Friday, October 30, 2020

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic by Denise J. Youngblood

The history behind the masterpiece
Though I am a lover of classic literature, I haven’t yet had the courage to tackle Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth novel
War and Peace. Recently, however, I did see the Russian film adaptation directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, which was released in four parts from 1966 to 1967. This film is a true masterpiece of cinematic historical fiction that combines epic battles with intimate human drama. The artistic and technical aspects of the film are superb, and the grand scale of the production truly staggers the mind. The 2019 Criterion Collection DVD set includes a 45 minute interview with historian Denise J. Youngblood, an expert on Russian war films. I enjoyed her commentary so much that I decided to read her 2014 book Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Literary Classic to Soviet Cinematic Epic

Youngblood’s Criterion Collection presentation focuses primarily on the making of Bondarchuk’s film, while her book expands the discussion to include literary and film criticism, adaptation theory, historiography, and the actual historical events upon which the novel and its films are based. The text is organized in a very logical manner. Chapter 1 covers most of the making-of material. If you’ve seen the Criterion Collection interview, then you’ve already heard about 80 percent of what’s here, but the book still contains plenty of new and interesting details. Chapter 2 discusses the definition of an epic, and whether Bondarchuk’s film qualifies as one. This hinges not only on the grand scale of the story and production but also on how well it embodies the culture and national spirit of Russia and the Soviet Union. Chapter 3 discusses Bondarchuk’s War and Peace as an adaptation, how it compares to Tolstoy’s novel, and the decisions Bondarchuk made in interpreting the source material. In Chapter 4, Youngblood examines how well the film reflects historical reality. Chapter 5 compares Bondarchuk’s film with director King Vidor’s 1956 adaptation of War and Peace, an American film that was very popular in Russia. Chapter 6 covers Bondarchuk’s follow-up film, Waterloo, another grand historical epic of the Napoleonic Era. Finally, a brief conclusion sums up, on a somewhat tragic note, the remainder of Bondarchuk’s career.

There is a lot of comparing and contrasting going on in this book: Bondarchuk vs. Tolstoy, Bondarchuk vs. Vidor, War and Peace vs. Waterloo, both films vs. history. The very nature of film studies requires that a large portion of the content be devoted to plot summaries (spoilers included, of course). Therefore, if you’ve read Tolstoy’s novel and have seen all these films, much of the text may be telling you things you already know. Such recapping is necessary, however, for Youngblood to illustrate the conclusions she draws, and her synopses are interspersed with enlightening observations on filmmaking technique. One also learns quite a bit about the history of Russia’s war against Napoleon’s France, as well as the cultural climate and cinematic history of the Soviet Union. Youngblood’s comprehensive knowledge in history, film, and Russian studies allows her to make revealing interdisciplinary connections between the three fields.

With about 130 pages of text and half that much in notes, bibliography, and index, Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is not a cumbersome read for the general reader. I am neither a historian nor film scholar, just a film and literature buff, yet I found Youngblood’s prose quite accessible and never boring. Anyone who appreciates Bondarchuk’s film will enjoy the fascinating behind-the-scenes and between-the-lines details that Youngblood delivers in this comprehensive study.

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