Seven Hours of Wonder

One great thing to do when it is super-hot outside is to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre. Yes, and watch a movie. And when its really hot, do it for a really long time. How about seven hours?!

movie poster of Bondarchuk's War and PeaceOver the last two nights I watched something wonderful on screen, at the Bing Theatre at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). A rare gem, in fact*. Sergei Bondarchuk’s film of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, (Voyna i mir) released (USA) in 1968, and in four parts (matching those of the book), each a full movie. I went with three friends (M, R, and R), since movie marathons are fun in company. The full print, in Russian and French with English subtitles, is seven hours long. This is not to be mistaken for the relatively paltry dubbed version cut down to a fleeting six hours duration. This is (closer to) the proper original version. It is rare…apparently not shown in the USA for a very long time, and apparently not available on DVD. (Arguably, it shouldn’t be seen on DVD on a screen that is inappropriate to the task, and without good company. This is a movie theatre movie if there ever was one.) It’s a national treasure, and frankly I have no clue how they made it so well.

The cinematography, set/production design, art direction, and – of course – direction are just wonderful. A visual feast. From marvellous balls and banquets showing the life of the Russian aristocracy (and the five or so families involved in the drama) in all of its opulence, to the great battles, with the advancing waves of the French army with Napoleon in all his splendour to the ranks of the defending Russian soldiers, showing the full scale of the battles, from the individual level (showing various characters’ internal musings as the battle rages around them) to the very large scale (wave after wave of horsemen approaching banks of cannon, being fired upon, and so forth), and everything in between. The screenplay itself was excellent too. One of the many reasons films of books don’t work well is that they are simply different media with different strengths. Good filmmakers know this, but nobody seems to have told most viewers, and so audiences are so often disappointed when they expect the film of the book to be the book. One of the prime differences is that films are simply not as good at readily bringing out the internal life as books are. It is not impossible, but it is harder to get to work. War and Peace is very internal. It sure is not about big fight scenes. No, really. So one of the very impressive things about the film for me was how, while doing a superb job on the big battle scenes, they also managed to get inside the characters minds so well, whether it be in the turmoil of battle, in the midst of a huddle of generals conferring over the next steps in a hopeless situation, or in the delicate maneuverings of a courtship or a seduction.

I don’t know how they managed the sheer grandeur. Having over 100,000 extras (involving a lot from the Soviet army) helped a lot, but even so, it is hard to grasp. It’s a little bit like, if you’ll allow me, the feeling many had when seeing Jurassic park for the first time the year the film came out. You look at the dinosaurs, shake your head, and then conclude in a resigned way that maybe the only way they could have done it so well was to simply yank some dinosaurs out of extinction, and film them for the movie. Same here, and more so. Perhaps they just did the battles – they’d need as much or more logistical sophistication, supply lines, and so forth, in order to make the movie as it would to have done the battle in 1812.

Anyway, if there is any way whatsoever that you see an opportunity to see this wonderful film (four films, really), go and see it. Do not hesitate. It is one of the greatest epics ever made.

-cvj

(With respect to the title: It was an experience quite a bit different from seven minutes of terror overall.)

*Thanks Eric and Xing.

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