In its expression of the epic, cinema has shifted from the battlefield to the computer, generating worlds beyond belief from bits of code. Hollywood—forever wary of the shrinking screen—embraced the live-action epic as a foundational genre, grown spectacular in the 1950s in a thwarted attempt to divert audiences from their newly purchased television sets. Millions of dollars were spent, millions were often lost, and even the masters of the form—Cecil B. DeMille, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean—were constrained by time, budget, and the whims of their producers.
No such limitations impeded the completion of Sergey Bondarchuk’s WAR AND PEACE (1966), the greatest epic in cinematic history and a Cold War triumph of Soviet filmmaking. This seven-hour retelling of Leo Tolstoy’s work was filmed over the course of five years, cost $100,000,000 (pre-inflation), and employed over 100,000 actors—including regiments of Red Army troops who precisely re-enacted Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
So, the battles are here—as is the jaw-dropping sacking and burning of Moscow—but so are the day-to-day dramas of Bondarchuk’s three aristocratic protagonists: Prince Andrei (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), Natasha (dancer Ludmila Savelyeva), and Pierre (Bondarchuk himself). For Tolstoy, WAR AND PEACE was more of a philosophical explication than a novel, and Bondarchuk does not neglect the author’s theoretical digressions motivation, will, memory, and regret.
This weekend in Santa Monica, the American Cinematheque presents a screening of a new digital restoration of this four-part masterpiece, with an encore in Hollywood in April.
WAR AND PEACE
1328 Montana Avenue, Santa Monica.
6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles.
War and Peace stills courtesy Mosfilm. From top: firing squad; Ludmila Savelyeva (right) as Natasha at her first society ball; Vyacheslav Tikhonov, as Andrei, on the battlefield (2); religious procession.