Category Archives: Russian

War and Peace (1967): An AI Generated Review

I had ChatGPT, the groundbreaking new artificial intelligence app, write me a review of Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Is it better than my own? It’s more concise. I asked it for at least 1000 words. It gave me 567.

Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace is a cinematic masterpiece that successfully captures the complexity, depth, and grandeur of one of the greatest literary works of all time. At a runtime of over seven hours, the film is a monumental achievement in filmmaking, showcasing Bondarchuk’s talent as a director, writer, and actor.

The film is set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, and follows the lives of several aristocratic families as they navigate the tumultuous political and social landscape of Russia. The central characters are the idealistic and romantic Pierre Bezukhov (played by Bondarchuk himself), the strong-willed and passionate Natasha Rostova (played by Lyudmila Savelyeva), and the calculating and ambitious Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov). The film traces their journeys from innocence to experience, from love to heartbreak, and from idealism to disillusionment, against the backdrop of war, politics, and social upheaval.

One of the most striking aspects of the film is its sheer scale and ambition. Bondarchuk spares no expense in recreating the lavish costumes, stunning landscapes, and epic battle scenes of the novel. The battle of Borodino, in particular, is a tour-de-force of filmmaking, with over 15,000 extras and hundreds of horses and cannons creating a visceral and unforgettable spectacle. The film’s use of widescreen and color cinematography is also noteworthy, capturing the beauty and majesty of the Russian countryside and the opulence and decadence of the aristocratic estates.

But while the film is undoubtedly a visual feast, it is also a deeply psychological and philosophical exploration of the human condition. The characters are complex and nuanced, each struggling to find meaning and purpose in a world that seems to be crumbling around them. Bondarchuk’s performance as Pierre is especially noteworthy, capturing the character’s vulnerability, idealism, and existential angst with great depth and sensitivity. His scenes with Natasha, played with equal sensitivity and nuance by Savelyeva, are some of the most emotionally powerful in the film, showcasing the complexities and contradictions of human love.

The film’s script, co-written by Bondarchuk and Vasiliy Solovyov, is also a triumph of adaptation. While some may argue that the film takes liberties with the novel, compressing and simplifying certain storylines and characters, the overall effect is one of clarity and coherence. The film successfully distills the essence of the novel, capturing its themes of love, war, and morality, and bringing them to life in a way that is both engaging and thought-provoking.

Of course, no film is without its flaws, and War and Peace is no exception. Some may find the film’s pacing slow, especially in the first half, and the sheer length of the film may be daunting for some viewers. Additionally, some of the secondary characters, such as the scheming Helene Kuragina (played by Anastasiya Vertinskaya), may feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional. But these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things, and do little to detract from the film’s overall power and impact.

In conclusion, Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 film adaptation of War and Peace is a true masterpiece of cinema, capturing the scope, depth, and beauty of Leo Tolstoy’s novel with skill, sensitivity, and ambition. It is a film that rewards patience and attention, offering a rich and rewarding experience for those willing to invest the time and energy. If you are a lover of cinema or literature, or simply a seeker of great stories, then War and Peace is a film that should not be missed.

War and Peace (1967)

In 1812, Western Europe was doing pretty much the same thing it’s trying to do today, trying to destroy Russia and its Orthodox Christian civilization. Indeed, when Napoleon crossed the Nieman River at the head of what was up until that point the largest army the world had ever seen, the Russian people, like the people of Spain and the royalist French counterrevolutionaries of the Vendee in the years before, saw him as the anti-Christ, the beast on horseback who would bring the godless red terror of the French Revolution to their doorsteps. They weren’t entirely wrong. The French sack of the fortress city of Smolensk was not only brutal, it threatened to destroy an icon of the Virgin Mary that Russian legend maintained had been rescued from the Ottoman Siege of Constantinople in 1453. Later that year, just before the Battle of Borodino, the Stalingrad of 1812, the Russian Army held a religious service where the Smolensk icon was displayed in front of over 100,000 soldiers, many of whom would die that day in the great battle that finally broke Napoleon’s aura of godlike invincibility. While Napoleon would drive the Russian Army from the field, then go on to occupy Moscow, the West had lost the apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Orthodox Russia would survive for another 105 years until 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks destroyed it for good.

Or did they? That Sergei Bondarchuk could make his epic movie War and Peace in 1967 with the full state support of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union is something of a miracle. If it’s one thing the Soviet Union was good at it was putting history on screen. October by Sergei Eisenstein not only captured the storming of the Winter Palace on film, it became almost a historical event in and of itself. Bondarchuk’s film, which features tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers as extras, and which includes a full length reenactment of the veneration of the Smolensk Icon, is most emphatically not a communist movie. It is, rather, a resurrection of the Russia of Czar Alexander II, of the first Great Patriotic War, of the grand aristocratic society the Soviet Union had supposedly replaced. If we American love tabloid stories about the British Royal Family, we have nothing on those Russian communists of the 1960s who pretty much built a complete live action museum of a Christian empire that was gone forever. Compared to Bondarchuk’s epic, American attempts to recapture their history, from the silly Ted Turner Gettysburg of the 1990s, to classics like Gone With the Wind, seem almost primitive and childish.

Nevertheless, if Bondarchuk’s film is not a communist film, it’s not exactly a reactionary one either. Rather, it is a herculean attempt to bring Leo Tolstoy’s novel, and his deeply mature humanism, to cinema. Having read War and Peace twice, in English translation of course, I can say almost without reservation, that this film comes pretty close to succeeding. It’s not just that Bondarchuk manages to recreate a realistic facsimile of the world of 1812, it’s that he also manages to dramatize how small, relatively insignificant humans interact with gigantic historical events that threaten to crush them. In the burning of Moscow, for example, the film’s climatic sequence, and it does register as a climax after almost 6 hours of exposition, Pierre Bezukhov, the novel’s hero and Tolstoy’s alter-ego, who’s played by Bondarchuk himself, has stayed behind as part of a quixotic desire to assassinate Napoleon. The French, who had marched into the city in good order, have degenerated into a rapacious mob, looting and murdering civilians, raping women, and shooting at random civilians who they believe responsible for setting the fires. When a woman calls out that she has lost her child in the fire, Bezukhov forgets about his plan to assassinate Napoleon and bulls his way through a group of French soldiers in the direction of her house. The French, who had just finished looting it, tell Bezukhov that the child was indeed in the courtyard. They had made no attempt to rescue her, but don’t seem particularly interested in stopping the would be Russian hero from doing it himself.

Pierre Bezhukov succeeds in rescuing the child, but cannot find her mother. Did she die in the flames? Was she killed by the French? We never find out. Then the mood of the French soldiers changes just as suddenly as a fire changes direction in a strong wind. Even though he’s clearly got a child in his arms and he’s clearly looking for her mother, the French soldiers accuse him of being a saboteur, an incendiary who helped start the fires. They force him to abandon the child and lead him off to his execution. In the end, as anybody who’s read the novel knows, Pierre Bezhukov is not executed by the French. Rather he’s taken west on the retreat, death march of the French Army back to Western Europe, where, one by one, his companions are tied to a post and shot, the vulnerable 19-year-old boy, the kindly middle-aged man who had prevented him from starving, a few innocent peasants they picked up along the way, until he’s miraculously rescued by Cossacks. During his rescue, is he thinking about the child he saved from the fire but couldn’t save from the mob? We never find out. But Bondarchuk has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations of what it’s like to be caught in the maelstrom of history.

If the film has a weakness, it’s probably Bondarchuk’s decision to cast himself as Pierre Bezhukov. Pierre is a giant, physically powerful young man in his 20s on an elaborate philosophical and spiritual quest. Bondarchuk is a square, plain man in his 40s. He’s certainly better in the role than Henry Fonda was in the King Vidor version (what kind of drugs do you have to be on to cast Henry Fonda a Russian?) or Anthony Hopkins in the BBC miniseries from the 1970s, but the role really calls for a young Gerard Depardieu or Liam Neeson, a burly, brute of a man restrained only his cultivated spirituality. Then again, perhaps it’s not a flaw so much as an aesthetic choice. Bondarchuk feels so stiff and unemotive in the role that perhaps he decided to cast himself, not as a character in the novel, but as a witness to the novel’s events. Indeed, in real life, Pierre’s decision to stroll around the Battle of Borodino, a meatgrinder that made Gettysburg or Antietam seem almost bloodless in comparison, would have gotten him killed in the first five minutes of the battle. It would be impossible to depict these passages in Tolstoy’s novel realistically without spending the entire time with Pierre huddled behind an earthwork desperately trying not to get hit by shrapnel. Instead he becomes almost a disembodied presence, the angel of history recording one of history’s most hellish moments.

Vyacheslav Tikhonov as the brooding, intellectual Andrei Bolkonsky is somewhat better. Tall, spare, with aquiline features and graceful movements, he embodies Tolstoy’s tragic aristocratic hero. Anatoly Ktorov as Andrei’s father is even better yet. Somehow he manages to evoke in 1967 the wistful nostalgia of an old man in 1812 for old world that had vanished decades before 1812. How exactly did the proletarian dictatorship of the Soviet Union end up with so many actors so good at playing aristocrats? Ludmila Savelyeva, bears a striking resemblance to Audrey Hepburn, who played Natasha in the King Vidar film, but a Slavic Audrey Hepburn with none of the original’s — all apologies to fans of Ms. Hepburn — Anglo Saxon brittleness. Savelyeva’s Natasha, like Bondarchuk’s Pierre, is an abstract portrayal, but it’s on the opposite end of the scale. Savelyeva at times comes off like the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But at other times she comes off like a petulant, almost stupid child. She embodies all of the contradictions of aristocratic Russian girlhood as seen through the eyes of a mid-20th Century Soviet filmmaker.

Natasha is also the focal point of the film’s recreation of Russian society, the “peace” half of the novel to Andrei’s and Pierre’s “war.” Bondarchuk’s depiction of the grand balls of Alexander II are filmed with as much painstaking detail and elaborate choreography as his battle scenes. You can’t do any of this with CGI. At her coming out party, when Natasha attends her first grand ball thrown by the Czar himself, the camera follows her entrance into the palace. We weave our way in and out of the crowd, like children approaching the beach for the first time hearing seagulls and smelling salt water. When he have finished climbing to the top of the staircase and can finally see the length and breadth of the ballroom, the elegance and splendor of the guests, it almost takes our breath away. “So that was the world that was lost,” we think. We don’t even bother to remember how that beautiful world was built on the brutal exploitation of tens of millions of impoverished serfs. But we don’t care. If a communist filmmaker can enjoy such a spectacle of the aristocratic past, so can we.

The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850)

If Dostoevsky would later mock Ivan Turgenev as a vain westernizer and sycophant, then part of it might have to do with a feeling of guilt over a literary debt.

Take The Diary of a Superfluous Man, a model for Notes From The Underground, which was published 14 years later in 1864. For me, a Twenty First Century American, Turgenev’s short novel feels contemporary, not in spite what his younger contemporary would have labeled its shortcomings, but almost because of them. Tchulkaturin, a relatively young man, only 31, is dying of unspecified natural causes. We never quite learn what’s killing him, but, since it’s the 19th Century, I suppose tuberculosis would do just as well as anything. Tchulkaturin is not only dying young. He’s dying without ever quite having lived. The “superfluous” man of the title, he’s a petty government official who has fallen out of the upper-middle-class. Decades before, his proper but emotionally withholding mother, and weak, dissolute father had been unable to hold onto the family fortune. All he has left is a modest little house and a few scraps of clothing. His only companion is his elderly, well over 80, nurse.

Tchulkaturin decides to use the time he has left to write a diary. In spite of his self-deprecatory tone, he’s clearly a gifted writer. He not only displays a flair for melodrama. “Death looked me in the face that day and took note of me,” he remarks in a brief description of his father’s funeral. His descriptions of his icy, soul-killing mother are powerful in their restrained malice.

“She was crushed beneath the weight of her own virtues, and was a source of misery to every one, from herself upwards. In all the fifty years of her life, she never once took rest, or sat with her hands in her lap; she was for ever fussing and bustling about like an ant, and to absolutely no good purpose, which cannot be said of the ant. The worm of restlessness fretted her night and day. Only once I saw her perfectly tranquil, and that was the day after her death, in her coffin. Looking at her, it positively seemed to me that her face wore an expression of subdued amazement; with the half-open lips, the sunken cheeks, and meekly-staring eyes, it seemed expressing, all over, the words, ‘How good to be at rest!'”

Tchulkaturin has a way with words, but what does he have to write about? There’s nothing about him that would distinguish from 1000 other men of his class. “My life has not been different in any respect from the lives of numbers of other people,” he says. “The parental home, the university, the government service in the lower grades, retirement, a little circle of friends, decent poverty, modest pleasures, unambitious pursuits, moderate desires–kindly tell me, is that new to any one?” He decides to talk about how he suffered a case of unrequited love back in his early 20s.

Kirilla Matveitch Ozhogin is the biggest landowner and most important citizen in the provincial town of O. He owns 400 serfs. He has the best house. His family is the center of attention for the local gentry. He also has a 17 year old daughter named Elizaveta Kirillovna. Tchulkaturin, in town on government business, of course, falls in love with her. We never really learn whether Elizaveta Kirillovna is worth falling in love with. Tchulkaturin has a way with words, but only when he talks about himself. His descriptions of other people are generic, superficial. Elizaveta Kirillovna, we can imagine, is pretty and sociable. That’s about it. It’s clear that Tchulkaturin has fallen in love with the distant memory of his mother in the body of a younger women. Feminists be at ease. Tchulkaturin isn’t “friend zoned.” He doesn’t even get there. Elizaveta Kirillovna doesn’t manipulate him. She barely even knows he exists. What’s more, she is an unrequited lover in her own right, becoming infatuated with a “Prince N,” a pleasant, charming aristocrat who casually pulls her into his orbit, then just as casually abandons her. Tchulkaturin fights a dual with Prince N, and wins, but the Prince, who only gets a minor cut on his head, is so skilled socially, and so fawned on by the local snobs, that he’s able to manipulate Tchulkaturin’s victory to his own advantage. Even after he dumps her, Elizaveta Kirillovna still loves him. Tchulkaturin’s victory in his dual with Prince N also turns Elizaveta Kirillovna’s feelings towards him from indifference to outright hatred. Just to spite him, she marries Bizmyonkov, another member of the petty gentry who’s been hanging about in the actual friend zone waiting for his chance. Sorry feminists, you can’t win it all. Kirilla Matveitch Ozhogin is glad to get a husband for his daughter, now clearly “damaged goods.” Tchulkaturin leaves town,and that’s pretty much that. There’s nothing about his mid 20s or his late 20s worth talking about. The only thing left for him is to die. He never even mentions what eventually became of Elizaveta Kirillovna. He really doesn’t care.

So what is Turgenev trying to do here?

On the surface, a story about unrequited love is the most cliched of all literary tropes. But Turgenev is no fool. Tchulkaturin tries to convince himself that his romantic failure the decade before was the most momentous incident in his life, but he’s too intelligent to believe it. The story about unrequited love — call it Werther without Ossian and without suicide — is so uninteresting that it becomes eloquent in its very banality. If this is the event an intelligent, clear-thinking man like Tchulkaturin has decided to focus on in the final weeks of his life, what does it say about the rest of his life?

Turgenev, I suspect, knows that romanticism has played itself out. The language of Byron, Pushkin, young Goethe, Walter Scott, none of it is adequate to express the reality of the nation under the reactionary Czar Nicholas I. Russia’s educated, enlightened “intelligentsia” has no purpose in life. They’re “superfluous.” The Russian Revolution, that titanic event where these same educated, alienated young Russians would shake the whole world, is far off in the future. Young men in Russia can perform a colorful role on stage, fight duels, fall in love, talk in high-flown, romantic language, “cut a dashing figure” like Prince N, but, in the end, the only reality is the one Tchulkaturin sees so clearly, their own uselessness, their own “superfluousness.” For Dostoevsky the purpose in life would be to “suffer.” For Lenin, it would be to overthrow capitalism. For Turgenev? The only honorable thing to strive for is a clear eyed consciousness of your own irrelevance. To will yourself into oblivion at the age of 31? It’s as good a fate as any.