‘War and Peace’ review: Don’t miss the chance to see Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic in theaters

A still from the 1966 version of "War and Peace," from the Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk.
A still from the 1966 version of "War and Peace," from the Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk. Photo Credit: New York Public Library

‘War and Peace’

Directed by Sergei Bondarchuk

Starring Sergei Bondarchuk, Ludmila Savelyeva, Vyacheslav Tikhonov

Playing at Film Society of Lincoln Center

“What, are you writing ‘War and Peace?’” is the zing I get when I tell my wife I need to finish just one last email. “War and Peace” isn’t just a work of literature, it’s synonymous with something impossibly long. But even though most printings put it at more than 1,200 pages (or 61 straight hours on Audible), it wouldn’t be so famous if it weren’t also, you know, good.

There are numerous film and TV adaptations, but Sergei Bondarchuk’s four-part, 431-minute version originally released in 1966 and ’67 has the reputation as the one to watch. And it’s earned it.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is debuting a gorgeous new restoration this Friday. A $25 purchase ($20 for members) gets you in to all four parts, with opportunities to stretch it out over the week or fix bayonets and charge in for an all-day binge. One can also try surprise attacks at the box office for individual tickets at standard pricing.

The Soviet Union essentially gave Bondarchuk a blank check. This was the pride of Russian national literature in popular form, and the result is an epic that works on multiple levels. The battle scenes are terrifying and spellbinding. These enormous sequences from the Napoleonic Wars are loaded with non-CGI images very much of the “they can’t make them like this anymore” variety. The chapters of aristocratic intrigue are shot in experimental and captivating ways, ensuring that the “talky bits” never fall into a "Masterpiece Theater"-like trap.

Bondarchuk also retains choice moments of Tolstoy’s text, like eloquent, philosophical chunks of interior monologue from numerous characters. (Even, at one point, a wolf in the middle of a hunt.)

Despite the lengthy running time, the massive novel is truncated, focusing mostly on the main love triangle. Bondarchuk himself plays Count Pierre Bezukhov, perhaps one of the only missteps in the picture. The classic Hollywood version cast Henry Fonda; the 1970s BBC production had young, strapping Anthony Hopkins. Bondarchuk has an undeniable Fred Flintstone-like quality, but when you’ve got entire divisions of the Soviet Army at your disposal to make your movie, I guess this can make you feel somewhat invincible.

“War and Peace” can look intimidating on a library shelf, but this particular version is engaging, fresh and feels nothing like homework. An opportunity to see it in a theater like this doesn’t come around often.

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