A gargantuan version of Tolstoy's national epic, approached as a priority as important as the Soviet space program, War and Peace is surely the biggest production ever put on film, with entire armies filling the screen and covering vast landscapes. The recreation of the Napoleonic era in St. Petersburg and Moscow is a wonderment. Director Sergei Bondarchuk makes the story work even better at the intimate level. The romantic adventures and heartbreaks of the story's central trio, Pierre, Natasha and Andrei lead to at least 4 or 5 devastatingly emotional highpoints.
Previously, there was the 1956 Dino DeLaurentiis version. Except for some awkward casting, it wasn't half bad, but it pales beside the opulence and scope of this colossus. Ruscico's version is both longer and better-presented than previous releases, and Image has packaged it with helpful extras and easily-navigated menus. More on that below.
Savant was excited to see this pricey-but-exceptional DVD release; Ruscico has a reputation for quality releases of hard-to-see Soviet pictures, and War and Peace is certainly the prize title, at least for Western audiences unfamiliar with the majority of Mosfilm's output. I saw the American release when 16 years old, serialized over two weeks in a fancy theater in San Bernardino. I can't say I followed the story well, and mostly remember the grainy, washed out picture and the distracting English dubbing - Natasha's voice squeaked like Minnie Mouse. But the eye-popping visuals stayed burned into my memory, especially a God's eye view, receding into the heavens, of the Austerlitz battlefield spread out below. It looked as if it took in miles of smoke and fighting.
In Russian with subs in a number of languages, the new Ruscico / Image DVD is a completely different viewing experience. The Russian voices are beautiful, and it's easy to catch cultural things we had only read about, such as the St. Petersburg elite opting to speak French for many conversational details. It's not 70mm, but on a big widescreen television, the scope of the visuals can be almost overwhelming.
Ruscico's DVD of War and Peace is handsomely presented on 4 discs in a thankfully easy-to-understand package. The transfer image isn't going to be able to compete with restorations done here, however. War and Peace was shot in a Soviet color system in 70mm, and the colors are a muted set of pastels we aren't used to. Either the age of the elements, or the reduction printing, or bad storage has given many scenes a dupey look, with slightly fluctuating contrast. The image is stable and intact, but there are occasional scratches and slight damage.
Either that one bad shot was an isolated instance, or most of the time we're too caught up in the story to notice such things. I should point out that I viewed the discs on a 65" monitor that magnifies these kinds of flaws, so many viewers will probably be completely unaware of them.
The DVD producers have included a generous allotment of extras, listed below. A fifth disc contains a couple of Soviet docus on Tolstoy and an elaborate commemorative behind-the-scenes piece. It starts with the stars at a Moscow premiere, and then backtracks to show how many scenes were filmed. The cameraman is on roller skates in the ballroom scene, and a trucking scene through the battlefield shows exactly how some of the more amazing shots were captured. The cameramen use portable 70mm cameras of a kind I've never seen, that look every bit as sophisticated as ours.
In one of the interviews, the President of the Mosfilm studio says that after the years of filming, War and Peace wasn't unanimously praised in the Soviet Union. Everybody saw it, but not everyone thought it was a masterpiece. Audiences are audiences, Russian or American, and after those 4 or 5 transcendant moments in the picture, the ending does seem rather downplayed and anti-climactic. But seeing the show now after 35 more years of film history, this enormous epic seems more of an accomplishment than ever.
P.S. To watch the movie preview video clip you can on russianDVD.com website for free.