screened Saturday October 20, 2007 on Ruscico DVD in Weehawken NJ
As Sergei Bondarchuk’s seven hour epic is currently enjoying an ultra-rare theatrical run at New York’s Film Forum – with a national tour certain to follow – I thought it wise to continue my multi-part coverage of this exhaustive and often beautiful film. Check out my notes on Part I and Part II.
Following the pensive, feminine-voiced Part II: Natasha Rostova, Bondarchuk’s epic roars back into the “war” side of its title with Part III: 1812, chronicling events leading into and during the epic Battle of Borodino, one of the bloodiest days in history, yielding over 70,000 casualties.
The credits roll over shots of trees – an image of nature that becomes a frequent strucutral counterpoint to much of the violence that follows throughout this segment of the epic.
The Moscow aristocracy is initially depicted as largely unperturbed by the devastation inflicted by the Napoleonic invasion – Bondarchuk sets up the dichotomy through a pair of spectacular ensemble shots:
The two worlds collide as Russian officers crash the ball to deliver news of the scorching advance of Napoleon’s troops across the country.
Bondarchuk’s depiction of the carnage inflicted on Russian towns seems heavily reminiscent of similar shots in Gone With the Wind (TSPDT #88):
Bondarchuk achieves another striking juxtaposition between the massive march of French troops and the restless vigil of an aging Russian prince in the confines of his bedroom:
There is actually very little dramatic or character development that occurs in the 79 minutes of Part III. This is made evident by the single scene between Natasha Rostova (the Audrey Hepburn-esque Lyudmila Savelyeva) and Pierre Bezukhov (Bondarchuk). Part II revolved around Rostova’s maturing consciousness as she experienced the highs and lows of love and seduction, and the blossoming of their relationship between her and Bezukhov was the climactic development of that episode. All of that development is held at bay in Part III, confined to a single scene where Rostova expresses her appreciation of Bezukhov’s kindness, while he seems uncomfortable with this degree of intimacy.
His subsequent entry as a civilian into the field of battle can be seen as an escape from his complicated attachments with Rostova, his friend Prince Bolkonsky’s ex-fiancee. His white outfit stands in sore contrast to his blood-and-mud-stained compatriots in battle.
At this point, as 200,000 Russian and French troops amass at the fateful site of Borodino, we are treated to some minor longeurs, the proverbial “calm before the storm.” Prince Bolkonsky, preparing to lead his regiment into battle, offers some simplified existential reflections: “Tomorrow I won’t exist anymore.” One assumes that the original Tolstoy passages went much deeper into this line of thinking, but, eager to commence with some extraordinarily coordinated epic bloodletting, Bondarchuk gets by with a solemn voiceover matched with sweeping shots of foliage, concluding that war is a solemn necessity when faced with such an unnatural force of evil as the French invasion. If anything, one wonders if Terrence Malick got any of his stuff watching this.
The following still pretty much tells you all you need to know about the 20 minute battle sequence that is often referred to as Bondarchuk’s crowning achievement. Judging by the results, there was probably more toxic smoke emanating from this set then there was at Chernobyl.
As with the Tolstoy novel, Napoleon is depicted in the film as a domineering force, solely focused on victory, refusing to eat or drink until victory is at hand. Interestingly, historians cite Napoleon as weak and suffering from a fever that day, which may have compromised his tactical abilities.
In contrast, consider how Bondarchuk frames the one-eyed Prince Kutzov, commander of the Russian forces, seated to one side and holding a piece of chicken as his generals report massive losses on all fronts.
Although the Russians sustained tens of thousands more casualties than the French at Borodino, the toll of this insanely bloody battle was enough to weaken the French advance, allowing their eventual defeat. Napoleon himself is characterized as an inhuman mass-murderer whose mind would not allow itself to acknowledge the massive scale of human loss it had set in motion.
Thus the stentorian voiceover quoting Tolstoy concludes, “A moral victory… that which compels the enemy to recognize the moral superiority of his opponent, and his own impotence, was won by the Russians at Borodino.”
Meanwhile, I was thinking more about the money and manpower that went into this film than on the full meaning of the war it depicts. It’s epic, it’s bombastic, it’s impeccably executed, and so punch-drunk in its own gargantuan simulation of 19th century warfare that whatever it has to say about the horrors of war seem as hypocritically self-serving as Coppola and Apocalypse Now. In fact, there’s even a long tracking shot across a cross section of buildings that shows Russians and French engaged in various skirmishes, worthy of the horizontally scrolling pomposity of Vittorio Storaro. The overall experience is a numbing spectacle of smoke, fire and horses and shouting.
Personally I prefer the sensuality, thoughtfulness and dark textures of Part II. Here’s hoping that Part IV offers more of that side to War and Peace.