- Actors: Andrei Bolkonsky, Natasha Rostova, Pierre Bezukov, Ludmilla Savelyeva, Sergei Bondarchuk
- Directors: Sergei Bondarchuk
- Format: PAL
- Language: Russian
- Subtitles: English
- Region: Region 2 (This DVD may not be viewable outside Europe. Read more about DVD formats.)
- Number of discs: 3
- Classification: Exempt
- Studio: Komet Media
- DVD Release Date: 25 Oct. 2010
- Run Time: 401 minutes
- Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (84 customer reviews)
- ASIN: B0041KOVW8
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 210,794 in DVD & Blu-ray (See Top 100 in DVD & Blu-ray)
Sergei Bondarchuk -War And Peace [DVD]
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Bondarchuk took nearly five years to make this eight hour epic adaptation of Tolstoy's novel, writing the screenplay as well as starring in it. Winning the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1968, 'War and Peace' shows how Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812 affected the lives of two upper class families, centering on the love between Pierre and his vivacious young cousin Natasha, married to army officer, Andrei.
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In recent times I’ve been looking forward to the prospect of a Blu-Ray issue of the Russian version restored from the original 70mm negatives, but alas that hasn’t appeared yet, and may never happen if the rumours about its unlikelihood are correct. So I have settled for a DVD (PAL) issue from 2003 as the next best option. It’s the 5-disc collector’s edition with the main film presented on four of the discs in approximately a 2.30:1 aspect ratio (slightly inconsistent between discs), stated to be enhanced for widescreen TVs – which I interpret to mean anamorphic rather than letterbox. The running time is said to be 403 minutes, but whether that refers to the original cinema speed of 24 fps or television replay at 25 fps is difficult to tell, but it’s quite possibly longer than the subtitled version I saw in the cinema.
I invested in an “as new” pre-used copy as I wanted something to treasure, and brand-new ones in 2017 don’t come cheap. I was delighted with the package’s physical condition but, although the discs were entirely free of glitches, I found the picture quality of the main film little better than appalling. At first I thought that I’d ended up with a rogue copy, but as the introductory pages on the same discs are very acceptably sharp and clean, even for DVD, I concluded that it would be unlikely – that is, until I watched the bonus extras on Disc 5 in which several extracts from the film are illustrated. One of the documentaries does contain similar flaws in the clips it shows, but examples of the same scenes in others I thought looked significantly more presentable. So does my package perhaps contain an early transfer of the main film whose visuals subsequently went through some sort of restoration and were later re-issued? It would require a side-by-side comparison to check this possibility out, and my observations may yet be proven as illusory, but it’s an interesting thought.
Therefore prospective purchasers of the same version I have should expect to find the main film looking very 16mm-ish, although almost certainly sourced from a 35mm print (judging by the narrowness of the occasional pos. scratches). The images are very contrasty, containing varying amounts of luminance instability within shots, and swathes of dark artifacts looking like a cross between starling murmurations and the Aurora Borealis which are almost always present to some degree, very likely traceable to deteriorating film stock; also there is often a bluish bias on the left side of frame. I recall that in the cinema many shots were dramatically dark, especially in battlefield scenes, quaintly resembling old master paintings, but on this DVD the blacks can be so dense that at times it’s difficult to make out details. Areas of imagery frequently quiver, looking like ill-executed matte work, but caused almost certainly by print shrinkage as it’s most noticeable when the camera is static; since the film was originally shot in 70mm, mattes derived from it would be very unlikely to jump out of register that much. The already poor definition is compounded by someone’s decision to shrink the frame area slightly to create a pillarbox presentation of the main film, reminiscent of historic attempts to compromise widescreen images for standard 4x3 television screens before full frame 16x9 became the norm. On my 40" TV that means a loss of 2½ inches from the screen’s available width – I could have done without that forfeit. Otherwise, menu pages are full screen 16x9, and the documentary features are full height 4x3.
In contrast, the sound quality (I have played only the 5.1 version) is absolutely amazing. Dialogue is crisp and clear, although for virtually all interior situations a flutter echo seems to have been incorporated, presumably to replicate the live acoustics of cavernous mansions. I vaguely recall this phenomenon in the cinema, but in the relatively dead acoustics of a softly furnished living room, it comes over more of a distraction than an asset, particularly as it never seems to vary in character relative to film set sizes. For outdoor scenes it disappears, unless there are buildings or trees nearby to reflect from. Another strange effect that takes a bit of getting used to is that in many scenes prime dialogue comes from whichever direction is appropriate to the camera position, so people who walk in or out of shot whilst speaking carry their sound with them, and out-of-shot persons converse with on-screen subjects from behind one’s viewing station. Potentially a nice, natural touch, except that nowadays we’ve got used to hearing virtually all dialogue coming from the front centre channel only. Some of the foley effects are irritatingly erratic, and post-syncing sloppy, but generally the soundscapes are very complex and involving, especially during battle and crowd scenes, and the music is full-bodied and gorgeous without being intrusive. If only the intelligibility of the pictures could have matched the brilliance of the audio!
Of a retro note, one must remember that back in the 1960s it was artistically fashionable to incorporate the likes of split screens, overlapping action, and vignettes. Bondarchuk’s “War and Peace” has plenty of those, and a seemingly endless supply of real people make up the crowd and battle scenes, horses and artillery too. CGI didn’t exist then, so what you see is what was there – acres and acres of it, intricately orchestrated “live”. And instead of Steadycam or Dronecam, the 70mm mobile camerawork was all done to great effect by crane suspensions, very lengthy dolly tracks, and primitive hand-held cinéma-vérité (even using roller skates to get around the ballroom). Wonderful stuff! The whole vista has a spherical, wide angular look, reminiscent of Cinerama and other processes designed to engulf the audience within a deeply curved cinema screen, but confined to even a big 16x9 display everything looks frustratingly miniaturised.
The many extra features are a real education, mostly in far superior quality than what is allowed to be seen of the film itself as presented in this DVD package. Sadly, despite its flaws, this transfer of the film may well be as good looking as you are likely to get – perhaps for all time. So, whatever one’s tastes, surely it would be puerile to dismiss the historical value of this production as anything but a landmark experience, and that’s why I haven’t the heart to down rate my 5-star judgement of it to a more realistic 3.
This film is more authentic than the King Vidor version of 1956 - the script is edited from Tolstoy's novel rather than adapted. Like the King Vidor version, the main focus is on three main characters - Prince Andrey, Natasha and Pierre Bezukhov, played by the director Bondarchuck.
The scale of the film is as vast as Russia itself yet captures the protagonist inner thoughts and emotions in a very engaging way. I spoke to a colleague of mine who I knew was a Napoleonic Wars enthusiast, and he said the battle scenes were, to his knowledge, really authentic. Solders in armies at this time had ages ranging from 15 to 70, and Bondarchuck managed to secure around 12,000 personnel of the russian army. The budget for the film has been estimated at various amounts - but all seem to agree it is the most expensive film ever made at around 100 million US dollars.
Like other epics, the film is divided over 4 DVDs - each one a self contained film but interconnecting to the others. I was nervous when I saw my package had arrived from the USA, but it turned out to be region 9 (all regions) discs.
I cannot critique this film - it is way and beyond my ability to assess such a masterpiece. I do recommend it to lovers of literature, world cinema, innovative cinematography and the old way of making films before CGI and uber-fast editing.
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