The Grand Epic, War and Peace

This is an upgrade I've been aching for since long before it was announced: Criterion's new blu of Sergei Bondarchuk's truly epic War and Peace (1966).  This is possibly the biggest film production ever, and also a movie that's long struggled to get a proper, HQ release - and we'll delve into why - so it was somewhat predetermined that this BD was going to be a bit of a compromise.  But having the two previous home video iterations - which we'll look at, too - it was also painfully obvious how badly in need it was of any kind of upgrade it could get.  And I have to say, now that I've got it, while it might be disappointing to imagine what an ideal 4k restoration of the original 75mm original camera negatives might've been, this is still quite a satisfying leap forward from anything we've had before.
Usually when people talk about how big a film's production is, they start defining it by budget.  Titanic spent X amount, Avengers spent Y.  Of course inflation makes that a lot more complicated.  But it's uniquely impossible to quantify in this case, because the entire Soviet government was behind this film.  War and Peace was years in the making, and I doubt you'll ever see larger armies in any battle scene ever.  At least in terms of real human participants as opposed to CGI cartoonery.  But we'll never know the costs, because the film was given all of this for free.  All of the country's museums were compelled to give up anything in their production, from paintings on the wall to vintage military equipment.  In the scene where Napoleon flees the country on his sled (spoilers for anyone who skipped out on history class), that's the actual sled the real Napoleon fled away in.  The army spent months and months playing the role of soldiers, providing tens of thousands of extras, real general organizing the military units, and even more military serving as the crew, building towers and flying helicopters for the filmmakers.  For free.  So I don't know how it could possibly be pinned down definitively, but I daresay this might not only be the greatest epic spectacle ever filmed, but the grandest that ever will be filmed.
And that's definitely reason enough to watch this film.  That scene in Aquaman was cute, but it's another viewing experience entirely when you know you're witnessing something that actually took place in front of the cameras.  But what makes War and Peace so much more impressive, and something greater than just novelty of its scope, is that it's a great little film at its core, with memorable characters and meaningful writing.  Of course, it helps when your source material is Tolstoy's greatest novel.  And the fact that this is film is over seven hours long (it's divided into four parts, so you don't have to buttathon it) allows it to stay faithful to the novel and history in a way that the previous American adaptation with Audrey Hepburn could never even have attempted.  So while yes, the battle scenes, and the thrilling depiction of the burning of Moscow are powerful and impressive, the memories that stick with me the most are the little moments with Natasha and her servants or Bondarchuk's surprisingly relatable performance as Pierre.
So War and Peace debuted on DVD as a 3-disc set from Kultur Video in 2002.  They actually still sell it on their site to this day.  It's fullscreen and completely barebones.  So audiences were more than ready to double-dip for a restored widescreen version from Ruscico, and distributed by Image, the following year.  It was a still troubled, but for its time pretty sweet 5-disc, anamorphic widescreen special edition (there's also a 4-disc version, which is similarly packaged but chucks the bonus 5th disc of extras.  It was packed with interviews and documentaries, but you'll see from the comparison below why we were still excited to finally hear of an updated version, with Criterion finally releasing the film in HD this summer.
1) 2002 Kultur DVD; 2) 2003 Ruscico DVD; 3) 2019 Criterion BD.
The screenshots speak pretty clearly for themselves here, but I'll detail the differences.  Kultur's DVD, of course, is fullscreen at 1.30:1.  It's faded with print damage that's been cleaned up in the later restorations (note the dirt on the general's cheek in the second set of shots.  It's also interlaced, but the softness of the transfer that looks to be taken from a tape master almost covers it up by smoothing away all the fine detail, including the combing.  So then Ruscico comes along and restores the film... Now it's widescreen (at a slightly windowboxed 2.29:1), the dirt's cleaned up, the colors are more authentic.  Honestly, if it wasn't terribly interlaced, it would still hold up fairly well for a DVD.  Criterion fixes that, of course, while also matting things just a little tighter to a more traditional 2.35:1 AR.  The colors are also more vibrant and the standard def compression is also cleaned up, but detail is definitely not what one might've hoped.  This is a new 2k scan of the 35mm elements that Mosfilm restored, but it's a sad case of the original negatives being unavailable.  War and Peace was a rare 70mm film, but they had to use "multiple partial 35mm negatives from various archives," so this should be a really impressive spectacle of fine, filmic detail alongside films like 2001 and Lawrence of Arabia.  But instead it just looks like a respectable, attractive but low budget feature presentation.  Grain is fairly well resolved, though it gets soft at times, but you can see why they didn't even bother scanning this is in 4k.

Kultur gives us a pretty simple, but clean, Russian mono track in Dolby with burnt in English subtitles.  Ruscico gave the track a new 5.1 mix, plus threw in English and French dubs, also in 5.1.  And they provided optional English, Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swedish subs.  Criterion reigns that in a bit, giving us the Russian and English 5.1 mixes in DTS-HD with optional English subtitles.  Unfortunately, the original mono track has pretty much been ditched.
So Criterion's blu naturally renders the previous DVDs obsolete, except for one.  The fifth bonus disc in the Ruscico set includes a little treasure trove of extras, almost none of which made their way to the new release.  There are some great, in-depth interviews with Vasili Lanovoy, DP Anatoly Petritsky, composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov (who gets a little long-winded with his opinions on his whole career and all the filmmakers he's worked with besides just the War and Peace stuff) and the head of Mosfilm, Karen Shakhnazarov, who shares some great information on the history and current state of the film, and the hows and whys of their restoration.   There's a short clip of actress Irina Skobtseva giving a talk (probably before a screening) about working with Bondarchuk and her time on the film.  Then there are several vintage, Russian featurettes (made for television?) about Bondarchuk, Tolstoy and the novel, all of which are actually rather good and fairly informative.  Finally, there's a substantial, also vintage, 'making of' documentary that's full of fascinating behind-the-scenes footage that gives very welcome insight into the fascinating story behind this film.
From the doc: the camera crew has actually caught on fire at this point.
Criterion includes this documentary (in fact, there version might be slightly more complete), but all of that other great "Bonus" content has been lost.  Fortunately, however, there's a whole bunch of new stuff in its place.  There's a second vintage, making of doc; this time a German one, that borrows a lot of footage from the first one, but also has enough new content to make it worthwhile.  There's a new interview with Petritsky, where he's refreshingly candid (seriously, watch this one), and an interview with Bondarchuk's son.  They uncovered a somewhat insightful, but also somewhat silly, 60's television special about Ludmila Savelyeva, and finally one of the excellent, trademark Criterion academic video essays, this time by historian Denise J. Youngblood.  Also included is a poster/ booklet with a notes by Ella Taylor.
So this is an absolute must-own release of a truly essential film.  Yes, it's disappointing that we're not getting the full 70mm experience Bondarchuk's work deserves.  It's easy to conjure up a breathtaking 4k Ultra HD experience in one's mind, and then measure this disc as lacking in comparison.  But, uh, you go to Russia and dredge up the original negatives.  Until then, this is the best we can get, and honestly, it's still a very impressive and rewarding watch.  And if you're a real enthusiast, you might also want to track down a Russico set for that fifth bonus disc.  The two sets of extras really compliment each other and add up to great special edition.

1 comment:

  1. Great review. This is THE 'War and Peace' and love Criterion did it justice. I pair with my other favorite Napoleonic epic by Bondarchuk- 'Waterloo'.