Vyacheslav Tikhonov as Prince Andrei
It seems almost ungrateful to complain that a 400-plus-minute film adaptation is too short, but when the book in question is Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace, seven hours is not enough. The adaptation is Sergei Bondarchuk’s celebrated 1967 effort, which the Museum of Fine Arts is showing this month in four installments; if you go on Thursday December 27, you can see all four, in order, on the one day.
Bondarchuk’s film is celebrated for many good reasons, not the least of which is his own exquisite performance as the large, shambling Pierre Bezukhov, one of Tolstoy’s two alter egos. Close behind is the will-o’-the-wisp Natasha of Lyudmila Saveleva; she might not be as polished as Audrey Hepburn in the 1956 Hollywood version from King Vidor, but she exudes Russian. There’s also the mind-boggling, true-to-Tolstoy visual confusion the director creates out of the Battle of Borodino — you don’t know which side is which, so it’s hard to get invested in the heroism of war, especially when what’s in front of you looks like something out of Bosch or Brueghel.
But apart from some early split-screen and some late impressionistic visionary sequences involving Prince Andrei (a stolid Vyacheslav Tikhonov) on his deathbed and Pierre and Petya Rostov (Sergei Yermilov), Bondarchuk takes a reverent, Masterpiece Theatre approach, and the 400 minutes isn’t nearly enough. (Consider that one of PBS’s most successful adaptations, Brideshead Revisited, turned Evelyn Waugh’s 350-page book into a 660-minute mini-series.) The limited voiceover doesn’t begin to do justice to Tolstoy’s philosophy, or to the way he weaves his ideas into the story. Nikolai Rostov (Oleg Tabakov) all but disappears; we see nothing of his gambling disaster, or his engagement to his cousin Sonya (Irina Gubanova), or his romance with and eventual marriage to Andrei’s sister Princess Marya (a wistful, high-cheekboned Antonina Shuranova). Princess Lisa Bolkonskaya (Anastasia Vertinskaya) and officers Dolokhov (Oleg Efremov) and Denisov (Nikolai Rybnikov) get short shrift; Pierre’s first wife, Hélène (Irina Kobtseva), is stolid rather than seductive, and all reference to the cause of her death is deleted. Rivaling Pierre as the movie’s hero — its public face to Pierre’s private one — is Prince Mikhail Kutuzov (Boris Zakhava, looking as deceptively sleepy and worn-out as he should), here depicted with a shade less irony, as the field marshal who got the better of Napoleon (a very sour Vladislav Strzhelchik) and saved Mother Russia. This War and Peace ends, like any good Hollywood film, with the reunion of its lovers, Pierre and Natasha, and the promise of a bright new pre-Soviet future. Tolstoy went on to show their future, and that of his “other” couple, Prince Andrei and Princess Marya: it’s bright but not idealized. So, no, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is not really Tolstoy’s. Then again, short of a 20-hour TV mini-series with Russian actors, you won’t see better. Russian | 415 minutes | MFA: December 26-28; January 5