Sergei Bondarchuk remains seated in War and Peace

Confession time: I‘ve never read War and Peace. Big books generally don’t intimidate me — I made it all the way through Ulysses and Don Quixote without any hesitation — but something (probably its four-figure page count!) always made me shy away from Tolstoy’s novel.

After scoping out director Sergei Bondarchuk’s four-part feature adaptation (the first two segments screen at Pacific Film Archive at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 1 and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 2), I think I finally might be ready to crack it open. In addition to providing a helpful summary of War and Peace’s main themes, Bondarchuk’s film offers an example of filmmaking at its most adventurous, imaginative, and epic — and this new 4k digital restoration is truly breathtaking.

My previous introduction to War and Peace came via a late 1970s television airing of King Vidor’s 1956 screen adaptation. Originally clocking in at 208 minutes but cut to fit into a TV time slot, the Vidor version was headlined by big name Hollywood stars like Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and John Mills. I haven’t seen it since, but if memory serves it was nothing particularly special.

Annoyed that America had made a large scale version of their great national novel, the Soviet Union decided to outdo the capitalists with something even bigger. Released at home in 1967, War and Peace would debut in the United States the following year and — despite featuring an anonymous cast and a bladder-busting 431 minute running time — go on to win the 1969 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Wisely, Bondarchuk broke the film into four chapters, allowing viewers the opportunity to go on snack runs and take bathroom breaks.

Bondarchuk plays the story’s pivotal character, Pierre Bezukhov, a lumpy aristocrat lacking in confidence but possessing an impressive collection of dandyish, Regency-era attire. The unhappily married Bezukhov introduces teenage Natasha (Liudmila Savelyeva) to high society; at her coming-out, she falls head over heels for handsome army officer Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov), and the couple become engaged shortly thereafter.

Napoleon (Vladislav Strzhelchik), however, interrupts their marriage plans. His 1812 invasion of Russia sends Andrei and the rest of the tsar’s army to the front lines, separating the couple until a tragic final reel reunion.

War and Peace: every shot is brilliantly and carefully composed.

It’s clear the Soviet government gave Bondarchuk a blank check for his four-year long production. Literally thousands of Red Army soldiers march across the screen — all of them dressed in period military uniforms and equipped with period weaponry — while scores of cannons roar and hundreds of horses thunder by. There is, of course, no CGI.

While its massive scale certainly contributes to War and Peace’s success, Bondarchuk’s vision is the ingredient that ensconces its position as a classic. The camera travels to startling places and assumes unusual angles and positions, while the director liberally utilizes double exposures, split screens, handheld camera, and sweeping crane shots. None of it feels gimmicky: every shot is brilliantly and carefully composed.

You will be reminded of the battle scenes from Leone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly, the triptych sequence of Abel Gance’s silent epic Napoleon, the magical atmosphere of Aleksandr Ptushko‘s ‘fairy tale’ films, and — because of Bondarchuk’s precise and careful use of color — the films of Mario Bava. War and Peace ultimately stands alone, however: it’s perfect. Don’t miss it.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...