Ever wanted to see what a billion dollar movie would look like? Not in today’s billions, where a CGI-laden comic book pic costs up to a quarter bill. No, a billion bucks back when a billion really was a billion. Made in the high-flying days of Breznev’s Soviet Union, there’s no way of knowing just what this USSR-approved version of the Tolstoy novel cost. The rumored figure was $100,000,000, but even Hollywood bookkeeping could never top the account ledger shenanigans of a Kremlin cultural slush-fund. Initially shown in an 8 hour cut, it now weighs in at 6 & ½ and boasts a cast in the tens of thousands. (That’s an entire Russian Army on the home team and a second Russian Army dressed as the invading French.) Plus ballrooms, Moscow mansions, country estates, 70mm SovColor, endless speaking roles, gowns, cannons . . . and precious little modern fakery. It’s an amazing achievement . . . but is it any good? Well , er . . . Nyet. They gave the project to Sergei Bondarchuk, a politically acceptable hack of some talent who knew how to play the government funding game. And then he also took on the leading role of Pierre, that sadly romantic, illegitimate intellectual. (It’s as if Bill Clinton gave Rob Reiner a couple of billion to make MOBY DICK and Reiner not only directed but also cast himself as the whale.) Bondarchuk must have been doing the festival circuit back then since the film is a stylistic magpie of misused up-to-the-minute techniques. There's lots of acting in the big Russian declarative style, Prince Andrei comes off as a sort of Darcy via Jane Austen, and the Natasha grows on you once she stops trying to outdo Audrey Hepburn.* But when you get past the fine costumes & art direction, only composer Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov’s stunningly effective score seems Tolstoy-worthy. The film is both a must-see, and a miss. WARNING: The 5-DVD edition on RusCICO/Image gives a decent idea of the film, but an older 3-DVD set on Kultur (a tv sourced PAL conversion?) is a savagely cropped, visually smeared travesty.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Speaking of Audrey . . . she makes a perfectly enchanting Natasha in King Vidor’s 1956 version. And in about half the running time, you get almost as much of the story as you get here. There are lots of good things in that film, but what were they thinking when they got Henry Fonda for Pierre? Especially when Peter Ustinov, born to play that role, was available and even working for Paramount which released the film. Those who’d like to get almost all of the story without picking up the book might check out the 20 episode BBC version with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. It’s horribly compromised by its budget, but, if you can adjust, worth seeing.