There was an episode of Cheers where Sam Malone, worried that he might lose Diane Chambers to a literature professor, decides to read War and Peace so he'll have something to talk about when the group gets together (the book is recommended by self-proclaimed know-it-all Cliff Claven, who says it's the greatest novel ever written). Sam actually manages to get the book read, which impresses Diane. At the episode's end, she suggests they go see the movie version. "THERE'S A MOVIE? Cliff! I'll kill him!"
The movie to which Diane refers is probably the 208-minute, 1956 American production starring Audrey Hepburn, which made enough of an international impression that the Soviets decided they needed to make their own version of the classic Russian novel. With the support of the Soviet government, that War and Peace ended up with a running time of 431 minutes. A recent restoration was just released on Criterion, and while I was aware that this was one of those "see it on the big screen" pictures, my 66-year-old bladder couldn't imagine sitting in a theater for 7 hours straight. So I bought the Blu-ray and sat down to plan my approach.
At which time, I found out that Sergey Bondarchuk's massive film was originally released in four parts over the course of two years.
I felt like Sam Malone, only happy ... "THERE'S FOUR PARTS? I can watch one a day!"
War and Peace is a tremendous spectacle that spends much of its time on the personal relations between the main characters. I feared it would be akin to Doctor Zhivago, another epic film from a novel about historical Russia, and Doctor Zhivago is not one of my favorite films. But I am pleased to note that Bondarchuk's War and Peace is far superior to Zhivago, maintaining interest throughout its long running time, while offering some of the best epic scenes ever.
I assumed that this famous adaptation of the famous novel would have been highly acclaimed, and indeed, it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. But you won't find it on many of the lists I cite here so often. You won't find it on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time (it is currently at #1065). And in retrospect, I can see why, at least from my point of view. I've rarely liked big expensive historical epics ... I really did think it would be as poor as Doctor Zhivago. That doesn't explain why it isn't very highly regarded critically (although again, I don't want to overstate that ... #1065 is pretty good).
To be more specific about what works (and doesn't) ... the epic scale is impressive, not just in battle scenes but in more domestic extravagances like balls. Much of the acting is good, and ballerina Lyudmila Savelyeva is exquisite as Natasha. Bondarchuk occasionally uses effectively off-beat visual techniques. On the other hand, Bondarchuk as Pierre is a weak link.
War and Peace should be seen once. I'd say once is enough, though.