War and Peace (aka Voyna i mir – 1966) (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Jun 21, 2019
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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War and Peace (aka Voyna i mir – 1966) (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Sergei Bondarchuk

Release Date(s)

1966-1967 (June 25, 2019)

Studio(s)

Mosfilm Cinema Concern/Janus Films (The Criterion Collection – Spine #983)
  • Film/Program Grade: A+
  • Video Grade: B
  • Audio Grade: B
  • Extras Grade: B+

War and Peace (Criterion Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

Based on the legendary novel by Leo Tolstoy, and directed and co-written by Sergei Bondarchuk, War and Peace follows the lives of three Tsarist aristocrats, the good-natured but foolish Count Pierre Bezukhov (played by Bondarchuk), his noble friend Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and the naive young Princess Natasha Rostova (played by then newcomer Lyudmila Savelyeva), through the tumultuous period from 1805 to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (and eventual retreat) in 1812. Part period drama, part philosophical exploration, the film contrasts the intimate lives and concerns of its central characters against the epic sweep of conflict and social upheaval.

The film was made largely in response to King Vidor’s 1956 American-Italian adaptation, which starred Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Mel Ferrer. This “Hollywood” production was quite popular with Russian audiences at the time—not for its fidelity to the novel but for Hepburn’s performance—though it was considered an affront by the country’s leaders and film community. Consider that Russia, during this period, was competing with America in military might, scientific and technological superiority (which culminated in the Space Race), and political ideology (communism vs. capitalist democracy). The Soviet government thus decided to mount an all-Russian film adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel—which is widely considered one of the quintessential works of world literature and essentially Russian in spirit—and so poured the nation’s full resources into the effort. The choice of Sergei Bondarchuk as director was controversial, as he was a relative newcomer and not a party Communist member; many veteran directors were envious of his selection. Nevertheless, Bondarchuk had a firm grasp on what was required of the task and the ruthless determination to see it done. His goal was to adapt Tolstoy’s novel as accurately and meticulously as possible, to express on screen what the author was trying to say, while adding as little in the way of artistic license as possible.

To call Bondarchuk’s War and Peace a film isn’t entirely accurate—it’s actually four films, with a total running time of 422 minutes. Work on the script began in 1961, with production and post-production lasting nearly five years, from 1962 to 1967. The budget was essentially unlimited (estimates range between $400 million and $1 billion in today’s dollars), but is impossible to calculate. Between 12,000 and 15,000 Russian Army soldiers were enlisted as extras (for the film’s battle scenes) and occasionally as stage hands, and Russian military aircraft were employed for aerial photography. All of these costs were paid by the state. In addition, museum collections across Russia and Eastern Europe were raided for period artwork, props, and costume reference. A great deal more of this material was produced specifically for the production. And filming took place on many of the actual historical locations depicted in Tolstoy’s novel, including battlefields, palaces, and even the Hermitage. The scale of the overall effort was simply enormous; one can accurately call it the “Moon shot” of filmmaking.

From the standpoint of Western cinema, it would be as if Sir David Lean had made Lawrence of Arabia three times over as a single project. By modern standards, Peter Jackson’s six-film Middle Earth film saga is of similar scope, but of course its production was only made possible by the extensive use of digital visual effects. Given this fact, Bondarchuk’s analog achievement is likely never to be surpassed. As you watch some of his battle sequences, you almost can’t believe what you’re seeing. With the exception of a few glass matte paintings, everything was there, for real, in front the camera lens. Armies of thousands stretch to the horizon, with hundreds of horses charging, vast arrays of real canons belching smoke and fire, hundreds of practical explosions and aerial shells going off. Bondarchuk’s depiction of the Fire of Moscow makes the burning of Atlanta from Gone with the Wind look tame by comparison; he filmed his actors running through (and performing amid) smoke, flames, and whirling ash. The visceral reality of the production hits you in almost every frame.

War and Peace was shot photochemically in actual 70 mm (at 2.20:1) using Soviet-made cameras and film stock (specifically, “Sovscope 70” film from the Shostka Chemical Plant in Ukraine, also used by Akira Kurosawa for Dersu Uzala in 1975). Unfortunately, the cameras had a tendency to break down and parts were hard to come by. What’s more, the film stock was of inconsistent quality (at various points during filming, the camera crew discovered batches with striping, mosquitoes in the emulsion, even missing sprocket holes). Worst of all, the stock was unstable and deteriorated quickly, the upshot of which is that War and Peace was nearly lost. When, in 2000, Mosfilm decided to undertake a restoration of the film, they discovered that they essentially no longer had the original 70 mm negative. So for nearly two decades, War and Peace has only been viewable in poor quality DVD releases. Entire generations of filmgoers have thus never seen it—many don’t even know of its existence. Thankfully, that’s about to change.

Per Criterion’s mastering notes for this release: “This new 2K digital restoration was undertaken by Mosfilm from multiple partial 35 mm negatives from various archives, using a complete 35mm positive print as a reference.” The process began in earnest in 2006, supervised by Mosfilm president Karen Shakhnazarov, and was only recently completed. The result is being shown theatrically via 2K DCP and is presented here on Blu-ray from Criterion in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (accurate to the 35 mm elements).

Obviously, the image quality isn’t as good as the original 70 mm surely was, and one wonders what a native 4K scan might have added to this presentation. But compared to the previous (and poor quality) anamorphic widescreen DVDs, this is a revelation. There’s occasional optical softness, and some slight variation in color and saturation due to the stock and its age, but on the whole this image is pleasing. Detail is good to very good for HD (if never quite perfect), with a medium grain structure. Colors are soft and subtle, while contrast is decent, but with frequently grayed blacks. This is by no means a reference quality image, but again, this film was nearly lost. And it looks far better than most have seen it before.

The soundtrack is presented in the original Russian (with the occasional bit of French dialogue) in lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format, remastered from the original six-track stems and with optional English subtitles. It too is of generally fine quality. There’s some analog hiss, but the sound is full with good bass. Dialogue is largely clear and clean. The soundstage is big, wide, and front-focused, with the surrounds used for light atmospheric fill and a bit of spaciousness. This certainly isn’t a flashy mix, but the audio supports the visuals well.

Criterion’s package presents the four films plus extras on two Blu-ray Discs. Disc One includes:

  • Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky (147:07)
  • Part II: Natasha Rostova (98:02)
  • Woina I Mir – 1966 German documentary (48:36)

Wonia I Mir is a black and white documentary shot during the production with Bondarchuk’s blessing (the director even answers a few questions at one point). It’s in German mono audio with optional English subtitles, and is somewhat dry. But it does offer a nice look behind-the-scenes on Bondarchuk’s design and approach to the material, the crew filming both on soundstages at Mosfilm and out on location, and even some of the massive battle scene staging.

Disc Two includes:

  • Part III: The Year 1812 (81:41)
  • Part IV: Pierre Bezukhov (96:38)
  • Anatoly Petritsky – 2019 interview (14:20)
  • Fredor Bondarchuk – 2019 interview (6:41)
  • Les Soviétiques – 1968 French TV special (27:19)
  • Cold War Classic – 2019 documentary (46:44)
  • Making War and Peace – 1968 Mosfilm documentary (30:52)
  • 2019 Janus Films Rerelease Trailer (1:40)

All of the extras are in 1080p HD. The vintage material in 4x3 and the new content in 16x9.

Anatoly Petritsky is a brand new interview with the film’s cinematographer, shot earlier this year by Criterion. He discusses his relationship with the director, some of the challenges he faced during the production, and various creative solutions he came up with to achieve certain shots. It’s in Russian with optional English subtitles.

Fredor Bondarchuk is also a new interview done by Criterion of the director’s son, who talks about his father’s journey in making the film. The production of War and Peace took an enormous toll on the actor/director, even leading to a pair of heart attacks. After the second, Bondarchuk was clinically dead for four minutes until he was resuscitated (an experience that influenced a powerful scene later in the film). It’s also in Russian with optional English subtitles.

Les Soviétiques is a real curiosity. Produced for French TV at the time of the film’s release, it’s a fascinating profile of star Lyudmila Savelyeva (Bondarchuk appears briefly as well) and life in Soviet-era Moscow. The piece is a hoot, and the less said about it the better. Obviously, it’s in French mono with optional English subtitles.

Cold War Classic is another new program, created by Criterion for this release, that focuses on the film’s historical and cultural context. It features insights by historian Denise J. Youngblood (author of the book Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic, available here on Amazon). This piece is in English.

Making War and Peace is an additional behind-the-scenes documentary produced in 1968 by Mosfilm itself, in Russian with English subtitles. It offers a bit more detail on the making of the film and complements the German documentary nicely.

Finally, the new Janus Films rerelease trailer is included here too, in Russian with English titles and subtitles. That’s it for the disc-based content, though the package also adds a small foldout poster for the release, essentially the same artwork (by Gary Kelley) that’s on the cover, with a text essay by film critic Ella Taylor on the reverse side. Like all Criterion special editions, this one isn’t meant to be a complete archive of all previous extras (indeed, the 2003 RUSCICO (Russian Cinema Council)/Image Entertainment DVD and 2011 Artificial Eye DVD releases offered some additional interviews, galleries, and other content). But much of this material is completely new, some of it has rarely or never been seen before, and the whole of it is quite substantial. At nearly three hours, this is a feast for anyone who loves this film.

Some critics call Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace a “flawed” masterpiece, for its lack of Western pacing and more traditional narrative flow, but of course those same criticisms have been leveled against Tolstoy’s novel too. Regardless, the film remains a marvel and is most certainly the definitive epic of classic cinema. It’s also one of the great film viewing experiences you can have, and one I personally chased for two decades (it was worth the wait). This is not an experience to undertake lightly, however. If you start watching from start to finish, with only a half-hour meal and bathroom breaks, you’re looking at ten hours. It’s almost all in Russian, with subtitles. There’s an occasional omniscient narrator. And it’s a Russian film, so the pacing is very different. There are ballroom dances, quiet scenes where characters muse on the existential nature of life, death, and politics. This is no rollercoaster ride, even by classic films standards. But there are also duels, a great epic fire, and the grandest battle scenes you will ever see in cinema. You’ll witness extraordinary inventiveness in cinematography too, with handheld footage photographed by a camera operator on roller skates, then riding on a dolly, and finally sitting on the end of a sweeping crane in a single shot. There are long aerial shots in which the camera is gliding on wires strung high over the set. It’s really something.

War and Peace is equal parts bewitching, bewildering, and bemusing. Every film fan should experience it at least once, and those who consider themselves serious cinephiles will certainly wish to add it to their video collections. Just throw it up on the biggest screen you possibly can and you’re in for a treat.

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

 

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