactic.
- “The Year 1812” begins with the last minute or so of “Natasha Rostova,” which is to say it begins with a screen full of French soldiers crossing the Russian border. What the movie does next is a cut to a ball where a screen full of Russian nobles are dancing, “running” in the opposite direction; where the French moved away from the camera, the Russians move towards it. The meaning is transparent, but the execution is strong enough that one doesn’t mind so much.
- “Natasha and Pierre Circle Around Each Other, Part II” is less remarkable than the original version we saw in the last section, but there’s nuance in this scene which the last one stays away from. In that first moment, Andrei’s rejection of Natasha was still very much in our minds; now, some months later, we can appreciate how Pierre has had a chance to fall in love with this young woman without fear of active reprisal from his best friend. Of course, Natasha is still quite hung up on the man who rejected her after she rejected him. Do you think he’s still upset with me? Do you think he’ll forgive me? Do you think he is bitter? Pierre, either because he’s stayed away from the topic per Andrei’s warning or because he cannot bear to think of doing what every fifteen-year-old girl knows is friendship suicide, merely tells her that there is nothing for Andrei to forgive before he eventually bows out of the room. War and Peace does not pretend that Natasha and Pierre are made for one another—there’s a much better argument that Natasha and Andrei are made for one another—and so the fact that Andrei would have to die for the other two to be together doesn’t bother me all that much. Fate is not on anyone’s side in love.
- Andrei makes a fateful decision when he decides not to rejoin Kutuzov’s staff in favor of staying with his regiment. Kids, t doesn’t matter how much you subscribe to a deterministic view of history: always go for the desk job.
- The movie’s depiction of Kutuzov (Boris Zhakava) is purposefully a little wry—there are basically identical scenes where one guy criticizes Kutuzov mercilessly and then ten minutes later rejoices at Kutuzov’s high rank and responsibility—and I know that there are a great many historians who think of Kutuzov as the guy who out-Napoleoned Napoleon at Borodino. The movie does not make any claim that bold, viewing him as less a military tactician than a father figure for Andrei. Like old Prince Bolkonsky, Kutuzov is a great general; unlike old Prince Bolkonsky, he is still sound enough mentally to recognize Andrei’s worth as a man. When he tells Andrei that he would like him to think of him as a father, it is a touching moment from a character we’ve not seen much of, especially when we see the embrace he gives Andrei before they return to their separate positions. We have seen an embrace from Andrei’s real father before, and while it was long and honest, it was not tight like Kutuzov’s for Andrei.
- I think we need to recognize that this building can see something terrible and may never be the same:
- Pierre comes to see the battle, which I think sounds a little weird for us in our time but which was more or less common during the 19th Century; there are plenty of stories about Washington socialites heading out to Manassas to watch what they assumed would be the first and only battle of the American Civil War. Pierre, with his typical bumbling desire to do the right thing, tells an officer that he would like to help if he can, but the officer makes it clear that nothing can be done by the next day which would alleviate the shortages in medicine and materiel. Andrei has a different take about what can be done. It does not matter who has more men or the better positions, Andrei says, already in a fatalistic mood pending the death he is sure awaits him on the field. 200,000 soldiers will throw themselves at one another, and “the side that is fiercest and spares itself least is the side that will win.” Austerlitz, according to Andrei, was not a victory of Napoleon’s strategy but a failure of the forces of the Third Coalition to want it badly enough. It sounds vaguely like Andrei is trying to lead his D-II football program to an upset victory over Alabama or something, but in the 19th Century the morale of the troops really did have a powerful effect on how the battles turned out.
- The final encounter between Andrei and Pierre is surprisingly one-sided, although the usually taciturn Andrei has always had more to say than his more expansive friend when they are alone together. Andrei’s thoughts, after months of disappointment after Anatol’s unscrupulous seduction of Natasha, his inability to hunt down the rake and kill him, and then his return to an army which he had previously sworn off, are black. They are clearheaded, filled with hatred of war and a recognition that it is the worst of humanity, but they are brutal. The rules of war forget that war is no game, he argues; there is no use for prisoners when the prizes go to the side which “murders” the most people.
- The official numbers, as far as I can tell, give Bondarchuk 12,000 soldiers to work with. Other war movies have had more manpower—I’ve seen multiple sources suggest that 23,000 men were available for The Longest Day—but I think once we get to numbers that big it’s hard to tell on screen anymore. Certainly Bondarchuk makes his 12,000 feel like more than that, for reasons we’ll see below.
- The Battle of Borodino makes up no less than thirty-five minutes in “The Year 1812,” and while other people will cling to Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan or Stirling Bridge in Braveheart or the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, for me only that last compares to the sheer scope of Borodino. It isn’t a particularly bloody affair, and for those moviegoers who think the amount of fake guts and red paint they can stick on an actor is indicative of the quality of a battle sequence, I know they will remain unconvinced. What War and Peace understands is that the battle is totally incomprehensible unless you are one of the commanders hearing reports and taking in the view from a relatively safe distance. Artillery crews load their cannons over and over again. Smoke envelops the battlefield. Flags appear and disappear. Columns of men march steadily until they can look into the eyes of their enemies and then fire from close range. Bondarchuk has a fondness for releasing great numbers of horses without riders and letting them run roughshod to emphasize the pure chaos. The savagery of the battle is in the nearness, that time has basically stopped while the smoke blots out the sun and explosions fill the ears.
- The most remarkable element in this piece of the film, and one of the great sequences in War and Peace generally, comes when the Russian lines finally break. The artillery holds strong as long as it can against an enormous charge of French cavalry, and the ridges are littered with blue uniforms, but in the end numbers tell. What follows are a few tracking shots lasting less than two minutes which have the sort of precision that most directors would kill for. A column of French cavalry continues its advance as the camera pans right; twenty seconds later, after some shots of individual soldiers fighting and buildings burning, the camera has moved about 180 degrees and the cavalry reappears in the low road they are advancing through. The shot lasts fifty-five seconds, although the cut is disguised by smoke and a horse leaping in front of the camera. In this turning point, there are maybe six cuts total in one hundred seconds, and each of those shots is filled with the worst panicked bewilderment that war is capable of inflicting. Every building is aflame. Every man is in combat with another man. Every horse is at full gallop. Even feathers from chickens explode like grape shot. And one man flails wildly with his sword, not even close to another man. It is unbelievably thrilling, and it is as clear a cinematic statement as any that the worst thing about battle is that an individual loses not only the control over his life but control over his most simple, vital functions.
- It seems incredible that we’ve gotten this far only name-dropping Napoleon (Vladislav Strzhelchik, who honestly looks just like the guy), but then again he is not really a character unto himself until Borodino. He paces constantly, although now and again he’ll flag a little and sit in the special chair they’ve got arrayed for him. (That it looks like a director’s chair on a film set cannot be a coincidence, and it is one of the only funny things that happen in this entire movie.) His face is always hard. I don’t know Strzhelchik does it—perhaps there’s something to the way that he never assents to anything, that he always sees a problem in any suggestion even when someone’s trying to give him lunch—but he has the aura of genius which is necessary for any actor who is going to play Napoleon. There are two key scenes with Napoleon in “The Year 1812.” One shows his reluctance to commit more of his reinforcements despite two officers telling him that with another division they might be able to sweep the Russians from the field. (Historians have been critical of Napoleon’s withholding of some units which might have been able to do just that.) And at the end, narration sounds while we sweep over the field in helicopters and see still photographs of many Russian soldiers, saying triumphantly that for the first time Napoleon met a will greater than his own before the camera returns to the sky with the sort of photography we saw in the first few minutes of the movie.
- I admire the way that Bondarchuk sees ways to continually amplify the confusion and panic of wartime. He makes battles like Schoengrabern and Austerlitz preliminaries for Borodino, which serves in the end as a way to show the fear as the propertied few escape Moscow, leaving behind the poor, like the guy who tries to shoot down a French officer canvassing for future barracks, and the crazies like Pierre:
The greatest chaos is saved for last, the nuclear version of complete disorder we see when the looting starts. While French soldiers plunder and discover the booze, buildings burn and a woman screams that her daughter has been lost in a fire. (She hasn’t been, and in fact Pierre manages to save the little girl; when he goes back to return the child to her mother, the woman is gone. It’s heartbreaking.) We aren’t at Stalingrad levels in this section of the film, but for viewers of a certain age in the Soviet Union it must have been impossible not to connect the effect of Napoleon’s campaigns with the effects of Hitler’s. Bondarchuk lingers on these moments, especially the execution of the supposed arsonists, and a little historical context goes a long way. And even if this isn’t the full Stalingrad, there’s no doubt that Moscow in 1812 is Hell. Everything is aflame, and the air is filled with blackened papers and rubbish flying around in the cold wind.
- The futher we get into the movie, the more willing Bondarchuk is to sacrifice movement for photography, or the blending of basically still images together, to create a collage of memory and vision. The height of this strategy, at least in effectiveness, is when Pierre, awoken in the church after having been spared execution, sees the death of one man at the killing post. In shot one, he is blindfolded and weak-kneed. In shot two, he begins to crumple. In shot three, he is dead. Later, Pierre will lament that one of the men he saw executed in such a manner was not even twenty years old; he was the boy who grasped at Pierre, tried to cling to him as if there was safety in the giant man with the glasses and the hopeless face.
- Platon (Mikhail Khrabov) is a fount of wisdom, and while there are more quotable examples from the injured soldier kicked out of a hospital, my personal favorite is one that is one of the last bits of Tolstoy’s philosophy to sneak into the film: “Wherever judgment is passed, injustice reigns.” I don’t care if there was a freeze on Stalinist policies or not, but I dunno how they managed to get that one past the censors. Moar Christian anarchy!
- This would be a fabulous title for some celebrity autobiographies, but I’m sure not going to suggest any because I’m not trying to get involved in a libel suit on a Tuesday:
- I’ve talked up Tikhonov and Savelyeva’s acting here already, but Bondarchuk has, up until this last ninety minutes or so of the movie, been sort of one-note. He does not have the world’s most expressive face, and many of his gestures and reactions fall into the same catalogue. He is not Tikhonov, whose character calls for a granite mien and the softest of smiles to crack it; Pierre requires more than the shell of a man we see in the first three sections. Bondarchuk finally begins to deliver here, giving us a Pierre whose idealism, education, brute strength, and crippling empathy all come together at key moments, such as the execution of the arsonists, the death of Platon, or the conflagration of Moscow itself. Perhaps it is because we lack another’s eyes to see such terrible scenes through, and that probably has as much to do with it as anything else. But if nothing else, Bondarchuk is an efficient conduit, and that’s certainly worth praise.
- Andrei, after having confessed how much he loves Natasha and how it would be “so good” to go on living, goes to sleep/dies. The faded images of the dead march towards him; himself faded, he walks from his sickbed, reaches an enormous pair of doors many stories high, and as they open he walks through. he jolts alive again, now in a coat, and thinks to himself, “Yes: that was death…Death is an awakening.” As far as cinematic versions of death go, this one ranks pretty highly for me, emphasizing the intangibility of the dead, the company one has, and the belief that there may yet be something beyond the grave.
- The truly wonderful repeated image in the movie is not that enormous pulling away from the ground after all, but the light that shines on Natasha’s face when Pierre sees her. At the end of War and Peace, wreathed in her mourning for Andrei, she looks with a sad smile at Pierre, who has found his way back to a Moscow without Napoleon. The light shines on her face, warm instead of blinding, flattering instead of totalizing, and the woman under her black shawl is a woman now, not a girl who flitted around the dance floor of a party she was too young to attend and offered to teach Pierre the steps to a dance he did not know. The world has changed, and it has orbited this young woman somehow; in Pierre’s mind, the connection between the chandeliers in a great ballroom and the buds on the trees is only a cut away.
- The short review of War and Peace: a good movie which probably has as many sublime moments, proportionally speaking, as any other “good movie,” but given the length of the film those sublime moments are either too spread out or seem too few. On the whole, though, I’m glad to have this one under my belt. It is worth seeing for anyone who appreciates an epic, for this closes the door firmly on epic films. No movie which could call itself an epic in the fifty years since this movie was completed—not Reds, not Troy, not Gandhi, not even Lord of the Rings—has been able to compare for the sheer scope and manpower of this picture.
One thought on “War and Peace (1967)”
[…] War and Peace (1967, dir. Sergei […]