In 1956, a take on Tolstoy’s door stopper novel by Hollywood luminary King Vigor inadvertently launched a competition that would yield the seventh art’s high-water mark. So culture minister Ekaterina Further commissioned a red-blooded production from the homeland that would “surpass the American-Italian one in its artistic merit and authenticity,” as the open letter she published in state press announced.
Riding the wave of nationalist sentiment, he put a small fortune of 8.29 million rubles to work on a spectacle that would blow his overseers away. It’s tough to say definitively, but this critic is fairly certain that no single filmmaker in the medium’s history has ever been granted the level of access afforded to Bondarchuk during War and Peace’s six-year production process.
In addition to having a gargantuan sum of money at his disposal, Bondarchuk had his pick of the Soviet Union’s finest playwrights to draw up his script. My favorite detail of all: Bondarchuk was insistent upon using the meticulously bred Borzoi dogs for a fox-hunting sequence in keeping with the national tradition, except that the noble-bred species had grown uncommon.
Janus Films The director’s plan to hook the masses relied on shock and awe, bending even the most stubborn detractors into submission via the sheer magnificence of his vision. Within the tangled web of passion between Natasha Rostov (Lydia Savelyeva), Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk), and Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Dishonor), the crew mounted a series of astonishing set pieces, continually topping themselves.
The fox-hunting bit that Bondarchuk worked so hard on came out like a psychedelic swirl of gnashing teeth and gaping eyeballs, and early clashes at Austerlitz and Schöngrabern tease the viewer with a taste of the sum total of the film’s might. Aerial shots that stretch out for miles survey the full breadth of Bondarchuk’s army, assuming a God’s-eye-view so that he may squeeze as many bodies into a frame as possible.
On the ground, custom rigging enabled how-the-hell-did-he-do-that tracking shots, wending in and out of bayonet stabbings, horse deaths, and chains of detonations to capture all the hysteria in these orgies of brutality. Janus Films Thought he’d been appointed a DE gatekeeper of the cultural gates, Bondarchuk found plenty of room to get his own kicks through indulgent formal experimentation.
Even the barren snow has been shot with a lushness that imbues a majesty in the blankness, and the footage is gussied up with double-exposures predating the arrival of the word “Trippe” in the Russian language. At the conclusion of the film’s second segment, Bondarchuk plays around with rhythm by inserting a split-second shot of a jingling chandelier to punctuate Pierre’s initial courtship of Natasha.
One of the most indelible scenes takes place during a roaring night of revelry among the nobles, as Bondarchuk liberalizes their stupor with aggressive, whirling cinematography to make a tornado out of their party. There’s the old cocktail party line about highbrow types who split their lifetime into two periods: before and after they conceded they’d never read Proust; it’s easy to succumb to the same self-limitations with Tolstoy.
Along with screenwriter Vasily Solomon, he pruned a handful of the original novel’s subplots and worked the thorny historical philosophizing into a palatable episodic structure. In Bondarchuk’s adapting of War and Peace and now Janus’s reinvigoration of the film, they don’t so much blow the dust off a classic as relight a fuse.
The unadulterated recklessness coursing through all seven gripping hours makes getting some capital-c Clutch feel like the farthest thing from fulfilling an obligation of good taste. Mario Puzo’s bestseller The Godfather is a straightforward potboiler but Francis Ford Coppola spun it into one of the best films ever made.
In contrast, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has beguiled multiple ambitious, misguided filmmakers into making cinematic duds. Hollywood’s 1956 adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s famously massive tome War and Peace proved that axiom to be true.
The Soviet government marshaled a staggering amount of effort and expense to realize this film. More than forty different museums contributed costumes and set dressing to the production, including things like chandeliers, silverware and furniture.
The Red Army had 12,000 troops play as extras during the climactic Battle of Borodin sequence. War and Peace won all sorts of awards including an Oscar for Best Foreign language movie.
Country Soviet UnionLanguageBudget 8,291,712 Soviet rubles (US$9.2 million) Box office58,000,000 Soviet rubles (USSR estimate) In St. Petersburg of 1805, Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a rich nobleman, is introduced to high society.
His friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, joins the Imperial Russian Army as aide-de-camp of General Mikhail Kutuzov in the War of the Third Coalition against Napoleon. As Pierre's father recognizes him, Pierre attracts the attention of Helene Keratin and marries her, only to learn through rumor that she has been unfaithful and slept with Fedora Molotov, an intimate of Helene's brother Anatole.
Meanwhile, Andrei takes part in the failed campaign in Austria, where he witnesses the Battle of Schöngrabern and the Battle of Austerlitz, is badly wounded and mistaken for dead. He returns to his father's estate just in time to witness his wife Lisa die during childbirth.
In the end of 1809, Natasha, the young daughter of a count attends her first ball at age 16. Andrei Bolkonsky falls in love with her and intends to marry her, but his father demands they wait.
Andrei travels abroad, and Natasha desperately longs for him. But she then meets the handsome Anatole Keratin who falls in love with her and follows her with much passion.
Overwhelmed Natasha decides she prefers him over Andrei. At the last minute, she regrets her choice and abandons her plans to elope with Anatole.
However, Andrei has heard of her plans and declares their betrothal is over. Pierre, trying to calm her down, suddenly announces he loves her.
Field Marshal Kutuzov is appointed by the Tsar to defend the land. Kutuzov asks Andrei to join him as a staff officer, but he requests a command in the field.
Pierre approaches the battlefield of the upcoming confrontation between the armies during the Battle of Borodin, he volunteers to assist in an artillery battery. Andrei's unit waits in the reserve, but he is hit by a shell and both he and Anatole suffer severe wounds.
The battle involves hundreds of thousands of soldiers, thousands of horses, hundreds of cannons firing from both sides. As Moscow is set ablaze by the retreating Russians, the Rostov's flee their estate, taking wounded soldiers with them, and unbeknownst to them, also Andrei.
Pierre, dressed as a peasant, tries to assassinate Napoleon but is taken prisoner. As the French are forced to retreat, he is marched for months with the Grande Armée, until being freed by partisans.
The French Armies are defeated by Field Marshal Kutuzov in the Battle of Ransom. She reunites with Pierre, and they marry as Moscow is being rebuilt.
An open letter which appeared in the Soviet press, signed by many of the country's filmmakers, declared: “It is a matter of honor for the Soviet cinema industry, to produce a picture which will surpass the American-Italian one in its artistic merit and authenticity.” According to Der Spiegel, the film was to serve as a “counterstroke” to Vigor.
During 1960, several leading Soviet directors proposed themselves to head the project, including Mikhail Room and Sergei Asimov. But soon, the only viable candidate remaining was Ivan Pyre.
As his selection to the position seemed secure, several officials in the Ministry of Culture offered it to forty-year-old Sergei Bondarchuk, who had completed his directorial debut, Destiny of a Man, in 1959. Bondarchuk had not sought out the position and did not know of the proposal until a letter from the Ministry reached him, but he chose to accept it and contend with Pyre.
Author Fedora Yaakov wrote that the invitation of Bondarchuk was orchestrated by Pyre's many enemies in the establishment, who were determined not to let him receive the lucrative project; in early February 1961, a letter endorsing Bondarchuk was sent to the Minister, signed by several prominent figures from the cinema industry. At first, Further decreed that both candidates would each direct a pilot to be screened before a commission.
Yaakov believed he had done so after realizing his chances were slim: Bondarchuk, whose career began only during the Thaw, represented a generation of young directors promoted by Nikita Khrushchev's Kremlin to replace the old filmmakers from the Stalin era. In the end of February, after Pyre conceded, the Minister held a meeting and confirmed Bondarchuk as the director.
The director's screenplay of War and Peace On 3 April 1961, Vladimir Turin, the director-general of the Mos film studios, sent Further a letter requesting to approve the adaptation of a script for a film in three parts based on War and Peace, as well as to allocate 150,000 Soviet rubles in funds. On 5 May the Minister replied, authorizing to begin writing the scenario and granting R30,000.
Bondarchuk hired Vasily Solomon, a playwright, as his assistant for composing the script. The two later changed the earlier premise and decided to make four parts instead of three.
They chose to downplay or exclude completely several of Tolstoy's plot lines and themes, in order not to make the film too cumbersome: the episodes concerning Nikolai Rostov and Maria Bolkonskaya were reduced, and Anatole Keratin received a slightly better treatment. The author's views on philosophy and history were substantially redacted.
The Mos film directorate approved the finished script on 27 February 1962. On 20 March, in a plenum in the Ministry of Culture attended by Turin and the State Committee for Cinematography's deputy chairman Bamako, Further approved the scenario and requested all relevant agencies to assist the producers, including the Ministry of Defense, which was deemed central in providing support for the project.
The producers appointed three military advisers: Army General Vladimir Curator became the film's chief consultant, and Army General Marian Poor assisted as well; Lieutenant General Nikolai Sikorsky was brought as an expert on cavalry. The Soviet Army would supply thousands of soldiers as extras during the filming.
More than forty museums contributed historical artifacts, such as chandeliers, furniture and cutlery, to create an authentic impression of the early 19th-century Russia. Thousands of costumes were sewn, mainly military uniform of the sorts worn in the Napoleonic Wars, including 11,000 shakes.
Sixty obsolete cannons were cast and 120 wagons and carts constructed for the production. Anticipating the need for cavalry, line producer Nikolai Ivanov and General Tsiolkovsky began seeking appropriate horses.
While the cavalry formations of the Army were long abolished, several units in the Transcaucasia Military District and the Turkestan Military District retained horse-drawn mountain artillery. In addition to those, the Ministry of Agriculture gave away nine hundred horses and the Moscow City Police organized a detachment from its mounted regiment.
The producers also needed to arrange hounds for the wolf hunting at the Rostov estate. Sixteen such were obtained from individual private owners, but the dogs had no experience in hunting and were hard to handle.
However, in spring 1962, shortly before the commencing of principal photography, Strizhenov changed his mind after being accepted into the ensemble of the Moscow Art Theater. Further spoke with the actor, but failed to convince him.
The director then tried to enlist Innocent Smoktunovsky, who was supposed to star in Gregory Kozintsev's Hamlet. After deliberations, Smoktunovsky accepted Bondarchuk's offer, but Kozintsev used his influence in the Ministry and received his actor back.
He first arrived at the set in mid-December 1962, three months after filming began. Bondarchuk envisaged the character of Pierre Bezukhov as having great physical strength, in accordance with his description by Tolstoy.
Therefore, he had offered the role to Olympic weightlifter Yury Vlasic, and even rehearsed with him. Vlasic soon gave it up, telling the director that he had no acting skills.
During the making of the third and fourth part in the series, a journalist named Yury Devochkin, who resembled the director, substituted him in many of the scenes. Dishonor was the highest-paid member of the cast, and received R22,228 for portraying Bolkonsky.
Bondarchuk earned R21,679 for directing and 20,100 for depicting Pierre. The hussar officer's plissé worn by actor Nikolai Rybnikov, who portrayed DenisovBefore beginning principal photography, the producers resolved to shoot the picture with 70-mm.
Though they considered purchasing it from Kodak or from OREO in the German Democratic Republic, they at last decided to use Soviet-made film stock manufactured in the Shasta Chemical Plant, both because of financial shortcomings and for considerations of national pride. Director of photography Anatolia Trotsky recalled that the Shasta film was “of horrible quality” and that he would often photograph a sequence only to discover the film was defective.
Their 31-year-old assistant Trotsky, who had made only one film previously, was appointed in their stead. The operators pioneered photographic techniques which had never before been used in Soviet cinema.
Aerial lifts with cameras were hoisted over sets to create “a cannonball view”. When filming Natasha's first ball, an operator with a hand-held camera circled between the dancing extras on roller skates.
The crowd scenes were shot using cranes and helicopters. Another new feature was the sound technicians' use of a six-channel audio recording system.
A costume used during the filming 1 December, Bondarchuk and the production team, with 150 wagons of equipment, traveled to Mukachevo in the Zakarpattia Oblast. Bondarchuk revised his plans and decided to film in Zakarpattia 231 scenes that were supposed to be made elsewhere, while waiting for the weather to improve.
The Battle of Ransom episode and its related parts were filmed in the snow, and involved 2,500 Soviet soldiers, allocated as extras, who wore French uniforms and 500 in Russian ones. When conditions enabled it, 3,000 soldiers from the Carpathian Military District re-created the Battle of Schöngrabern near the village of Kushtanovytsia.
The Battle of Austerlitz was filmed in the vicinity of Saliva. As the budget was exceeded due to the weather and film stock problems, Bondarchuk had to refrain from filming several battle sequences.
On 20 July, the producers went on another expedition, to Dorogobuzh, in order to film the Battle of Borodin and the related parts of the plot. Photography could not be carried out in Borodin itself, mainly because of the many memorials located there.
The troops were supposed to return to their bases after thirteen days, but eventually remained for three months. 23 tons of gunpowder, handled by 120 sappers, and 40,000 liters of kerosene were used for the pyrotechnics, as well as 10,000 smoke grenades.
On 4 November, the session ended and Bondarchuk went back to Moscow. From the end of December to mid-June 1964, the crew worked in Mos film's studios.
Most notably, Natasha's debutante ball was photographed there, with five hundred extras. On 15 June, the production team went to Leningrad, where shooting took place in the Hermitage Museum, the Summer Garden, the Peter and Paul Fortress and in Vasilyevsky Island.
Upon his return to the studio on 7 July, Bondarchuk was abruptly instructed by his superiors to abandon all other work and focus on preparing the first two parts for the 1965 Moscow Film Festival, contrary to all former designs and while they were far from finished. During the same month, he suffered a major cardiac arrest and was clinically dead for a short while.
His first words after regaining consciousness were: “If I die, let Asimov finish it”. In spite of the tight schedule, Andrei Bolkonsky and Natasha Rostov were completed and submitted to Mos film's directorate on 30 June 1965, less than a week before the festival.
The two had their world premiere on 19 July 1965, in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. During July, Bondarchuk suffered another heart attack: this time, he was clinically dead for four minutes.
The white wall of light seen by Bolkonsky before his death was inspired by the director's experience. The work on the remaining episodes of parts 3 and 4 resumed on 9 August.
During the next months, the crew filmed in Mohawk, Alien and Zvenigorod. The final plot line to be shot was the Fire of Moscow ; filming began on 17 October 1966.
For four months prior to that, a plywood set was built in the village of Teryayevo, next to the Joseph-Volokolamsk Monastery. The entire construction, doused with diesel fuel, was burned to the ground as five fire engines stood nearby.
On 28 December, the edited third film was approved by the studio. Work on the fourth and final one continued until early August 1967.
In 1962, officials in the Ministry of Culture estimated War and Peace would cost some 4 million rubles, not including support from the Army. In comparison, the most expensive Soviet film until then, the 1952 The Unforgettable Year 1919, cost R1.093 million in prices adjusted to the .
War and Peace remains the costliest picture to be made in the USSR. On 20 March 1962, Further set a preliminary budget of R1.395 million.
On 21 May 1963, the Ministry approved a plan for a series in four parts with a budget of R8,165,200. On 25 August 1964, the State Committee for Cinematography issued a directive revisiting the terms, authorizing to spend R8.5 million, of which R2.51 million were to cover the expenses of the Ministry of Defense.
Towards the end of post-production, the total cost forecast estimated was R8,083,412. However, in August 1967, with all work completed, “the last debit and credit entries were written in the books.
According to its financial statements, the film consumed 8,291,712 rubles.” This was equal to $9,213,013 by the 1967 exchange rate, or too approximately.
Various estimates of the series' budget circulated in the international press. The New York Times reported it was “the most expensive film ever made... Russians say cost $100 million”.
The New York Times estimated this figure to be equivalent to $700 million upon adjustment for inflation to 2007 levels, a claim it reiterated in 2019. After its release in the United Kingdom in 1969, The Annual Register announced it “reputedly” cost £40 million ($96 million).
The 1979 Guinness Book of World Records published a similar number, claiming War and Peace was “the most expensive film ever made” based on that “the total cost has been officially stated to be more than $96 million.” The distribution (along with the displaying and later preserving) of such a massive piece of work posed difficulties.
Already the whopping 20 canisters of film reels made transportation a sizable hassle. Andrei Bolkonsky was screened in two consecutive parts, released in a total of 2,805 copies in March 1966.
In the fifteen months afterwards, the first sold 58.3 million tickets in the USSR, and 58 million of the viewers remained through the intermission. Respectively, its two parts are also the 26th and 27th most watched from among all pictures ever made in the Soviet Union.
Natasha Rostov, which opened in July with 1,405 copies disseminated, performed less well and attracted 36.2 million viewers in the same time period, reaching the third place in the 1966 box office, although it would have been ninth if counted in 1967. Admission for the two final parts deteriorated further: 1812, with 1,407 copies released, had 21 million admissions and Pierre Bezukhov sold merely 19.8 million tickets; they made it to the 13th and 14th place at the 1967 box office.
Russian film critic Sergei Kudryavtsev assessed the series' domestic returns were “probably in the range” of R58 million, while Yaakov assumed each ticket cost an average price of 25 kopecks. With a total of some 135 million tickets sold, War and Peace was considered a resounding commercial success at the time.
The series was screened in 117 countries around the world, including Spain, Japan, West Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Egypt, and Argentina. In East Germany, the state-owned DEFY studio produced a slightly shorter edition of the series, dubbed to German, which ran 409 minutes and maintained the four-part order of the original.
Among others, it featured Angelica Compose, who voiced Lisa Bolkonskaya. It attracted 2,225,649 viewers in the German Democratic Republic.
In West Germany, a much shorter version was released, totaling 337 minutes. In the People's Republic of Poland, it sold over 5,000,000 tickets in 1967.
Walter Read Jr. 's company Continental Distributors purchased the U.S. rights of War and Peace for $1.5 million. Read's associates shortened the American version of the film by an hour, and added English-language dubbing.
This edition was directed by Lee Diesel of Titan Productions and narrated by Norman Rose. Its premiere was held in the Demise Theater, New York, on 28 April 1968, and attended by actresses Ludwig Savelyeva and Irina Skobtseva, as well as ambassadors Anatomy Dobbin and Yakov Malik.
The US television network ABC broadcast War and Peace over four days, 12–15 August 1972. In July 1965, War and Peace was awarded the Grand Prix at the 4th Moscow International Film Festival together with the Hungarian entry Twenty Hours.
Ludwig Savelyeva was presented with an honorary diploma. The readers of Sovetskii Era, the official publication of the State Committee for Cinematography, chose Savelyeva and Vyacheslav Dishonor for the best actress and actor of 1966, in recognition of their appearance in the picture.
In a second review, he added: “the desire for ever greater depth of penetration into the human character, of every aspect of it led to Sergei Bondarchuk's adaptation of Tolstoy. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reviewer Brigitte Jeremiah stated the film presented history “with great meticulousness and choreographic quality .
Joseph Ellis of Noonday agreed that the film was “superior as drama and spectacle. Instead, he uses virtually every movie technique extant ... an antiwar film that celebrates life, love, renewal”.
Pierre and Andrei are only shallow, literal representations of Tolstoy's characters . Richard Chicken of Life noted that the film's American distributors “have cut and dubbed it, ruining any merit it may have had” but the original “had its own deficiencies .
Missing is Tolstoy's theory of history as well as his Christian message (neither fits Marxist theory very well), and without this underpinning the film lacks power and purpose.” Roger Ebert commented that it was “a magnificently unique film .
Bondarchuk, however, is able to balance the spectacular, the human, and the intellectual. Even in the longest, bloodiest, battle scenes there are vignettes that stand out .
It is as spectacular as a movie can possibly be and yet it has a human fullness.” Ian Aiken regarded War and Peace as “one of the most important” films produced during the 1964–68 transition from the Khrushchev Thaw to the Brezhnev Stagnation.
In that period, the liberal atmosphere of the Thaw was still felt, although it was being marginalized as Soviet cinema became more restrained. The picture “departed from the officially sanctioned forms of Socialist realism and rather, conformed to George Lukas model of intensive totality in several aspects: it was based on a classic realist novel which itself influenced Lukas; had a complex plot structure, and portrayed the relations of individuals in a social context.
He also noted that while it was an example of critical realism rather than socialist realism and had modernist characteristics, War and Peace was “politically innocuous enough” to be celebrated by the Brezhnev government as a great achievement. LEV Kandinsky, on the contrary, viewed Bondarchuk's picture as a symbol of state-approved cinema, writing it was the “antithesis” and the “total contrast” to Andrei Ruble, which he saw as representing the nonconformist approach in the field.
However, they added that “if measured by models and ambitions” it could “stand on its own merits.” David C. Gillespie noted orthodox Soviet messages in the film : “There are ideological touches .
In 1986, Bondarchuk was requested to prepare War and Peace for a television broadcast. Copy of the series, which was filmed in parallel to the main version and had a 4:3 aspect ratio, rather than the 70-mm.
2.20:1, was submitted, after being adapted by a team headed by Trotsky. Reels were damaged beyond repair, the studio used the 1988 4:3 version and the original soundtrack to make a DVD edition, in a process that cost $80,000.
Which elements were being used is unclear, but the restoration would, claimed Shakhnazarov, probably be finished by the end of 2016. The completed restoration was first shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, then in Los Angeles and other major cities.
The Criterion Collection released the restoration onto 3-disc DVD and 2-disc Blu-ray sets on 25 June 2019. The series has been shown once and once only as a single film (with a central break of 30 minutes as a comfort break) split into two 4-hour sections on British TV broadcast on BBC2 on Christmas Day 1976.
This figure is contrasted by several contemporary sources: the New York Times journalist Theodore Shaped reported that “12,000 soldiers and 800 horses” took part. Chief military consultant Vladimir Curator wrote that “12–13 thousand soldiers” would be used for Borodin.
Even the 1971 Guinness Book of World Records states: “The re-creation of the Battle of Borodin involved 12,000 men and 800 horses.” The figure used here is cited by Yaakov, who had access to the production records.
René Drummer of Die Wait was told 135 million West German Mark ($33.8 million) were spent making them, while Der Spiegel stated it cost 240 million West German Mark ($60.2 million). “Longest Film (Running Time) to Win an Award: 431 Minutes”.
: “ ” (in Russian). Opt gosudarstvennogo upravleniya iskusstvom: Deyatelnost Perdomo otechestvennogo Ministers culture.
^ “Central Bank of Russia: Ruble to US Dollar Exchange Rate History”. ^ “Pacific Exchange: Foreign Currency Units per 1 U.S. Dollar, 1948–2011” (PDF).
(subscription required) ^ Christ, Judith (29 April 1968). “A Peerless War and Peace Film Is Restored to Its Former Glory”.
“One of film's greatest epics is a 7-hour adaptation of War and Peace. European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction.
The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946–1973. Polnisch-deutsche Theaterbeziehungen sat them Beaten Weltering.
The Most Important Art: Soviet and Eastern European Film After 1945. 70 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards.