If I had to describe Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 version of War and Peace in one word, it would be “big.” Almost everything about it — from its seven-hour running time to its famous battle sequences — conveys an epic scale the likes of which few films attempt, much less achieve. But while it remains famous for its astoundingly gigantic production values, what really makes this film shine is how it uses cinematic techniques to portray the magic of Tolstoy’s most indelible scenes.
War and Peace is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name. There have been hundreds of descriptions of this book, which is one of the most famous ever written. They have included summaries of Count Pierre Bezukhov’s search for the meaning of life, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky’s army service and his marriage to the incomparable Countess Natasha Rostova, and dozens of other smaller subplots. But my favorite description of Tolstoy’s book comes from Richard Pevear, who translated War and Peace with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky. He wrote that it was “as vast as Russia itself and as long to cross from one end to the other.” Pevear went on to note that, “If one makes the journey, the sights seen and the people met on the way mark one’s life forever.” It is a tribute to Bondarchuk that you could say the same about his film.
There are many sequences from this film which expertly show off its gargantuan scale. The most famous ones are the battle sequences, with their many extras and sense of unbridled mayhem. But Bondarchuk also includes maximalist sequences related to the “peace” part of the title. The lavish ball sequences, aerial shots of vast landscapes, and even the presence of a live bear in a party do a wonderful job of depicting the famous immensity and danger of War and Peace.
But what really makes this film special is the attention which Bondarchuk pays to making the smaller moments of the novel work cinematically. He films Andrei’s epiphany as he watches the sky at the Battle of Austerlitz as a beautiful point-of-view shot that fully conveys how this image inspires Andrei. Later, when Andrei dies, Bondarchuk dissolves to that same shot of the sky. It’s a moment of visual poetry that would not be possible in a novel.
In addition to his cinematic pyrotechnics, Bondarchuk is also unafraid to hold on a moment simply because it is important or interesting. His expertly framed medium close-up in which Count Bezukhov (played by Bondarchuk himself) admits to Countess Rostova that he would marry her if he felt he was worthy of her is just as thrilling as any of the epic battle scenes. More than anything, it is Tolstoy’s characters which have made War and Peace a popular work for centuries. Bondarchuk’s understanding of this simple fact elevates his adaptation from a large-scale curiosity to a beautiful meditation on what it means to be human.
Despite its long length, Bondarchuk’s adaptation of War and Peace will always attract viewers. Some of them will be cinephiles who fast forward through hours of the film to watch the massive battle sequences. But every now and again, there will be people who watch the whole thing. Near the end of the film, they will hear the narrator describe Count Bezhukov’s epiphany that “man is created for happiness.” The magic of both this film and the novel is that it will make that epiphany seem like the most simple, true fact in the world.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.