Both the 1956 American film adaptation of War and Peace and the 1965 Russian Voyna I Mir attempt to bring Tolstoy's epic novel to life on the screen. This paper will compare and contrast both film adaptations with the novel and history, and discuss the how each bears its own main idea, its own unique set design and costuming, and its own actors and actresses.
War and Peace (1956) is a film of genuine Hollywood spectacle -- which is to say of grand artifices and shallow substance. The 1965 lengthy (eight hour) Russian version is a spectacular marvel of realism, beauty, and authenticity. While it is impossible to capture the entire magic of Tolstoy's epic novel on film, both versions give a kind of epic interpretation of Tolstoy's work -- both creating their own main ideas out of the context provided by the novel.
Voyna I Mir and the Scope of the Novel
The main idea of the 1965 Voyna I Mir is expressed at the very outset of the film and as the closing reminder: "The thoughts that have important consequences are always simple. All my thinking could be summed up with these words: since corrupt people unite themselves to constitute a force, honest people must do the same. It's as simple as that." The words are Tolstoy's and are meant to act as a framing device for the Soviet era film. Perestroika was in session when the film was made -- and it was designed to act as a kind of distancing from the Stalinist rule of Russian society. Sixties-style camera shots are evident throughout -- but visually it is a stunning, sumptuous affair and fit to bear the title of Tolstoy's famous epic. The costumes and sets and battles and language are all preserved -- many of the scenes of the novel are shot, and Voyna I Mir is a fine rendering, both historically (at least as far as Tolstoy's War and Peace is historical) and thematically.
However, it is a much more somber, sober, and heavier film than its American predecessor. It is on the level of American auteur Terrence Malick, whose Thin Red Line (another war film to attempt to encompass and contemplate the human question) rose ambitiously to the kind of grand scope that Tolstoy employed in War and Peace. The main idea of the 1965 Russian version is to be as faithful to Tolstoy's narrative as possible -- and to a large extent it is.
However, Voyna I Mir also includes the new Soviet-Khrushchev era yearning for something greater, nobler, and better than the paranoid policing of the Stalinist years. The Gulag was being exposed by another master artist named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the public was hungry for a kind of fine-tuning of the Russian spirit. Voyna I Mir is the cinematic answer to that hunger in many ways. Its sweeping cinematography, epic battle sequences, filmed with thousands of extras; its minute attention to detail; its glorious and historically accurate costuming; its on location shooting (the ballroom scenes are magnificently shot in the kind of aristocratic Russian mansions that Tolstoy knew so well); its horrific burning of Moscow -- all of the dramatic elements of the novel are worked into the film with such panache that it deservedly won the Academy Award for best foreign film.
War and Peace and the Hollywood Ending
Voyna I Mir also, because of its length is able to do what the 1956 Italian-American production failed to do: convert the entire narrative to film. The Italian-American 1956 War and Peace, starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda (as Pierre), is a the kind of standard Hollywood production much in vogue at the time: a historical romance, with fancy backdrops and studio lot fillers -- but far from authentic in any way -- it served the American public what the American public wanted: Hollywood romance.
Thus, the 1956 War and Peace is an ode to the love triangle that only makes up a relatively small part of the epic novel. Fonda's Pierre is an all-American romantic, and Hepburn's Natasha is nothing like Tolstoy's. But any actual fidelity to Tolstoy's work would have been more than the Hays Production Code, still in effect at the time, would have allowed. The Hays Code was a kind of censoring factor that inhibited many themes from being explored. Themes that Tolstoy's novel could take up in great detail -- the harrowing birthing process, the intensity of the Natasha's seduction by Anatol, the duel, the battles, the violence, the obsession -- none of this would have passed Hays inspection. Instead, American audiences were treated to the typical Hollywood fare of the time: light-hearted romantic romping.
And yet, the film does pay tribute to one of the grand themes that Tolstoy writes of in War and Peace. The main idea of the fact is embodied in the final title placed upon the screen as Pierre leads Natasha off into the distance -- off into the happiness that awaits them in the future (a tidy, little Hollywood ending -- much different from the cosmic, transcendent view from the heavens that closes out the 1965 Voyna I Mir). While they are Tolstoy's words, taken in fact from the novel, they act more or less as a kind of reminder of the greatness that inspired the film -- a simplistic moral to keep the film grounded in its literary roots -- even if superficially.
The main idea of the 1956 War and Peace is summed up by the film itself thus: "The most difficult thing -- but an essential one -- is to love Life, to love it even while one suffers, because Life is all, Life is God, and to love Life means to love God." The words express the Hollywoodian Hays Code decency and morality still much in vogue in the fifties. (On the Waterfront, the Academy Award winner for best picture that same decade has Marlon Brando -- also considered for the role of Pierre, though he turned it down because he did not want to work with Hepburn -- in the role of a kind of Christ figure, finally winning back the docks for the working man.)
Tolstoy's spirituality is a bit higher than the 1956 Italian-American film -- it is more far-reaching, more heavenly, deeper and altogether more inspiring. But the Hepburn and Fonda's romance takes precedence over spirituality in the film. However, Tolstoy's narrative reflects the spiritual essence that American film lacks and that the Russian film -- in its newfound freedom to embrace the divine under Perestroika -- does strive to encompass.
The moment comes when Pierre, a bit more dramatically (and effectively and authentically played by the director of the Russian film, Sergei Bondarchuk -- a fact which shows the profound intimacy that the crew had with the production), after all his soul searching and adventures finally (near the end of the novel) realizes the point of his life -- what it has all been about: "That search for the aim of life…no longer existed for him…and this very absence of an aim gave him the complete, joyous sense of freedom…for he now had faith -- not faith in any kind of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in an ever-living, ever-manifest God." Pierre's faith is the faith that the greatest Russian literature of the eighteenth century always tried to express -- from Pushkin to Gogol to Tolstoy to Dostoevsky -- each of the great Russian writers sought to explore this element of the human condition. And the 1965 Voyna I Mir comes closest to capturing it -- through the realism of its sets, costumes, acting, and narrative -- and its fidelity to…