Movie Review: Yeah, You Actually Do Want To Watch 'War and Peace'

Jan 11, 2021


You don’t think you want to watch a seven-hour mid-1960s Soviet adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but I’m here to tell you that you do, actually.

 

First, let’s deal with your assumptions: yes, it’s long, but it was released in four parts, so you can easily watch it as a miniseries, or a “limited” series as we call it now, and we’re all plenty used to that.

 

Also, while I haven’t read Tolstoy’s work, it is famously daunting. And while this movie is huge—huge—director Sergei Bondarchuk smartly brought the focus to just three of the main characters, and though he’s certainly kept some of the life-and-death philosophy, he doesn’t wade too deeply into those waters, so we never get bogged down.

 

And while you might expect a movie about Russian aristocrats in the Napoleonic era to be a bit stuffy, you need to believe me when I tell you: this movie is bonkers. It seems Bondarchuk was untethered from the conventional rules of filmmaking and he does whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He whips from the epic and enormous to the intimate and impressionistic, and for a few brief, extraordinary moments, he even melds the two, showing us the internal experience of one of our characters while the most extreme external events rage around him. There are techniques Bondarchuk invented for this movie, and I’m not exaggerating when I say for the entire seven hours I felt like I couldn’t look away, because I couldn’t anticipate what the next shot would look like or when it would come.

 

The whole thing is just so crazy—not only the movie itself, but the production, too, which included many thousands of extras from the Soviet army, internal politicking, and even the fact that Bondarchuk apparently died and came back to life—possibly twice—while the movie was filming, which eventually informed his depiction of the film’s major death scene.

 

And the best news of all is that War and Peace isn’t hard to find! It’s available through HBOMax or the Criterion Channel, and Criterion has also released a stunning blu-ray edition of the film, with a zillion fascinating extras.

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