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Gearing up for Oscar night with War and Peace

How to warm up for Oscar night? Ed and I spent four consecutive evenings this week watching a 55-year-old foreign film.

Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace was the Soviet film industry’s attempt to outdo Hollywood. Adapted from Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, his eight-hour masterpiece released in four installments in 1966 and 1967 is epic in every way—with its thundering battle scenes, glittering grand balls, 300 speaking parts, thousands of costumed extras, and stunningly innovative camera techniques.

The 1956 American production of War and Peace, starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, had been a hit with Soviet audiences, but Soviet officials thought an American adaptation should not be the definitive version of their national epic. The government opened 58 state museums and archives to serve Bondarchuk’s production, contributing priceless paintings, chandeliers and furniture to the movie sets. The Red Army supplied hundreds of horses and more than 10,000 soldiers as extras, and the Ministry of Defense supplied scent hounds for the hunting scenes. The film’s official cost of $29 million (in 1960s’ U.S. dollars) didn’t include all these free contributions.

War and Peace succeeded in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award in 1968 for best foreign-language film. It also won the Golden Globe Award for best foreign-language film, and the Grand Prix in the Moscow International Film Festival.

The film took nearly six years to make, and the young actress Ludmilla Savelyeva visibly grows up before our eyes in the role of Natasha Rostova. Much of the filming was on location, so outdoor scenes had to wait for the right weather conditions. And director Bondarchuk, who was passionate about adapting Tolstoy’s novel, pushed himself so hard that he suffered a heart attack and had to spend two months recuperating.

Sergei Bondarchuk as Count Pierre Bezukhov.

Bondarchuk also took the film’s lead role, the part of the awkward, good-hearted Count Pierre Bezukhov, whose story is the film’s central thread. Bondarchuk was in his 40s at the time of filming, a good 15 years older than Pierre, certainly old enough to be the father of his teenage love interest. But he was a fine actor, and after feeling an initial jolt at how old this Pierre was, I felt he was completely right for the role.

Despite its length, War and Peace is not too long. I expected to be bored, but I was entranced by the story and the glorious spectacle.

A great way to gear up for tonight’s Oscars!

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