Cinema. Cinema, in all its forms is an unusual thing. Because what can you do with it? Bring images, captured from the real world or made from other sources, to the eyes. Bring sounds, made in studios or recorded on location, into the ears. You can cut the images together, or you can play a singular shot. A “film”, can be a short that is shown to friends or yourself, or it can be a spectacular Hollywood blockbuster with rip-roaring effects. Hell if you’re wild, you can do one of those 4-D experiences, which have 3-D spectacles as well as some activating some of the other senses, the spray of the sea with a mist of water or the smell of something in particular.
Or maybe, with the backing of an entire nation’s government, you use cinema to create an adaptation of what is considered one of the finest artistic and literary achievements in human history. And you do it in four parts. And you spare no expense. And it’s just under seven hours.
Sergei Bondarchuk did that with cinema.
When you have epic literature, and by extension epic cinema, the world becomes a different place. Main characters exist, but they exist in an encompassing world, a world which has multiple levels of orbit. Characters exist in multiple levels of strata, of layers of social status or decorum or class or gender or faith or in fact, all of them. Epic literature is not viewed from the ground, it is viewed from well…everywhere. War and Peace as a story, while it may not literally view the world from God’s eyes, certainly does its best to force you to surrender yourself to such an experience. The shift of the world and all its inhabitants, is one of great moments of voluminous experience, and the gradual unyielding shift of time slowly but surely moving on. War and Peace takes place over the scope of 10 years or so of Russian history in an extremely volatile period, that of the Napoleonic Wars. 7 hours doesn’t seem so big when you consider that amount of time to force into the frame of a film.
What catalyses in the brain of any reader or viewer of any true ‘Epic’, is the sheer scale, the sheer volume of what occurs. An epic may not need 10 years (Homer’s Iliad doesn’t take more than 55 days), but what is needed and what is conveyed, is a true sense of the story beyond any one individual. A story of people, not a person. Because life from the fixed perspective of any one person, can only see so far. So by far, the best and most breathtaking technique employed throughout the film, is scale. And Bondarchuk had an opportunity like no other. Thousands, thousands of extras fill up the space for miles on end, armies moving across the landscape like little blocks, seen from a commanders perspective. But the sheer volume of them is something unseen, something which I can only imagine being matched by the experience of modern-day stadiums of just physically seeing that many people. But those marching blocks soon are involved in the hideous, fascinating art of war. The seemingly endless bloody fields of soldiers, a number in the film so small in comparison to the real battles (At Borodino, 70,000 men died in a single day) is not only unrelenting, but they push you to see the war only as a force, like the wind. The merciless slaughters are only accentuated and revealed by time, never made better.
But the scale of the warfare is only half, albeit an unbelievable, colossal and deeply deeply overwhelming half. The nature of the story can only reach its fullest heights, when war is complemented by its intertwined sibling, peace. And the scale of peace is not something to be brushed aside in favour of the sticky blood spilled across the fields. For the world of this story, is operating under a grand sweep of time across its landscape on all its levels. The rich, vast halls of the aristocracy tower over the parts I & II, an environment for gods and giants to exist in, where every room is a chasm and a theatre simultaneously. Palatial estates are only complemented by the extravagant and unending decorations; the food, the clothes, the ornaments and chandeliers and furniture and more, endless endless arrays of the excesses of the well-to-do of history. The scale of their wealth is staggering, and overwhelms the senses. To really capture extravagance, there is nothing else to do besides show it, and Bondarchuk’s infinite reservoirs of it are a wonder to behold.
A story and a film which runs along the knife-edge of history, especially an aristocratic one, can only do so much for the poor underneath them. For most of history has been written for those above that level, and the voiceless left without a coin to wish upon in history’s fountain. But war, and peace, affect everyone. And the scenes where Pierre spins through Napoleon’s war-torn Moscow, encountering the masses, hold the same spiritual resonance they must do in the original story. For the only thing the poor truly possess in these times is held up as a valuable, dusty and grimed covered object; their spirit. For a story as grand as this, more than blood must be seen, we must look at the chamber that holds it. The heart.
And the film more than many I’ve ever seen, possesses such a wealth of spirit. The story itself is by far the baseline of all that resounding human experience, Pierre and Natasha and Andrei and everyone cascading through your mind and imagination. But also Bondarchuk’s cinematic spirit, is so fantastic to be a witness to. Although often the camera is convinced to play a scene straight, long shots for rooms and close-ups for important conversations, there is some beautiful cinematographic experimentation bursting through the edges of the story. Camera shots which run vertically forward across the battlefield, deep expressionistic smoke-filled backgrounds, completely absorbing you into the gun-powder hell of cannons and mud. A location jump through a transition through a rainy window says so much. One of the most dreamlike and quietly painful executions to ever fall into an image. The camera roves through the landscape, searching among the blown out ruins and palatial spaces picking up whatever it can find, occasionally finding time to ballet around its elements. Covered in blood, it dances.
What more can I ask of War and Peace? What more is there to get from a film? It charts a journey across time, love, war, peace, and everything in between which makes up the rich feast of life. It manages to capture most of the eternal human spirit, it shows us the most significant stories we encounter during a lifetime on Earth. And it does it with such a dizzying, magnificent spectacle of various elements. Of space in its vast expanses of world. Of riches and extravagances, or of poverty and the unyielding mud. The film’s hands pick up the gemstones and the soil alike, and hypnotises and absorbs you into the deeply reverential, deeply mythical, but ultimately deeply human world. And like life’s arching and winding course, it ebbs and flows along a current of events where varying degrees of fate and free will collide and intermingle with each other.
To do this with the mechanics of cinema, to use it to reveal the greatest highs and greatest lows that we can understand, not necessarily through any one particularly overpowering element, but a continual blend and mix, foundations building upon foundations, is cinema on a level that personally I have nothing but the deepest admiration, and reverence for. I could never commit to some of the inevitable brutalities of the film’s arduous and gruelling creation, but Bondarchuk’s sweep is a vast expanse which makes the world feel infinite, overflowing on all sides with the wealth of human lives, ugly or not. Stories and films can exist for infinite reasons, but I find it so brilliant that a film this tectonic, a film which pushes cinema to its absolute limits, really exists at all. It elevates cinema to the highest point of art, to reveal and reflect our understanding of the world, and to take us beyond it.
Truly, what more is there to say with cinema, than to take us on that journey? To make us part of their company, to make us walk through their halls in fine footwear, and walk in soldier’s boots through the mud into the abyss. To climb a mountain, step by step upwards and upwards as life begins to take on a greater and fuller meaning until the story itself ends, regardless of whether any of its characters continue to live and die. For it is cinema. And it is life. And in a rare moment, in this beautiful piece of art, they are the same.
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P.S – This post will be updated in the future, once I take the time to watch the new Criterion Release with Janus Films, a 2K restoration of the entire project. It can be pre-ordered here, don’t hesitate to pick up a copy if you can!