Updated: 20 September, 1997
Born in village in southern Ukraine. Entered Theatrical College in Rostov but WW2 interrupted his study. After demobilisation SB studied cinematography in Moscow and began acting shortly afterwards. Made a name for himself in title role of Taras Shevchenko (1951) about Ukrainian poet. Censors failed to notice that the film was about the struggles of an artist in an oppressive society. Public liked it, as did Stalin who gave the young actor the highest award of the Stalin Prize First Class. Starred in the film version of Chekhov's The Grasshopper (1955); Othello (1956) whose theme of treachery would appeal to Soviet audiences. Turned to directing in late 1950s with debut a version of Sholokhov's short story The Destiny of a Man (1959) about the persecution of Soviet soldiers who returned home after being POWs of the Nazis (a forbidden topic until the post-Stalin cultural thaw or "spring"). From 1964-68 SB given task of turning Tolstoy's great novel into film. In 1970 there folowed a much less successful sequel "Waterloo".
The definitive Russian film version of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel War and Peace (1868). The title refers to the "sandwich effect" where Tolstoy deals alternately with aspects of Russian society at "war" and then at "peace" before and during the French invasion of Russia in 1812.
Perhaps the most expensive film ever made. The definitive film version of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel War and Peace (1868) is a seven hour film by the Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk made in 1967 to celebrate the centennial of the novel's publication. Cost between $40-100 million. Screenplay by SB and Vasily Solovyov. Won Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1968.
Aim of SB was "with aid of modern cinematic means, to reproduce Tolstoy's thoughts, emotions, philosophy, and ideals." (Rob Edelman, "Voina i Mir. War and Peace," The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Vol. 1 Films (London: Macmillan, 1987), p. 511.) It won an Oscar as the Best Foreign Film and is considered by many critics to be not only a faithful adaptation of Tolstoy's very long and deeply philosophical novel, but also a great work of cinema. Earlier version of film (a shorter 3 1/2 hour "Hollywood" version) by King Vidor with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn. Regarded as static and oversimplified. SB's version very faithful to LT's novel, especially in richness of characterisation. Great attention to creating realistic sets and battle scenes - props borrowed from museums, filmed on location in Russia, replica cannons reproduced, 6,000 military uniforms used, 120,000 soldiers from Red Army as extras. Note scenes of burning of Moscow, battle of Borodino, ball scene.
Uses "sandwich effect" of sequences dealing with "peace", then "war", and so on
LT came from an aristocratic family. Joined the Russian army and began writing while serving in the Caucuses subduing Muslim hill tribes. Served in the Crimean War 1854-56 and wrote about his personal experiences of war in The Sebastopol Sketches (1855). Went to France and Belgium after war, where he met the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and was impressed by his book La Guerre et la Paix (1864). Stimulated LT to write War and Peace. His most famous novels are War and Peace (1865-8) and Anna Karenina (1874-6). Later LT became a pacifist, anarchist, social reformer, and vegetarian.
The novel War and Peace is about the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon and his eventual defeat by the Russian forces. LT did painstaking work of historical research, including reading most of the memoirs of leading military and political leaders, in preparation for writing the novel. He produced a marvellously detailed picture of Russian society with its different classes, regions, characters. LT's interest in historical accuracy resulted in accurate descriptions of the chaos and confusion of the battlefield (clouds of smoke obscure the view of the generals, we get the perspective of the man on horseback), the focus on individual common soldiers (e.g. Captain Tushin the artillery battery commander) rather than exclusively with the generals, and the realistic description of battles. Combined this with a depth of philosophic speculation which is unusual in a novel. Draws contrasts between life and death, the natural and the conventional, good men and families vs bad men and families, and of course, war vs peace. An overriding concern is with the power of human will in the face of historical predestination/fate.
LT's interest in war concerns the fundamental question of why men fight:
Why did millions of men kill each other when everyone has known since the beginning of time that it is morally and physically wrong to do so?... Because the thing was so inevitable that in doing so they were obeying the same elementary zoological law as the bees when they kill each other in the autumn, and all male animals who exterminate each other. (Quoted in Henri Troyat, Tolstoy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 436.)
This point of view leads to a contradiction between LT's view that mysterious, inevitable forces guide men's destiny and leads them to fight, and LT's moral outrage and opposition to war. If war fighting is inevitable, what sense is there in seeing war as a crime which could be avoided by the power of reason and moral reform?
LT introduced a new perspective on warfare, one suited to a socially concerned novelist, namely an interest in personal and psychological matters rather than technical military matters. As LT put it:
War always interested me, not war in the sense of manoeuvres devised by great generals... but the reality of war, the actual killing. I was more interested to know what way and under the influence of what feeling one soldier kills another, than to know how the armies were arranged at Austerlitz and Borodino. (Quoted in R.V. Sampson, The Discovery of Peace (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973), p. 120.)
In a number of works, LT expresses interest in the moment of injury or actual death. E.G. the soldier who is knocked from his horse and is stunned, the falling of an artillery shell in Sebastopol Sketches (Penguin), pp. 96-7 and Prince Andrei's mortal wounding in W&P. In his account of the Crimean War, Sebastopol Sketches, Tolstoy describes what might go through a man's mind when he realises he is fatally wounded - panic, terror, confusion, self-deception. An artillery shell lands near the two men, they fall to the ground taking cover, but the shell does not go off immediately.
A second elapsed. It had seemed like an hour, and still the shell hadn't gone off. Praskukhin had been afraid his panic was groundless - perhaps the shell had really landed a long way off and it was only in his imagination that he could hear its fuse hissing right next to him. He had opened his eyes and seen to his vain satisfaction that Mikhailov, whom he still owed twelve and a half roubles, was lying at his feet and nearer the ground than he was, his eyes registered the glowing fuse of the shell which was spinning on the ground only a few feet away from him.
A sense of horror - a cold sense of horror which shut out all other thoughts and feelings - seized hold of his entire being. He covered his face with his hands and fell to his knees.
Another second passed, one during which a whole world of feelings, thoughts, hopes, and memories flooded through his mind.
'Who is it going to kill? Mikhailov or me? Or both of us? And if it is to be me, where will it get me? If it gets me in the head, then I'm done for; but if it's one of my legs they'll have to amputate it and I shall most certainly ask to be given chloroform and then perhaps I'll survive. But perhaps it will only be Mikhailov who's killed. Then I'll be able to tell the story of how we were walking side by side when he was suddenly killed and spurted blood all over me. No it's closer to me - I'm the one who's for it.
The shell eventually explodes and Praskukhin is hit but he thinks he is only bruised. He falls to the ground and sees soldiers running past him. Tolstoy concludes the chapter with the following passage:
...he began to groan so horribly that he grew terrified at the sounds he was making. Then red lights began to dance in front of his eyes - and he had an impression that soldiers were piling stones on top of him. The lights grew more and more sparse, and the stones being placed on top of him seemed to weigh more and more heavily upon him. He made an effort to heave them aside, straightened himself up, and then neither heard nor thought nor felt anything more. He had been killed on the spot by a shell splinter that had struck him in the middle of the chest. (Penguin, pp. 96-7).
LT's pacifism emerged gradually in the 1850s and 1860s. In late 19th century LT was one of the most famous opponents of war. Aspects of LT's pacifism include idea that the desrire for political power is a great evil and that it leads to the loss of freedom and to war. War is the result of the combination of power lust and ambition. LT, like Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, came from an aristocratic, warrior family and became disillusioned with war. LT (reflecting his own experience of war in the Crimea?) has Prince Andrei say following passage on eve of Battle of Borodino (when French suffered defeat) where he is mortally wounded:
... the aim of war is murder, the methods of war are spying, treachery, and their encouragement, the ruin of a country's inhabitants, robbing them or stealing to provision the army and fraud and falsehood termed military craft. The habits of the military class are the absence of freedom, that is discipline, idleness, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery and darkness. And in spite of all this it is the 'highest class', respected by everyone. All the kings, except the Chinese, wear military uniforms, and he who kills most people receives the highest rewards.
They meet, as we shall see tomorrow, to murder one another, they kill and maim tens of thousands, and then have thanksgiving services for having killed so many people... and they announce a victory, supposing that the more people they have killed, the greater their achievement. How does God above look at them and hear them? (Quoted in Sampson, pp. 144-5.)
Is this the key passage in the novel? On the eve of the Battle of Borodino (1812 and the turning point in the invasion of Russia by Napoleon) the liberal, francophile, civilian and bastard commoner Pierre talks to his friend Prince Andrei, aristocrat and professional officer:
'One thing I would do if I had the power,' he (Prince Andrei) began again. 'I would not take prisoners. What sense is there in taking prisoners? It's playing knights of old. The French have destroyed my home and are on their way to destroy Moscow; they have outraged and are outraging me every moment. They are my enemies. In my opinion they are all criminals and that expresses the feeling of Timohin and the whole army with him. They must be put to death. Since they are my enemies, they cannot be my friends, whatever was said at Tilsit.'
'Oh yes,' murmured Pierre, looking with shining eyes at Prince Andrei. 'I entirely agree with you!'
The question had worried Pierre on the Mozhaisk hill and all that day now seemed to him quite clear and fully solved. He now realized all the import and gravity of this war and the impending battle. All he had seen that day, all the significant, stern expressions on the faces he had seen in passing, appeared to him in a new light now. The latent heat (as they say in physics) of patriotism which was present in all these men he had seen was now intelligible to him, and explained the composure and almost light-headedness with which they were all preparing for death.
'Not to take prisoners,' Prince Andrei continued. "That by itself would transform the whole aspect of war and make it less cruel. As it is we have been playing at war - that's what's vile! We play at being magnanimous and all the rest of it. Such magnanimity and sensibility are like the magnanimity and sensibility of the lady who faints at the sight of a calf being killed: she is so tender-hearted that she can't look at blood - but fricassée of veal she will eat with gusto. They prate about the rules of warfare, of chivalry, of flags of truce and humanity to the wounded, and so on. All fiddle-sticks. I saw chivalry and flags of truce in 1805: they humbugged us and we humbugged them. They plunder people's homes, circulate false paper money, and worst of all they kill our children and our fathers, and they talk of the rules of warfare and generosity to a fallen foe. No quarter, I say, but kill and be killed! Anyone who has reached this conclusion through the same suffering as I have...'
Prince Andrei, who had believed it was a matter of indifference to him whether they took Moscow as they had taken Smolensk, was unexpectedly pulled up in his argument by a sudden cramp in his throat. He walked to and fro a few times in silence, but his eyes glittered feverishly and his lips quivered as he began to speak again.
'If there is none of this magnanimity business in warfare, we should never go to war, except for something worth facing certain death for, as now. Then there would not be wars because Paul Ivanovich had given offence to Mihail Ivanovich. And when there was a war, like this present one, it would be a war! And then the spirit and determination of the fighting men would be something quite different. All these Westphalians and Hessians that Napoleon had dragged at his heels would never have come to Russia, and we should not have gone fighting in Austria and Prussia without knowing why. War is not a polite recreation but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war. Our attitude towards the fearful necessity of war ought to be stern and serious. It boils down to this: we should have done with humbug, and let war be war, and not a game. Otherwise, war is a favourite pastime of the idle and frivolous... there is no profession held in higher esteem than the military. And what is war? What makes for success in warfare? What are the morals of the military world? The aim and end of war is murder; the weapons employed are espionage, treachery and the encouragement of treachery, the ruining of a country, the plundering and robbing of its inhabitants for the maintenance of the army, and trickery and lying which all appear under the heading of the art of war. The military world is characterized by the absence of freedom - in other words, a rigorous discipline - enforced inactivity, ignorance, cruelty, debauchery and drunkenness. And yet this is the highest caste in society, respected by all. Every monarch in the world, except the Emperor of China, wears a military uniform, and bestows the greatest rewards on the man who kills the greatest number of his fellow-creatures. Tens of thousands of men meet - as they will tomorrow - to massacre one another: to kill and maim, and then they will offer up thanksgiving services for having slain such vast numbers (they even exaggerate the number) and proclaim a victory, supposing that the more men they have slaughtered the more credit to them. Think of God looking down and listening to them!' cried Prince Andrei in a shrill, piercing voice. 'Ah, my friend, life has become a burden to me of late. I see that I have begun to understand too much. And it doesn't do for man to taste the tree of the knowledge of good and evil... Ah well, it's not for long!' he added.(War and Peace, Penguin edition, pp. 920-22)
There are 2 important characters, the liberal-minded and illegitimate Pierre Bezukhov and the aristocratic-born Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. Some critics have argued they are 2 aspects of LT's own character.
Pierre Bezukhov - one of the key characters (played by director Bondarchuk in Russian version and Henry Fonda in Vidor's version). Initially he is insecure and confused but becomes a figure of strength. He shows humility, he is philosophical and well read, interested in the pursuit of truth. Sympathetic to liberal principles of the French Revolution of 1789. Initially supports Napoleon before his invasion of Russia. (After war LT had Pierre become a Decembrist - a plot of young liberal army officers against the Tsar in 1825 - joining a liberal Masonic Lodge with revolutionary sympathies, experimenting with helping serfs on his estate.) Pierre is an illegitimate child to wealthy aristocrat. Becomes legal heir to Bezukhov family fortune. Is unhappily married to Hélène (has duel with her lover). Falls in love with young Natasha. When Moscow is threatened by invasion P admits justice of defending fatherland, but is repelled by the brutality, crude nationalism and war hysteria which occompanies it. P comments on way war changed people. Symbol of evil was the parade ground drum at military execution:
There it is!... It again!... said Pierre to himself, and an involuntary shudder ran down his spine. In the corporal's changed face, in the sound of his voice, in the stirring and deafening noise of the drums he recognised that mysterious, callous force which compelled people against their will to kill their fellow men - that force the effect of which he had witnessed during the executions. To fear or to try to escape that force, to address entreaties and exhortations to those who served as its tools, was useless. Pierre knew this now. One had to wait and endure.
Pierre comes to blame Napoleon (as did many liberals of the time) for betraying the liberal principles of the revolution. P personally seeks to assassinate Napoleon in Moscow as one most responsible for crime of war (monarchomach theory of tyrannicide). Cannot bring himself to do so. Is arrested as an arsonist and nearly executed. Important execution scene which should be compared with Goya's painting, the "Third of May," with anonymous soldiers with backs to camera pointing rifles at civilians.
Prince Andrei Bolkonsky - second main character. Comes from an aristocratic, military family. AB has an unhappy marriage and a tyrannical father. Initially he is stronger than Pierre but has a fatal flaw in his character (pride and ambition) which leads to his early death. Admires Napoleon as the embodiment of power and success. Holds Machiavellian belief that the morality of politics is above that of individual morality. The experience of war leads him to question this view (like LT's own disillusionment?). He is disillusioned by the corrupt and incompetent officers around him (like LT's experience in the Crimea). He is wounded at Austerlitz and comes to question Napoleon's greatness. Begins his rebellion against his father. AB is fatally wounded at Battle of Borodino on the outskirts of Moscow. He arrogantly and stupidly refuses to throw himself on the ground in front of his men when a connon ball lands near him. Concludes that there is no glory in war and that war is murder.
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869), ed. Rosemary Edmonds (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967).
Rob Edelman, "Voina i Mir. War and Peace," The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Vol. 1 Films (London: Macmillan, 1987).
Henri Troyat, Tolstoy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).
R.V. Sampson, The Discovery of Peace (New York: Pantheon Books, 1973).
1. LT's speculations about corrupt vs honest people. Since corrupt organise themselves, so must honest people.
2. P's initial support for Napoleon and French political ideals. Attracted to idea of reward for merit not birth.
3. The picture of decadent and corrupt life of aristocratic officers - based on LT's own experiences.
4. The military traditions of the Bolkonsky family - PA's father (ex-general) argues that army service most important thing in the world (leaves pregnant wife at home).
5. Cutting alternately between "war" scenes and "peace" scenes follows structure of novel.
6. First conflict against French in Austria, confusion of war, argument that true heroism shown by ordinary soldiers not by great leaders like Napoleon. At Battle of Austerlitz (battle of 3 Emperors) massive French victory. PA has premonition - desparately seeks glory but fears he will not be brave under fire. PA seizes fallen flag and is injured and seen by Napoleon. Leads to Treaty of Tilsit January 1807.
7. P's duel with aristocratic officer over accusation that his wife is having an affair. P's regret at "this murder".
8. Conversation between P and PA after his return. P argues that it is wrong to kill a man. PA disillusioned after defeat of Austerlitz - one must live for oneself and not for others (army, country). Importance of life and love (falls in love with Natasha).
9 Sumptuous great ball scene.
1. LT's celebration of Russianness - hunting at Natasha's uncle's estate, Natasha's instinctive ability to dance Russian folk dance, horse sled races across the ice.
2. Seduction of young and innocent Natasha by decadent Anatole, conflict between more assertive and protective P and Anatole.
3. Sign of comet in sky warning of what is to come in 1812 (June invasion of Russia by French). Declaration of war creates public enthusiasm, 16 yr old brother of Natasha wants to join up, cheering crowds greet parading Tsar. PA rejoins unit. P in white hat observes preparations for battle.
4. PA again has premonitions - this time of his own death, on eve of Battle of Borodino (village outside Moscow). PA visited by inquisitive P to discuss battle.
5. Brilliantly staged scenes of Battle of Borodino. Confusion, chaos, injured men and horses. Aged General Kutusov directs Russian Army against Napoleon.
6. PA's reckless behaviour leads to his injury by artillery shell. Experience of moment of injury. (Compare scene in Sebastopol Sketches). Taken to aid station. Lies along side Anatole who has his leg amputated.
7. P - "Enough is enough!" P reflects on power which forces men to go to war, to act against their wills.
1. Result of battle of Borodino is terrible casualties on both sides - more damaging for French as they cannot be replaced so far from home. Retreat and evacuation of Moscow by Russians. Abandoned to French forces. Dying PA returns in carriage. P dresses in peasant's clothes to avoid capture.
2. In frustration French sack and burn Moscow.
3. P blames evil of war and invasion on person of Napoleon. Seeks to assassinate him. Arrested by French soldiers, interrogation, execution of prisoners. P asks who is doing this - fault of no one but established order of things.
4. Chaos and suffering of French retreat from Moscow. P taken along with other prisoners. Weak prisoners shot at side of the road.
5. Natasha's young brother finally sees action but killed.
6. Compassionate treatment of captured French soldiers by Russians. Camraderie of singing songs - "They're human too."
7. P returns to rebuilding of Moscow. Concludes that man was created for happiness which should be sought with mind and body. Reunited with Natasha.
8. Ends with call for fraternity and love between all men. Repeats call for honest men to unite against the corrupt - "It is as simple as that."