The Definitive Version of War and Peace

Feb 16, 2004 (Updated Feb 4, 2006)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The lavish, spectacular, and definitive version of the great Tolstoy novel

Cons:You need to choose carefully from among the four available formats

The Bottom Line: Highly recommended. This is a lavish and authentic, though sometimes flawed, adaptation of War and Peace. This review will help you select from among the available formats.


So, you want to purchase a version of War and Peace, but you don’t know which one to get. Turns out that you have a series of decisions to make. First question is whether you want to go for the 1956 Hollywood version staring Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda, and Mel Ferrer or the 1967 Russian version directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. Most lovers of Tolstoy will urge you to bypass the Hollywood version, which does very poor justice to the novel in multiple respects -- from plot, to the development of the characters, to the essential Russian character of the film. The only truly memorable aspect of the Hollywood version is Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, and even there, she is matched by her counterpart in the Russian version.

The 1967 Russian version is widely considered the definitive film version of War and Peace, providing the most faithful adaptation of the great novel. Like the novel itself, it is of epic proportions. It was a Soviet-Italian co-production produced over a span of seven years, from 1960 to 1967, at a cost in excess of $100 million dollars. Adjusting for inflation, the Russian version of War and Peace remains the most costly film ever made. Tens of thousands of extras were utilized for the great battle scenes. The historical authenticity is meticulous, accurately recreating the settings and lifestyles of the Russian nobility of the early nineteenth century. Lavishness and authenticity is especially evident in the sleigh ride scene and the marvelous ballroom scenes. Paintings, furnishings, and even pottery were loaned to the production by Russian museums. The costumes are utterly gorgeous. The enormity, realism, and horror of the battle scenes are unsurpassed in film history (comparing favorably in that respect even with films such as Ran and Saving Private Ryan).

The all-Russian cast is superbly suited to their respective roles. Since filming extended over seven years, the maturation of characters – most notably Natasha, from child to young woman – is made more credible by the actual aging of the respective actors and actresses. The director, Sergei Bondarchuk, also plays the part of Pierre Bezuhov, the character who most provides continuity to the narrative. His is the most demanding portrayal. Lyudmila Savelyeva is so entirely effective as Natasha Rostova that she has become the personification of Natasha for many Tolstoy fans. Vyacheslaw Tikhonov is suitably imposing, handsome, and nobel as Prince Andrey Bolkonsky.

The filming techniques of director Sergei Bondarchuk provide both strengths and weaknesses. Bondarchuk is typically applauded for his use of crane shots, sweeping pans, and shaky cam technique, but excessive reliance on certain faddish and gaudy techniques of the 1960’s, including the blue-screen technique, now seem dated and inappropriate. Some criticize Bondarchuk for excessive reliance on narration and interior monologue in lieu of dialog and dramatic action. Overall, the film lacks some of the polish of the best Hollywood films. Even with those limitations, many consider Bondarchuk’s War and Peace among the greatest films ever made, and certainly among the most spectacular. It received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1969. The ballroom scene when Natasha attends her first dance is among the most magnificently romantic and beautifully filmed scenes in movie history.

So, perhaps now you’ve decided to purchase Bondarchuk’s Russian version! Your decisions are not yet complete, however. Now you must decide between four available formats, two VHS alternatives and two DVD choices, as follows:

1. VHS, Kultur version (formatted for TV screen), 380 minutes, dubbed in English

This version is the shortest in length and typically least expensive version, but most viewers find the dubbed version of this film far less satisfying than hearing the Russian (and French, at times, since the Russian nobility often spoke French in that time period) and reading English subtitles. For one thing, the quality of the dubbing is poor. A minority of viewers prefer watching the dubbed version because it permits closer attention to the action and facial expressions. I strongly recommend a Russian language version with English subtitles in preference to this dubbed version.

2. VHS Kultur version (formatted for TV screen), 403 minutes, English subtitles

This is the version that I recommend for those requiring VHS rather than DVD. One advantage is the greater authenticity and drama in hearing the Russian language dialog; the other reason is the 23 minutes of added footage.

3. DVD Kultur version (formatted for TV screen), 403 minutes, English subtitles

Virtually identical to the foregoing after digital transfer. The image is a bit scratchy and less vivid than in the following alternative.

4. DVD Image Entertainment Inc. version (letterbox), 431 minutes, wide variety of dubbing or subtitles choices

This version is typically twice the cost of the preceding but provides some substantial advantages as well as one disappointing hassle. First off, the panoramic battle scenes and ballroom scenes are often better served by the widescreen presentation. Second, this version restores another 28 minutes of censored scenes from the original. Third, the digital transfer is superior to the Kultur version, being partially restored. Fourth, this version comes with a number of “extras”, including a good documentary about the making of the film and a rather boring interview with a film executive. And fifth, the viewer can choose between dubbing or subtitles and among several languages. This fifth “benefit”, however, turns out to be a mixed blessing at best, since the English language options, in particular, have some annoying deficiencies. If you select English dubbing, some portions of the film are not dubbed at all, at which times subtitles usually appear even if they were not selected. Sometimes this version of the film switches from dubbing to subtitles in the middle of a scene. In some sections, when characters are speaking in French, neither dubbing nor subtitles occur. There are also some differences in translation from Russia to English in the Kultur vs. the Image Entertainment versions, but which is better in the various spots is really a matter of personal preference.

Bottom Line: War and Peace is one of the greatest novels ever written, combining great characters, psychological insights, and a grand historical context. The 1967 Russian film version is far superior to any other. If you’re choosing VHS, pick the subtitle version in preference to the dubbed version. If you’re choosing DVD, you’ll need to weigh the pros and cons between the two alternatives. If you’re prepared to pay top dollar, prefer letterbox, want the most vivid visual presentation, want the documentary extra, and are prepared to overlook some dubbing and subtitles irregularities, go for the Image Entertainment version. If you want to spend less, prefer full-screen, or will find subtitle annoyances excessively distressing, go with the Kultur DVD.


*************************************************************************************************
You might want to check out these other excellent films from Russia and the U.S.S.R.:

Alexander Nevsky
Andrei Rublev
Anna Karenina
Ballad of a Soldier
Burnt By the Sun
Come and See
The Cranes Are Flying
Dersu Uzala
Don Quixote
Freeze Die
Ivan the Terrible
Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears
Nostalghia
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
Solaris
Strike


Recommend this product?


Share this product review with your friends   
Share This!