Criterion Review: WAR AND PEACE (1966)

The Russian epic gets a fitting restoration and release

There have been many attempts to adapt Tolstoy’s opus over the years, even a recent mini-series collaboration between the BBC and PBS. Despite these efforts, they were always going to struggle to capture the grandeur of such a work. There is one that does, Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1966 work, that is not just an adaptation of a literary classic, but more of a statement of intent from Russia in their fractious relationship with the United States during that era. Newly restored, this epic undertaking is getting a worthy inclusion in the Criterion collection.

War and Peace is a sprawling tale that revolves around three key players: the decent but gullible Count Pierre Bezukhov (played by Bondarchuk), the heroic Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and the sweet but naive young Princess Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Savelyeva). We follow them from the start of the Napoleonic Wars against Russia in 1805 to their dark end in 1812. It’s a rumination of life, love, politics, and society against the backdrop of war as an agent of change. The scale of the thing is all too apparent, running 422 minutes in length (split into 4 chapters) flitting from genteel drama to bleak social discord to massive battle sequences. It’s perhaps the film most deserving of the tag ‘epic’.

Bondarchuk’s adaptation sometimes feels rigid in its pacing and flow, likely beholden to the original text. The film is its most soulful when the luminous presence of Lyudmila Saveleva is on screen. It’s packed with rich detail and production values; the grand scale exudes from every frame. It’s breathtaking to take in the spectacle of these armies clashing and realize there is no CGI, just old Russian determination to deliver an epic to showcase national pride. Camera work ranges from grand sweeping movements to more baffling creative choices that feel akin to a film school student testing out a technique, clunky rather than graceful. But even in these moments there is something to appreciate or interpret as connective strands to Tolstoy’s original text and themes — disorientating moments during shock or conflict, or the juxtaposition of scenes and people in wildly different moments of hope or loss. Contrasting the have and have nots is integral to the Russian tome.

It’s to the director’s credit, along with co-writer Vasily Solovyov, that so much of the original material is kept intact while handling a production that was so big in scope and importance. 1966 marked the middle of the arms/space race between the US and Russia, and War and Peace was one of the shots fired back. A show of scale and talent to match the excess of Hollywood with a work of their own; it’s THE Russian novel, and it’s only fitting it gets a Russian adaptation. Delving into the history of the film, this new transfer and restoration was a massive undertaking. With only low quality versions previously available, and the original 70mm negatives all but lost, this is a hell of a step forward for the film in terms of its visuals, presenting it as closely to the original vision as possible.

The Package

Criterion delivers a transfer resulting from a new 2K scan and restoration, which according to the literature is sourced “from multiple partial 35 mm negatives from various archives, using a complete 35mm positive print as a reference.” Detail is good (showing these costumes and sets as the marvels they are), grain is preserved at a natural level, and colors feel slightly drained, befitting the aesthetic. No artifacts or damage are evident, although the image loses a little definition from time to time, perhaps due to the differing source elements; but overall, it’s a very solid presentation supported by a nice selection of extra features:

  • New interview with cinematographer Anatoly Petritsky: The DP discusses his work on the film, memories of the shoot, and some of the trickier problems and solutions he came up with for certain shots.
  • New interview with filmmaker Fedor Bondarchuk, son of director Sergei Bondarchuk: Worth watching if just for hearing some of the hardships his father endured during the production.
  • Woina I Mir: A 1966 German documentary running 50 minutes that serves as a decent ‘making of’, made more interesting as it is made up of footage taken while filming was underway. It gives a good idea of the scale of the whole project.
  • Making War and Peace: A 30 minute featurette from 1969 that seems more of a fluff piece glorifying the production than anything else.
  • Television program from 1967 on actor Ludmila Savelyeva, featuring Sergei Bondarchuk: Just shy of 30 minutes, a French biographical profile on the star that is pretty entertaining.
  • New program with historian Denise J. Youngblood (Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace”: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic) detailing the cultural and historical contexts for the film: Exactly the sort of featurette you hope for with a release of this type. A well researched and delivered look at the novel, this adaptation, and their legacy, the career of the director, the political and social context of the film being made, and more.
  • Janus Films rerelease trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Ella Taylor: In the enclosed liner booklet that also includes notes on the film’s restoration.
  • New cover by Gary Kelley

The Bottom Line

Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is a grand work, perhaps one of the definitive films worthy of the label epic. Production values and ambition combine with a sweeping historical tale for a flawed but rich cinematic treat. For film with this kind of history behind it, you’d hope for a release to reflect that, and Criterion sure does deliver.

War and Peace is now available via Criterion.

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