There exists a rare breed of film that takes as its sole raison d'être is Ungodly Size. It's easy to call these films "epics," but that isn't a full enough term: Seven Samurai and Lawrence of Arabia are mere "epics." The films I am thinking of are David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, Abel Gance's Napoléon or the missing nine-hour cut of Erich von Stroheim's Greed: films that may or may not do very wonderful things as cinema qua cinema, but on first blush seem to require and to earn only one response: "Jesus, that's a big movie." Films for which the production history, with all its stories of how such a big movie could possibly be made by mere mortals, is typically as interesting if not far more interesting than anything in the film itself. Three directors on Gone with the Wind; years of pick-up photography on Lord of the Rings; the notorious Greed recuts and restorations.
The one I just saw was the seven-hour War and Peace.
Not in one sitting, good Lord no, and not even in one day (start to finish, it took six). And in fairness, it's not precisely accurate to call this War and Peace a single movie: production started in 1963 and the final cut was released in 1968, but in the intervening years, as segments could be completed, it was initially shown as four separate films released in 1965, 1966 and 1967. But "I watched four films of varying length from 84 to 155 minutes in the last week" is altogether less satisfying. It is also worth noticing that the American circulating print, at 6 hours and 55 minutes, is almost one hour shorter than the original film which audiences in Soviet Russia were required to find delightful.
Rumor holds that the film was produced as a slightly peevish response to King Vidor's 1956 film of the novel for Paramount, clocking in at a miserly three hours and 28 minutes. The thinking went that no damn Hollywood studio should get the final say on the most Russian of all novels, and so the powers that be at Mosfilm greenlit a massive monster of an adaptation, utilising thousands of crew and tens of thousands of extras, taking a huge proportion of the Soviet film industry and ultimately costing an unknowable sum that has been estimated at north of $1 billion in 2007 dollars.
Even at 7+ hours, the film adaptation could not contain all of the sprawl of Leo Tolstoy's massive book, with its microscopic study of the comings and goings of Moscow's upper crust in the Napoleonic Era, the movements of armies over a seven-year period, and the author's endless musing on the nature of historical inquiry and the question of free will vs. historical determinism. Mostly, the story of the movie focuses in on those parts of the plot which concern the bespectacled, nervous Count Pierre Bezukhov (played by the film's director, Sergei Bondarchuk, because apparently directing a $1 billion, seven hour movie was insufficiently hard work), the laconic Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov) and the young Natasha Rostova (Lyudmila Savelyeva, a ballet dancer who looks eerily like Audrey Hepburn, star of the Paramount film) whose coming-of-age roughly mirrors the whole great big book's arc, and who serves at various points as romantic foil for each of the male leads. And, of course, the battles, whose obsessively-detailed recitation was such a major part of the book, and whose effective dramatization is the primary sinkhole for all of that money and all of those extras.
All of that doesn't really prepare one for the movie itself, which feels something like Gone with the Wind as reinterpreted by Baz Luhrmann. The Russian cinema, even in the depths of the Cold War, is always a bit more experimental than you'd expect it to be. And it is in experiment that this obscenely expensive multi-hour epic opens: not in 1805 in the glittering society balls that pepper the first part of the novel, but with a series of aerial shots of the fields and rivers and woods of Russia, empty and peaceful, with the soundtrack composed of the sounds of wars and battles. It suggests the ghosts of history lying over those fields, which were once mighty battlegrounds and thanks to the magic of filmmaking will shortly be battlegrounds again. Too, it is the theme of the novel and film in capsule form: the great history of Russia lies in the soul of her people and her soil, and that history is undying as long as novels are written and films are made praising it. This land, which was once a battlefield, will never lose that part of its character. Truth be told, it's a bit more romantic than my very limited exposure to contemporaneous Soviet cinema would lead me to believe common, although that goes hand-in-hand with spending this much government money on adaptation of a book that is for so much of its length such a knob-polishing for Tsar Alexander I and the moneyed classes.
Bondarchuk's technique, as established right here in the first minutes, is what we might call very "overlappy." That is to say, in both sound and image, he tends to conflate unrelated phenomena in one instant, and thereby create meaning. Here, for example, the contrast between the sound and the visual gives the scene its emotional thrust; later on there will be time for many, many instances where two images will be double exposed, or two sounds will be laid atop each other, as in the numerous cases where a character will speak French (after the fashion of the era, and after the book), and rather than retreating the subtitles, the soundtrack simply picks up with a grim narrator repeating the lines in Russian, even as the French continues at a lower volume. It's a little distracting, but it's a curiously effective way to dramatise the book's subtle shift from Russians speaking French to Russians speaking Russian; in both cases we are meant to celebrate the return to a native tradition that rejects the corruption of European influence. It's just that in the film, it's a little more obvious.
Curiously effective dramatisations of the book abound. It's a nasty secret that we don't like to talk about very often, but movies based on books - especially books that everyone has read (which doesn't include War and Peace, at least not in this country, but work with me) - is that they are very "literary" and not very "cinematic," that is, they rely on dialogue and action to convey meaning, rather than the image, as though excessive fealty to the letter of the book is somehow a merit. Bondarchuk avoids that, but in a very odd way; all of the same moments occur, and the mean the same things, but in highly cinematic terms. There is a famous pair of scenes in the book, where one aristocrat angrily denounces the appointment of General Kutuzuv to lead one faction of the army, for that is what people do. Later, when Kutuzov is made Field Marshal of the whole army, that same aristocrat praises the decision, for that is what people do now. In the book, the narrator comments on this discrepancy, while dryly satirising the way that society people say what is expected, rather than what they believe. The film presents these scenes, and is equally unsubtle about making sure we "get" it, but it does so by use of two dolly shots: in the first moment, the camera pulls away from the speaker, past an admiring throng, while in the second, the camera moves towards him. It's a reversal, see? Okay, it's a lot cleverer in the movie than on paper. Such is the nature of film.
The film positively oozes stylistic bravado like that, often yoked to theme, often just for the hell of it. It's an unusually three-dimensional film, with much emphasis on the depth of scenes, to the point where it almost feels like Bondarchuk is just showing off. Characters are constantly walking up and down, the camera constantly moves back and forth, and it doesn't take very long before we have the strong feeling of watching a series of shadowboxes. Which may or may not be the intent; it turns most of the film, certainly the interiors, into aquarium-like studies of the figures trapped inside. Tolstoy's novel has that same bug-on-a-pin quality: even while the author insisted that his characters were agents of history rather than agents of free will,* he was obsessed with tracking their every action, perhaps even because he felt that they were acting beyond their control. By making his movie feel like a series of boxes - cages? - Bondarchuk literalises the metaphor that the characters are players on a stage. Which is what they are, of course, but I mean in a "characters in history" playing on "the stage of world events."
Lastly, there is The War. There are three battle scenes in this War and Peace all of them well-made, but it is the Battle of Borodino, making up nearly all of the third chapter of the film, that is the attention-grabbing showpiece of the whole entire project. I think it likely that it is the most extravagant battle ever staged, containing as it does some 50,000 extras from the Russian army, and taking place over the course of nearly one full hour. It depicts this battle, which Tolstoy described as the turning point in European history during the reign of Napoleon, in both fastidious detail and impressionistic, fevered imagery, and it does these things at the same time, more or less. All of the tricks on display in the whole film - double exposure, crazy non-representational sound editing, mind-blowing tracking shots (plus one helicopter shot, from a great height to practically ground level, that might be the single most audacious thing I've ever seen in a movie) - are used to create an unparalleled vision of war as Hell in one of the most visceral and engaging action sequences I have ever witnessed. If it did cost the best part of a billion dollars, it was money well-spent.
It's the biggest sequence in a film where "big" and "good" are meant as equivalent phrases, but it's not just the size that counts, but the skillful management of every component of the film within that gigantic frame. In some ways, Bondarchuk's War and Peace puts the lie to Tolstoy's; for if the book proclaims that the individual is nothing against the wave of history, the film, in which great movements are the net result of a thousand single choices working in tandem, is a counter-argument simply by its existence. Every moment of its seven hours feels calculated, and while sometimes it veers into sloppy indulgence, it never feels arbitrary. Each scene, each edit, serves an obvious purpose, and for that to be true of a film longer than either Star Wars trilogy is an extraordinary accomplishment.
*Here is one of my favorite things on the internet.