“WAR AND PEACE” (Russia) 1965 by Sergei Bondarchuk)
by Cynthia Webb
Monday 8th Oct. 2019: I went to the “marathon” screening at the Cinematheque at the Gallery of Modern Art, (GoMA), screening as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival. It was the gloriously restored version of “War and Peace” ( from the book by Leo Tolstoy)- the Russian film by Sergei Bondarchuk. It started at 10.30 a.m. and ended at 6.20 p.m. There were three ten-minute breaks. The cinema was almost full – a lot of people ready for the treat and the challenge of such a long film. I loved every minute of this totally stupendous film and it didn’t feel “long” for me. It won the 1966 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and rightly so! It features glittering ballroom scenes in palaces, the most amazing battle sequences ever filmed. It is such an enormous artistic-creative project, and rather than try to talk about it all, I will just say that everything is excellent, and the cinematography is awesome, literally.
What a story – Tolstoy’s finest, and the story is of the greatest importance to Russian people.
“War and Peace” was made with the participation of The Red Army, and with unlimited budget from the Soviet State. Russian dignity depended on it. After the weak and most ‘un-Russian’ version from Hollywood with Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer a few years earlier, the Soviets were moved to show us the REAL Russian soul.
Many readers already know the story. Bondarchuk stars as Pierre Besukov, who adores Natasha Rostov, but she loves Andrei Bolkonsky, a difficult man. The story opens in 1805, involves years of wartime, and continues until the momentous year, 1812, when Napoleon’s army marched into Moscow following the Battle of Borodino. Oh, what a dark day that was! This sequence made me cry. It’s as bad as watching the war-time footage of Hitler’s troops marching into Paris. Chilling. The Muscovites had left the city, taken or destroyed most of the food, and set alight to their mostly wooden homes. Almost the whole city burned. Only the Aristocrats had stone mansions. These were ransacked and robbed by the invading army. However the crafty Russian General Kutuzov had purposely drawn them into the city, so that they would be trapped there, without provisions and with winter looming in the very near future. “I will make them eat horse-meat” he said. This failure to understand Russia, its people and its climate, was the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s reputation and career.
Lesson: Don’t mess with the Russians! Even so a second megalomaniac, Adolf Hitler made the same mistake.
An interesting true piece of information is that it was difficult to find any Russians who would set alight to their beloved city, Moscow, so criminals were released from the prisons on condition that they would do the terrible deed.
Thank you to Brisbane International Film Festival and the guest programmer,Australian film director Baz Luhrmann, for bringing us this legendary piece of world cinema.
I’d seen it before, but it was back in 1966! I have the DVDs at home, but they are not the widescreen restored version! This was an unforgettable cinematic immersion which any cinephile MUST take advantage of if the opportunity arises.
copyright Cynthia Webb
Photo Courtesy of the Producers