Watch War and Peace: The Splendid, Epic Film Adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Grand Novel (1969)


There’s an old axiom that mediocre books make great movies and great books make for lousy movies. Mario Puzo’s best­seller The God­fa­ther is a straight­for­ward pot­boil­er but Fran­cis Ford Cop­po­la spun it into one of the best films ever made. In con­trast, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gats­by has beguiled mul­ti­ple ambi­tious, mis­guid­ed film­mak­ers into mak­ing cin­e­mat­ic duds.

Hollywood’s 1956 adap­ta­tion of Leo Tolstoy’s famous­ly mas­sive tome War and Peace proved that axiom to be true. Direc­tor King Vidor, who gen­er­al­ly speak­ing is no slouch when it comes to direct­ing epics, just couldn’t trans­late the novel’s sweep and depth. More­over, the film’s leads, Audrey Hep­burn and Hen­ry Fon­da, just seemed mis­cast. New York Times crit­ic Bosley Crowther described the movie as “odd­ly mechan­i­cal and emo­tion­al­ly ster­ile.”

The movie was also an affront to Russ­ian nation­al­ism. After all, Tolstoy’s nov­el is not just anoth­er his­tor­i­cal epic; it is a cul­tur­al lode­stone for what is “Russ­ian-ness.” It is, as Rose­mary Edmonds, a trans­la­tor of the 1963 edi­tion of the book called, the “Ili­ad and the Odyssey of Rus­sia.” The Sovi­et film indus­try couldn’t let some half-baked Hol­ly­wood flick end up being the sole cin­e­mat­ic adap­ta­tion of the book. Mak­ing an adap­ta­tion was, as a bunch of Sovi­et film­mak­ers wrote in an open let­ter, “a mat­ter of hon­or for the Sovi­et cin­e­ma indus­try.”

After decades of mak­ing stol­id pro­pa­gan­da pieces that more often than not involved trac­tors, the Sovi­et film indus­try was fired up to make a work that was faith­ful to Tol­stoy and yet have artis­tic mer­it as a movie – a tall order. As the direc­tor and star of the Russ­ian ver­sion of War and Peace, Sergei Bon­darchuk, put it: “Our duty is to intro­duce the future view­er to the ori­gins of sub­lime art, to make the inner­most mys­ter­ies of the nov­el, War and Peace, visu­al­ly tan­gi­ble, to inform a feel­ing of full­ness of life, of the joy of human expe­ri­ence.”

The Sovi­et gov­ern­ment mar­shaled a stag­ger­ing amount of effort and expense to real­ize this film. Nev­er under­es­ti­mate the will of a total­i­tar­i­an dic­ta­tor­ship with an axe to grind. Pro­duc­tion start­ed in 1961 and last­ed six years. More than forty dif­fer­ent muse­ums con­tributed cos­tumes and set dress­ing to the pro­duc­tion, includ­ing things like chan­de­liers, sil­ver­ware and fur­ni­ture. The Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture con­tributed 900 hors­es. The Red Army had 12,000 troops play as extras dur­ing the cli­mac­tic Bat­tle of Borodi­no sequence. Bon­darchuk suf­fered two near-fatal heart attacks dur­ing pro­duc­tion.

All that mon­ey and effort paid off. The result­ing movie was one of the most lav­ish, spec­tac­u­lar films ever made. And at 451 min­utes, it’s also one of the longest. (It was released in the USSR as four sep­a­rate movies.)

Along the way, Bon­darchuk pulled off the impos­si­ble – the movie is actu­al­ly good, mir­ror­ing the breadth and depth of the nov­el. War and Peace won all sorts of awards includ­ing an Oscar for Best For­eign lan­guage movie. As a young Roger Ebert raved back in 1969:

“War and Peace” is the defin­i­tive epic of all time. It is hard to imag­ine that cir­cum­stances will ever again com­bine to make a more spec­tac­u­lar, expen­sive, and — yes — splen­did movie. Per­haps that’s just as well; epics seem to be going out of favor, replaced instead by small­er, more per­son­al films. Per­haps this great­est of the epics will be one of the last, bring­ing the epic form to its ulti­mate state­ment and at the same time sup­ply­ing the epi­taph.

You can watch the film above, thanks to Mos­film. It comes com­plete with sub­ti­tles.

Bon­darchuk’s War and Peace, which you can also pur­chase online, is list­ed in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare Record­ing: Leo Tol­stoy Reads From His Last Major Work in Four Lan­guages, 1909

Vin­tage Footage of Leo Tol­stoy: Video Cap­tures the Great Nov­el­ist Dur­ing His Final Days

The Com­plete Works of Leo Tol­stoy Online: New Archive Will Present 90 Vol­umes for Free (in Russ­ian)

Leo Tolstoy’s Fam­i­ly Recipe for Mac­a­roni and Cheese

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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Comments (6)
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  • adieu says:

    la poli­tique est une mère qui a tuer son fils au nom de la poli­tique plusieurs crimes de guer­res on étaient com­mis­es plusieurs rich­es sont dev­enue pau­vres plusieurs his­toires d’amoures ont échouaient plusieurs hon­nêtes gents sont hum­i­li­er plusieurs pays sont déchirés par la fin ors­ent que tous le monde veut gar­ent ire l’avenir de ces enfants enfin dieu nous a pas cray­er pour avoir de bonne rela­tion et de s’aimaient

  • A says:

    there’s no sub­ti­tles unfor­tu­nate­ly

  • Kelly says:

    There ARE NO SUBTITLES!!!!

  • adieu says:

    seule­ment. il voulais que on s’accroche les uns au autres pour con­naitre la valeur de notre vie sur terre et pren­dre soins des deux et toute est pos­si­ble et quand en veut on peut et ce n’est jamais la guerre qui ressoud­eras nos prob­lèmes ces bien la pais en utilisent l’amoure et la con­science et on doit ce dire com­ment les gens prendraient t’ils notre mort quelle seras notre répu­ta­tion quoique nous soyons muselle­ments c retiens ou bien juives hommes ou femmes rich­es ou pau­vres même chose pour la dif­férence de couleurs la per­fec­tion est impos­si­bles mais en peut tou­jours essay­er et il ya tou­jours de l’espoir quand en veut bien faire et comme il se dit le hasard fait bien des choses il suff­is que nous ayons tous un bon grand ceaur.

  • mark says:

    Youtube links are bro­ken

  • Steven says:

    None of the links in this thread, with or with­out sub­ti­tles, work. They are all bro­ken or page not found. Is ‘’ some kind of hoax??

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