More than three years in the making, War and Peace is a sumptuous and lavish spectacular, making brilliant use of the 70mm screen. Sergei Bondarchuk has kept to his intention of making a faithful filmization of Leo Tolstoy’s famous novel. That may have been a worthy decision, but not necessarily the wisest one, as the film suffers occasionally from being too ‘literary.’
At its best, the production is superb. Bondarchuk is a master at controlling crowds, and the two great battle scenes in the first part are nothing short of breathtaking. There is an unforgettable moment as the Russian and French armies march defiantly towards each other, and the moment of impact is spectacularly exciting. Something like 10,000 extras are used in these scenes. Equally spectacular is the subsequent Battle of Austerlitz.
But in his determination to translate the novel literally, Bondarchuk tries also to be too poetic, and overdoes it with an endless succession of shots of clouds, trees and the countryside.
On the other hand he’s not been afraid to use old-fashioned techniques where he believes it helps the picture, such as split screens and gimmicky camera angles.
One of the surprises is Bondarchuk’s own performance in the demanding role of the shy, tongue-tied Pierre. His thesping range is quite remarkable, from a drunk scene with fellow officers in the opening stages to his embarrassed proposal to the beautiful Helene (Irina Skobtseva).