Starring: Lyudmila Savelyeva, Sergei Bondarchuk, Vyacheslav Tikhonov
Director: Sergei Bondarchuk
Running Time: 403 mins
War And Peace (Война и мир) is a Soviet film about the story of three people living in Russian high society in the early 19th Century, and in the midst of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, they face up to the threat of tyranny and evil, all the while growing and maturing in the face of both global and personal issues.
Falling just fifteen minutes shy of 7 hours, it’s fair to say that War And Peace is an absolutely gigantic film. However, it uses every one of those seven hours absolutely brilliantly, crafting a riveting and ultimately incredibly powerful drama from beginning to end, set on a scale the size of which you honestly cannot imagine, and complete with exquisite directing, brilliant performances, amazing sets and production design, and a timeless and endlessly enthralling story that will keep you fully captivated from start to finish, and that’s something I really didn’t expect to see from a film this long.
Given its length and scale, there’s so much to talk about with this movie, but we’ll start off with the one thing that defines it most: the running time. Films that exceed three hours (Schindler’s List, Titanic, Gone With The Wind etc.) are regarded as daunting tasks, so it’s understandable if the idea of watching a seven hour-long drama like this (all in Russian language for that matter) would make you hesitate before diving in.
Before this, I’d only seen one other film of comparable length: the 429 minute drama Sátántangó from Hungarian director Béla Tarr. Watching that was a real slog, and after five hours, I was becoming really restless, but that’s largely because it’s a story that merits a three hour movie, deliberately stretched to seven in order to accommodate Tarr’s ‘slow cinema’ directing style.
War And Peace, on the other hand, isn’t a slog to watch. Yes, it’s nearly seven hours long, but its story is so full of depth and drama, combined with riveting history and its enormous scale, that it genuinely merits a seven hour-long film, moving along from beginning to end at a consistent and engaging pace, and featuring a story that keeps evolving and growing throughout, all of which means that there’s always something to latch onto and care about here, making its initially daunting seven hours fully satsifying and genuinely fulfilling come the end.
I was so impressed that this film not only managed to keep itself engaging from beginning to end, but actually get better and better as it went along. Its first part is the slowest of all, taking the best part of two hours to set up the characters and setting, but in the long term, that’s a vital opening act, as it means that the following three parts are all fully riveting and well-grounded, and as such are increasingly engrossing and enthralling throughout.
Of course, Leo Tolstoy’s classic story is a key reason that this film works so well. Not only is War And Peace a great drama, with the fascinating stories of three completely different characters coming from the Russian nobility, but it works just as well as a great war movie, political thriller and historical drama.
Tolstoy’s story is so full of depth, history and excitement throughout that there’s genuinely never a dull moment, and it’s translated to screen exceptionally well thanks to a very strong screenplay that features riveting and genuine dialogue throughout, making what may seem at first like fairly wooden characters utterly enthralling to follow, and making the film as a whole a simply entrancing experience.
And as exceptional the story itself is, director Sergei Bondarchuk deserves the highest possible praise for creating a film that delivers an epic scale like you have never, ever seen, and will likey never see again.
As well as translating the classic story onto screen brilliantly, Bondarchuk makes War And Peace a film for the ages by giving it such a sense of grandeur and importance. It may start out as a slightly smaller drama about a few characters in Russian high society, but over the course of its enormous runtime, it explodes into a globally significant and life-changingly deep epic, and that scale really sticks with you throughout and afterwards, yet more reason for you to be all the more captivated and enthralled by the story at hand.
What’s more is that Bondarchuk cements the film’s enormous scale and grandeur with seven hours of what I can only call the most impressive visuals ever put on the big screen. From the beginning, the film is bathed in beautiful costumes and sets that harken back to the splendour of the Russian aristocracy, entrancing you with its visually dazzling aura at every moment. However, not only is War And Peace exquisitely-produced, but it also features some of the hugest and most visually impressive sequences you’ll ever see, all achieved through the genius of 100% practical effects.
Of course, the budget for this movie was gigantic for the time, and was the most expensive the Soviet Union had even made, something that comes through clearly when you see the size and ambition of the scenes that Bondarchuk crafts for you.
There are the enormous and beautiful aristocratic palaces, but above all, the film features some truly exceptional battle sequences, as we follow the Russian army in their defence of the motherland against Napoleon’s invading French armies, and witness some stunningly huge and mind-boggling action-packed images of true war in action.
With no CGI and no special effects to play with, Bondarchuk creates enormous battle sequences featuring hundreds of thousands of men on screen, somehow managing to make the explosive and cutthroat nature of the war feel totally real, all the while choreographing and linking together so, so many people and horses and props and explosions and more.
The main battle sequence takes place over the course of about 70 minutes in the film’s third part, and although it may not always have the same emotional and dramatic depth as some of the earlier character-centric parts, the mind-blowingly enormous scale of it all with leave you with your jaw on the floor from beginning to end, simply because you watch a fully convincing and utterly exceptional sequence in which every last detail has been crafted by hand and pure skill, something that we’re very unlikely to ever see again on the big screen.
Along with battles and drama, the film is also particularly memorable for its music. It’s not a musical, but throughout, it features all sorts of riveting and remarkable songs that add to the depth and atmosphere of the setting. Whether it’s waltzes at the splendorous balls in a palace, lullabies sung from mother to son, folk songs in the woods, or epic military anthems roared by thousands of men on screen, the music here is the icing on the cake to make this the exquisite and sumptuous masterpiece that it is.
And finally, we come to the performances. The characters in this story are absolutely fascinating, and although it takes a while for them to come fully into their own after the first act, the actors all do brilliant jobs at bringing them to life. Lyudmile Savelyeva stars as Natasha Rostova, a young countess who grows and matures enormously over the course of the story, and she puts in a brilliant performance that makes her character’s many ups and downs absolutely riveting and equally emotionally enthralling.
Then there’s Vyacheslav Tikhonov, who plays Andrei Bolkonsky, a Prince who fights on the front line for Russia against Napoleon. His story is one of the most dramatic, and Tikhonov brings incredible depth and seriousness to the character from beginning to end, allowing you to really empathise with and care about him in such a rollercoaster of a life, which is utterly fascinating to see.
Lastly, there’s Sergei Bondarchuk, who not only directs this film so exceptionally well, but puts in a stunning performance as Pierre Bezukhov, a noble who finds his life turned completely upside down by the events of war and the interference of others. All in all, Bezukhov is arguably the main character of this epic, even if it may not appear like it at first, and Bondarchuk does that role brilliant justice, gradually increasing his character’s sense of experience and worldliness, consistently proving a riveting and magnetic central presence that ultimately withholds a truly powerful message to be shared.
Overall, I was absolutely blown away by War And Peace. At nearly seven hours long, the film is inevitably enormous, but it uses all of that time to craft a truly riveting and endlessly enthralling drama that covers an unbelievably large scale. With stunning directing from Sergei Bondarchuk, great performances, a classic story from Leo Tolstoy and everything in between, War And Peace may look like a daunting and massive prospect, but it truly is one of the most impressive spectacles you’re ever likely to witness, and that’s why I’m giving it an 8.3.
(And what better movie to mark my 2000th film in a row? That means I’ve now watched a movie EVERY DAY for 5 years straight, from January 1st 2013 right up until today – the halfway point in my mad project to watch a film every day for 10 years… So, onto the next 2000!)