Watch the hugely ambitious Soviet film adaptation of War and Peace (1966-1967) online for free

On the question of whether novels can be successfully turned into films, the cinephile jury remains absent. In the best-case scenario, a filmmaker takes a work of literature and reimagines it almost entirely according to their own vision, which usually requires a book with modest or unrealized ambitions. This method would not be suitable, in other words, for War and peace. Yet Tolstoy’s epic novel, whose historical, dramatic and philosophical significance has made it one of the most acclaimed works in the history of literature, has been adapted many times: for the radio, for the stage, inasmuch as Song Yes of 22 minutesand at least four times for the screen.

The first one War and peace film, directed by and starring pioneering Russian filmmaker Vladimir Gardin, was released in 1915. Japanese activist filmmaker Fumio Kamei released his own version just over three decades later. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when large-scale literary adaptation was still in vogue, that the mighty hand of Hollywood took hold of the book. The project dates back to 1941, when producer Alexander Korda attempted to put it together under the direction of newly arrived Orson Welles. Citizen Kane.

For better or worse, Welles’ version would surely have proved more memorable than the one opened in 1956: King Vidor’s War and peace quickly pirated large portions of Tolstoy’s novel, resulting in a lush but essentially unfaithful adaptation. It was still the beginning of the Cold War, a struggle waged by the accumulation of soft power as well as hard power. “It is a matter of honor for the Soviet film industry”, declared an open letter published in the Soviet press, “to produce a picture which will surpass the American-Italian one in its artistic value and authenticity”.

The gears of the Soviet Ministry of Culture were already turning to obtain a superior War and peace film in production – superior in scale, but far superior in fidelity to Tolstoy’s words. This presented a formidable challenge to Sergei Bondarchuk, who was cast as director and who, like Gardin before him, eventually threw himself into the lead role of Count Piotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov. As a production of Mosfilm, the national studio of the Soviet Union, War and peace could muster an unprecedented amount of resources to bring early 19th century Russia to the screen. Its furniture, lighting and other objects come from more than forty museums, and its thousands of uniforms and pieces of military equipment from the Napoleonic wars have been 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 world cinema history to date. With a total running time of over seven hours, it was released in four parts throughout 1966 and 1967. Now, thanks to Mosfilm Youtube channelyou can watch them all for free on Youtube. 55 years later, his production values ​​still radiate from every frame, something you can appreciate even if you don’t know anything more War and peace that this – as one non-Russian filmmaker with relatively modest production sensibilities put it – is about Russia.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts about cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter books about cities, the book The City Without a State: A Walk through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series The city in cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshallon FacebookOr on instagram.

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