War and Peace, Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky (1966)

Directed by Sergey Bondarchuk

The first film of a four-part adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel. In St. Petersburg of 1805, Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a rich nobleman, is introduced to high society. His friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, joins the Imperial Russian Army as aide-de-camp of General Mikhail Kutuzov in the War of the Third Coalition against Napoleon.

The key to understanding this film is that it is first and foremost Brezhnev-era propaganda with, without too much exaggeration, a genuinely unlimited budget from the state — all of the narrative, symbols and how the film (including the choice of film stock…) seems to flow from this observation alone.

An interesting film to start 2023, anyway. It's difficult to describe the scope of these battle scenes — I have never seen anything so big; none of it CGI (etc.) and still bigger than Braveheart or Barry Lyndon. There are bold moves at the micro level, too: the famous 'oak tree' moment from the book has particularly wonderful cinematography, with sun filtering through the trees in a way that's not quite been equalled since except, perhaps, by Terence Mallick film.

The other remarkable thing was how it refuses to stick to a strictly realist portrayal of events in the novel. For instance, early on in the film when Natasha imagines she's kissing someone (and clearly communicates her passage from being a child to a young adult in about 2 minutes), a sort of ghostly presence appears and disappears in the room that diegetically represents her subjective point of view. I don't wish to imply this happens all the time or that it goes too far, but a certain sense of Tarkovsky's "poetic articulation" infuses some moments, especially in the sound design. It's a relief from aesthetically unchallenging literary adaptions from, say, the BBC or even the Merchant Ivory bag.

Still, a contemporary reviewer claims that the film "escapes greatness, except in cost and length," and it's quite difficult to quibble with that. Oh, and I'm not usually interested in behind-the-scenes trivia, but reading about the politics and economics of the [non-Western] film stock was, I admit, fascinating for once.