Watch the Hugely-Ambitious Soviet Film Adaptation of War and Peace Free Online (1966–67)

On the ques­tion of whether nov­els can suc­cess­ful­ly be turned into films, the cinephile jury remains out. In the best cas­es a film­mak­er takes a lit­er­ary work and rein­vents it almost entire­ly in accor­dance with his own vision, which usu­al­ly requires a book of mod­est or unre­al­ized ambi­tions. This method would­n’t do, in oth­er words, for War and Peace. Yet Tol­stoy’s epic nov­el, whose sheer his­tor­i­cal, dra­mat­ic, and philo­soph­i­cal scope has made it one of the most acclaimed works in the his­to­ry of lit­er­a­ture, has been adapt­ed over and over again: for radio, for the stage, as a 22-minute Yes song, and at least four times for the screen.

The first War and Peace film, direct­ed by and star­ring the pio­neer­ing Russ­ian film­mak­er Vladimir Gardin, appeared in 1915. Japan­ese activist film­mak­er Fumio Kamei came out with his own ver­sion just over three decades lat­er. Only in the nine­teen-fifties, with large-scale lit­er­ary adap­ta­tion still in vogue, did the mighty hand of Hol­ly­wood take up the book. The project went back to 1941, when pro­duc­er Alexan­der Kor­da tried to put it togeth­er under the direc­tion of Orson Welles, fresh off Cit­i­zen Kane.

For bet­ter or worse, Welles’ ver­sion would sure­ly have proven more mem­o­rable than the one that opened in 1956: King Vidor’s War and Peace expe­di­ent­ly hacked out great swathes of Tol­stoy’s nov­el, result­ing in a lush but essen­tial­ly unfaith­ful adap­ta­tion. This was still ear­ly in the Cold War, a strug­gle con­duct­ed through the amass­ing of soft pow­er as well as hard. “It is a mat­ter of hon­or for the Sovi­et cin­e­ma indus­try,” declared an open let­ter pub­lished in dthe Sovi­et press, “to pro­duce a pic­ture which will sur­pass the Amer­i­can-Ital­ian one in its artis­tic mer­it and authen­tic­i­ty.”

The gears of the Sovi­et Min­istry of Cul­ture were already turn­ing to get a supe­ri­or War and Peace film into pro­duc­tion — supe­ri­or in scale, but far supe­ri­or in feal­ty to Tol­stoy’s words. This put a for­mi­da­ble chal­lenge in front of Sergei Bon­darchuk, who was select­ed as its direc­tor and who, like Gardin before him, even­tu­al­ly cast him­self in the star­ring role of Count Pyotr “Pierre” Kir­illovich Bezukhov. As a pro­duc­tion of Mos­film, nation­al stu­dio of the Sovi­et Union, War and Peace could mar­shal an unheard-of vol­ume of resources to put ear­ly nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Rus­sia onscreen. Its fur­ni­ture, fix­tures, and oth­er objects came from more than forty muse­ums, and its thou­sands of uni­forms and pieces of mil­i­tary hard­ware from the Napoleon­ic Wars were recre­at­ed by hand.

The most expen­sive pro­duc­tion ever made in the Sovi­et Union, War and Peace was also rumored to be the most expen­sive pro­duc­tion in the his­to­ry of world cin­e­ma to date. With a total run­time exceed­ing sev­en hours, it was released in four parts through­out 1966 an 1967. Now, thanks to Mos­film’s Youtube chan­nel, you can watch them all free on Youtube. 55 years lat­er, its pro­duc­tion val­ues still radi­ate from each and every frame, some­thing you can appre­ci­ate even if you know noth­ing more of War and Peace than that — as a non-Russ­ian film­mak­er of com­par­a­tive­ly mod­est pro­duc­tion sen­si­bil­i­ties once said — it’s about Rus­sia.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Why Should We Read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (and Fin­ish It)? A TED-Ed Ani­ma­tion Makes the Case

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Leo Tol­stoy, and How His Great Nov­els Can Increase Your Emo­tion­al Intel­li­gence

The Art of Leo Tol­stoy: See His Draw­ings in the War & Peace Man­u­script & Oth­er Lit­er­ary Texts

Free: Watch Bat­tle­ship Potemkin and Oth­er Films by Sergei Eisen­stein, the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Sovi­et Film­mak­er

Free Online: Watch Stalk­er, Mir­ror, and Oth­er Mas­ter­works by Sovi­et Auteur Andrei Tarkovsky

Watch 70 Movies in HD from Famed Russ­ian Stu­dio Mos­film: Clas­sic Films, Beloved Come­dies, Tarkovsky, Kuro­sawa & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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