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.
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.