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CONTINUING OUR FOREIGN FLICK fling, we devote Part 2 to the single, massive, expansive, (add adjective of your choice) 7 hour 11 minute epic, Sergei Bondarchuk’s Война и мир, War and Peace.

Sergei Bondarchuk’s Война и мир, War and Peace, 1966–1967.

The epic is Sergei Bondarchuk’s in several senses: This Ukraine-born cinema polymath co-write the screenplay based on Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling novel, directed the film, and even played one of its principal characters; Bondarchuk’s wife portrayed another. Twice during the film’s six-year production, Bondarchuk suffered heart attacks from the strain of it all, with Soviet officialdom complicating the filmmaking process.

Sergei Fyodorovich Bondarchuk, 1920–1994, Soviet actor, film director, and screenwriter. Winner of a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, 1968, and an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film that same year. Image from IMDb.

The Film. As described in Wikipedia, “The film was produced by the Mosfilm studios between 1961 and 1967, with considerable support from the Soviet authorities and the Red Army which provided hundreds of horses and over ten thousand soldiers as extras.”

As an example, Wikipedia reports that filming the Battle of Borodino (in Part III of the four-part epic) involved “23 tons of gunpowder, handled by 120 sappers, and 40,000 liters of kerosene were used for the pyrotechnics, as well as 10,000 smoke grenades…. The set was divided to sectors, and a system of loudspeakers was installed – one for each area – to enable the director to coordinate the troops’ movements.”

This and following image from War and Peace.

Wikipedia continues, “Several reports in the Western press have put the number of soldiers who participated at 120,000; however, in an 1986 interview to National Geographic, Bondarchuk stated: ‘That is exaggeration: all I had was 12,000.’ ”

Casting Pierre Bezukhov. “Bondarchuk,” Wikipedia says, “envisaged the character of Pierre Bezukhov as having great physical strength, in accordance with his description by Tolstoy. Therefore, he offered the role to Olympic weightlifter Yury Vlasov, and even rehearsed with him. Vlasov soon gave it up, telling the director that he had no acting skills. Bondarchuk then cast himself as the protagonist.”

By the way, the use of Pierre and not Pyotr was typical of the Russian upper class in 1800: There were aristocrats who learned Russian so they could converse with their servants.

Bondarchuk and Irina Skobtseva. Wikipedia notes that Bondarchuk “met his second wife Irina Skobtseva when both were appearing in the film Othello, 1955, and they were married in 1959. In War and Peace, she played Hélène Kurigina, Pierre’s first (and problematical) wife. 

Hélène/Irina and Pierre/Sergei in Part I of War and Peace

Soviet Officialdom. Wikipedia notes, “Upon his return to the studio on 7 July, Bondarchuk was abruptly instructed by his superiors to abandon all other work and focus on preparing the first two parts for the 1965 Moscow Film Festival, contrary to all former designs and while they were far from finished.”

During the month, Bondarchuk suffered two heart attacks, the second having him clinically dead for four minutes. Wikipedia says Bondarchuk’s experience inspired the film’s white wall of light seen by one of the characters prior to death.  

Parts I and II of War and Peace did appear at the festival, where they tied for the 1965 Grand Prix with the Hungarian film Twenty Hours (which ran for only 110 minutes).

I won’t be a spoiler about War and Peace (but will say it ends peacefully). Sergei Bondarchuk lived for 27 years after the movie’s debut. He died of a myocardial infarction at age 74 in 1994. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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