Tuesday, November 13, 2007

“War and Peace(s)”

Directors: King Vidor 1956, Sergei Bondarchuk 1968
There’s something in the air these days about Tolstoy’s classic novel. Knopf just published a fresh translation, and coming soon is a “new” version based on Tolstoy’s notes and earlier drafts (reportedly, the valiant Prince Andrei survives, a mistake in my (very) humble opinion). The New York Times recently gathered some scholars and editors to discuss the novel online. And I decided to watch not one but two takes on “War and Peace” for a total of 11 hours 59 minutes, the rough equivalent of six “dives” in the hyperbaric chamber (I like to think this represents the first time Tolstoy and hyperbaric were used in the same paragraph).
Now for a confession. I have three editions of “War and Peace,” one bought in the 70s, one in the 80s and one in the 90s (this one a three-volume, boxed set published by Everyman’s Library). Have I read any of them? I’m embarrassed to say no. I’ve started all three over the years, but always got distracted, not doubt by dreck. I’ll admit to reading a lengthy synopsis and critical evaluation in “Masterpieces of World Literature,” making me feel like I was back in high school with Cliffs Notes tucked inside my copy of “Ivanhoe.” So watching these films is probably the closest I’ll ever get (although I don’t waste my time much with dreck these days).
Vidor’s version, clocking in at 3 hours 28 minutes, was shot in Europe with an international cast headed by Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer (Hepburn’s husband at the time). They’re all good but far from great. Especially Fonda, who plays Pierre like neither he nor his character quite knew what they were getting into.
The battle scenes are impressive, filled with extras dutifully falling near cannon ball explosions. The limited recreation of Moscow (done at Rome’s Cinecitta) looks good, if perhaps a bit too clean for its time.
Bondarchuk’s version lasts 8 hours 31 minutes, was funded by the Russian government and uses what seems to be a major portion of the Soviet Army to run around in the battle scenes.
Bondarchuck himself plays Pierre and he’s just right for the part, as are the actors playing Natasha and Prince Andrei. With so much time to play with, Bondarchuck is able to invoke some of the interior thoughts and feeling of the characters, and the production looks perfect. Unlike Vidor’s version, with its perfect lighting, Bondarchuk’s film is often dark, lit only by candles.
Two scenes point out the differences in the filmakers’ approach. Vidor uses a soundstage for the famous duel between Pierre and a man Pierre suspects has slept with his wife. It’s beautifully shot but completely artificial, from the fake snow to the fact that no breath emerges from the actors.
Bondarchuk shoots the scene outdoors with real snow and frigid temperatures. It’s not as beautiful as Vidor’s take, but it’s far more believable.
Then, when Napoleon orders Moscow burned as the Franch retreat, Vidor’s flames look like something out of an amusement park, say the Chicago Fire simulation at the long-departed Freedomland in the Bronx.
Bondarchuk creates a frightening scene with Pierre reeling through the streets, fire everywhere and ashes swirling so thick that it's difficult at times to see what’s transpiring.
Both films are honorable attempts to film Tolstoy, but Bondarchuck's is by far the greater accomplishment.


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