Koch Vision // 1972 // 890 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // December 17th, 2007
"War and Peace is about everything that counts: love and battle, terror and desire, life and death. It's a book that you don't just read, you live." -- Simon Schama
When producer David Conroy determined to create a lengthy adaptation of War and Peace for the BBC in the early 1970s, many must have thought him a fool. Yes, creating a 20-part, 15-hour adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's famous novel would be incredibly difficult from an artistic and financial point of view. However, it also must have seemed a little pointless at the time, as the critically-acclaimed six-hour Russian version of War and Peace had been generally accepted as the "definitive version" only five years earlier. Thirty-five years after Conroy's television presentation of the great novel originally aired on the BBC, how does it hold up? Is this epic and stirring tale given justice, or was the production merely an overlong vanity project? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let us consider the case.
Twenty 45-minute episodes are spread across five discs. As War and Peace is such a vast, complex story that would be quite difficult to summarize, I offer you the episode descriptions written by Andy Priestner. This will also give those who have read the novel an idea of what elements have been represented here. Warning: some spoilers are included in the following descriptions, so if you do not wish to know what happens, skip ahead to the next section.
St. Natalia's Day, 1805. While the count fusses over preparations for dinner, the Countess Rostov, her eldest daughter Vera and old friend Princess Drubetskoya receive callers. Madame Karagina brings news that Count Bezuhov, a relation of the princess, is dying. They speculate whether his illegitimate son Pierre will inherit the family fortune. The Rostov children (Natasha, Nikolai and Petya), the countess' niece Sonya and the princess' son Boris enter. Boris has already joined the army and Nikolai is keen to join up as well. Meanwhile, at the Bezuhov household Pierre waits for news, while Vasili Kuragin tells the count's niece, Katishe, about the existence of a letter written to the Tsar, which legitimizes Pierre but has never been sent...
"Sounds of War"
At one of her soirees, Anna Scherer suggests Princess Maria Bolkonskya to Vasili Kuragin as a suitable match for his wayward son Anatole. Also bending Vasili's ear is Princess Drubetskoya, who is intent on securing a place in the Imperial Guard for her son Boris. The newly legitimized Pierre Bezuhov makes a poor impression at the reception, but is pleased to catch up with his old friend, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who is Maria's brother. Later that evening, Pierre learns that Andrei is unhappy in his marriage. Andrei's wife, Lisa, believes that his feelings for her have changed since they married. She also harbors fears about her unborn child and Andrei's determination to go to war. Andrei plans to leave for Austria after he has installed Lisa at Bald Hills -- the country estate where both his father and sister live...
"Skirmish at Schongraben"
Austrian General Mack is defending Ulm from Napoleon's army. When the Prince of Liechtenstein arrives at Napoleon's headquarters to negotiate terms on Mack's behalf, Napoleon considers it to be a conspiracy on the part of the rulers of Europe and is intent on Mack's total surrender. The Russian army, led by Marshall Kutuzov, is called on by an Austrian emissary to provide support for Mack, but Mack surrenders before it is offered. Among the Russian troops are Nikolai Rostov and his squadron commander Denisov; both are desperate to see some action, but news arrives that they are to withdraw from the area. The French take Vienna and the Russian rearguard, under Prince Bagration, is charged with taking the full weight of their impending attack until the main force can get into position...
"A Letter and Two Proposals"
The Russian army has fallen back to Austerlitz. A letter containing the news that Nikolai has both been wounded and made an officer reaches the Rostov household. Matchmaking again, Vasili Kuragin is considering Pierre Bezuhov as a suitable prospect for his beautiful, but brainless, daughter Helene. He is also still pursuing a possible match between Princess Maria Bolkonskya and his son Anatole, and to that end makes a trip to Bald Hills with him. Maria is keen to marry and becomes anxious about her appearance as her companion Mademoiselle Bourienne helps her to get ready. Meanwhile, Pierre senses that he will find himself married to Helene whether he likes it or not...
Napoleon sends General Savary to the Tsar to tell him how much his support of Austria wounds him, but also to learn Marshal Kutuzov's next move. Nikolai is reunited with Boris at his lodging, where they discuss the types of military career they seek. Prince Andre Bolkonsky arrives while Nikolai is relating his experiences at Schongraben. Nikolai is offensive to him about the worth of staff officers as they see no fighting. Savary reports back to Napoleon about the atmosphere of excitement at the Russian camp over what they see as their duty to half French ambitions. Kutuzov's army is camped on the Pratzen Heights and Napoleon hopes they can be drawn down to avoid attacking them there...
Twenty thousand men have died at Austerlitz and Marshal Kutuzov has written to Prince Bolkonsky to inform him that Andrei is among them. Maria is afraid to pass on this news to Andrei's wife, Lisa, as her pregnancy is at an advanced stage. There is a happier mood at the Rostovs when Nikolai arrives home bringing Denisov with him. While Natasha is no longer infatuated with Boris, Sonya is still in love with Nikolai, but wants him to be free if that is his wish. Pierre, now married to Helene, is just about the only man in Moscow who is unaware that his wife has taken a man called Dolohov as her lover. Dolohov is introduced to the Rostov family; he feels that it is high time he was married and immediately shows an interest in Sonya...
Pierre learns that Dolohov is Helene's lover and, at a banquet hosted by Count Rostov in Kutuzov's honor, he is deliberately provoked by his rival. When Dolohov announces aloud that after the banquet he has a date with a rich pretty married woman, Pierre finally loses control and challenges him to a duel. The duel takes place the next day and Pierre seriously wounds Dolohov. After Helene learns what has happened she asks Pierre for a separation, telling him that being his wife has been an embarrassment to her. Denisov, who has had his eye on Natasha, proposes marriage. She like Denisov but does not wish to marry him. A chance meeting at a post-house leads a desolate Pierre to a new way of life. Meanwhile at Tilsit, Napoleon and the Tsar prepare to sign a truce...
"A Beautiful Tale"
Andrei is weary of life, but meeting Natasha at the Rostov family home prompts him to reappraise his feelings. Lieutenant Berg, who is set to marry Vera Rostov, discusses the question of her dowry with the Count. Maneuvered into offering a hundred thousand rubles, the Count becomes worried about the family's financial security. When he tells the Countess that he has decided to take up a government post at Petersburg, she suggests that they should all go there for a last fling before they begin to cut down on their spending. Once at Petersburg, the Rostovs attend a grand ball at which the Tsar is the guest of honor. Pierre and Helene are there, as is Andrei Bolkonsky who, at Pierre's suggestion, asks Natasha to dance with him...
"Leave of Absence"
At Bald Hills, Andrei tells his father that he plans to marry Natasha Rostova. Prince Bolkonsky is not enthusiastic about the match and suggests that Andrei postpones the marriage for a year, saying that he will give his consent after that time, if Andrei still feels the same. A delighted Natasha agrees to marry Andrei despite the imposition of a year's wait. Pierre and Helene are now living in separate suites. She has become one of Petersburg's most popular hostesses, while he has tired of freemasonry and is consumed by thoughts of Natasha. When Nikolai arrives home on leave he finds that his family is in bad financial straits, to the extent that they may have to sell their home in Moscow. The countess strongly hints to Nikolai that he may want to consider marrying an heiress...
Leaving the countess behind in Petersburg, the Count, Natasha and Sonya return to Moscow. Natasha's godmother, Maria Dmitrievna, is also staying with them. She informs Natasha that Andrei's father and sister are in Moscow and that she should call on them. The visit does not go well, primarily because the old Prince refuses to see anyone, causing both Princess Maria and Natasha to feel ill at ease. Natasha longs for Andrei to come back and weeps for him once she is home again. While enjoying various entertainments with her father and Sonya, Natasha meets Anatole Kuragin for the first time. As soon as the opportunity arises, he tells her that he has fallen in love with her. Reticent at first, Natasha soon succumbs to his charms...
"Men of Destiny"
Napoleon's former chief of police, Fouche, brings the Emperor a memorandum in which he has set down the reason why he thinks the French army should not invade Russia. Napoleon decides to ignore Fouche's advice. Meanwhile, Andrei visits Bald Hills to say farewell before he rejoins the army. He tells Maria that he cannot forgive Natasha. Maria realizes that Andre's recent visit to Turkey may have been due to the fact that Anatole was posted there and she begs him not to fight a duel. She also tells him about her concerns over Prince Bolkonsky's sudden interest in Mademoiselle Bourienne, who has been flirting with him in return. Andrei decides to broach the subject with the old Prince at dinner...
"Fortunes of War"
As Napoleon's army advances towards Moscow, Pierre, Count Rostov and Petya attend a meeting at which Governor-General Rostopchin reads a proclamation from the Tsar. It states that the Russian army is ready to sacrifice all in defense of the country, but that he needs the financial support of rich merchants and the nobility. Pierre promises to equip a thousand men, while Petya is desperate to join up. The Tsar himself arrives and thanks those gathered for their support. Andrei sends a letter to Bald Hills warning that the advancing French army is close to the estate. The old Prince dismisses his son's advice, but Maria and Mademoiselle Bourienne make plans to depart. Soon after, the Prince has a seizure while arguing with Maria and they all leave for Bogucharovo. Once there, Maria finds herself in danger when the peasants on the estate refuse to let her leave...
Julia Karagina, who is now married to Boris Drubetskoy, pays a visit to the Rostovs and they discuss the prospect of leaving Moscow. Petya has joined a Cossack regiment but in line with the wishes of the Countess, Pierre transfers him to his own regiment which is training near Moscow. Pierre is unable to decide whether he should leave for Petersburg or stay in Moscow. Andrei meets Marshal Kutuzov again and tells him that his father is dead. Kutuzov believes that the forthcoming battle at Borodino will be pointless, as all that will change is that each side will lose some 20,000 men. He also believes that the loss of Moscow is not important. Pierre meets up with Andrei at an encampment, but the battle begins before he has left the area...
The battle of Borodino is over, neither side having the energy to fight on. The loss of life has been as considerable as Kutuzov predicted. Pierre makes his way back to Moscow where he hears a proclamation stating that Moscow will be defended after all. Summoned to see Rostopchin, he learns that the speech was made in order to stem civilian panic and that the Governor is getting ready to leave. Rostopchin advises Pierre to leave the city, but he decides to remain in order to confront Napoleon, believing that their destinies are somehow inextricably linked -- a view which he had derived from an interpretation of Revelation. Meanwhile, at the Rostov household, everyone is packing, when Natasha observes a seemingly endless line of Russian soldiers streaming out of the city...
Napoleon arrives in a deserted Moscow and is angered that there is no deputation of noblemen to meet him there. Pierre is still at his home, a fact which surprises his servant Gerasim, who warns his master that the streets are no longer safe. Pierre still believes that he is fated to murder Napoleon, but his musings over this ambition are interrupted by the arrival of a French officer called Ramballe. Pierre intercedes in an altercation between his drunk porter and Ramballe and the officer invites him to dine with him. They spend the evening getting drunk and exchanging confidences. Meanwhile, Napoleon learns from his generals of the presence of incendiaries in the city -- who were instructed by Rostopchin before he left -- and is concerned that if the city burns there will be no quarters for his troops...
Andrei wakes and remembers his time in a field hospital immediately after the battle of Borodino and the fate of Anatole Kuragin. He wishes that he could see Natasha again as he realizes how much she must have suffered. The Countess is still certain that Natasha should not be told that Andrei is with them before they move on. Nikolai is enjoying himself in Voronezh and is paying a great deal of attention to a married woman called Katerina Petrovna. Nadia Galenkova, an old friend of the Countess, advises Nikolai to be careful over Katerina and, when she learns of his interest in Princess Maria Bolkonskya, ask him if he would like her to arrange a meeting. Nikolai is hesitant due to his pledge to Sonya but feels that fate is drawing him towards Maria. Nadia is convinced that Sonya will release Nikolai...
"Of Life and Death"
At Yaroslvl, Natasha is nursing Andrei. She has received a letter from Maria and tells Andrei that she and Nikolenka are well. In Moscow, Pierre is questioned by marshal Davout, who believes him to be an incendiary. He and a group of other Russian prisoners are taken outside to be shot. Several men are killed, but Pierre is spared and taken to a building being used as a prison. There he meets a man called Platon Karatayev, whose simple philosophy of life impresses him very much. Natasha fears for Andrei when he asks for a New Testament and the Countess fears that if Andre should die in her arms that it would be too much for her. Sonya finally gives in to the Countess and sends a letter to Nikolai releasing him from his pledge...
Marshal Berthier tries to persuade a reluctant Napoleon that they should leave Moscow and return to France, while Marshal Davout believes that they should sit out the winter there. Napoleon himself wishes to march on Kutuzov and his army in Kalouga but is forced to order a retreat. The Russian prisoners, who include Pierre and Karatayev, are forced to march with the retreating French army, pushing their carts along through the snow. Any prisoners who are unable to walk any further or are too sick to carry on are shot dead. Karatayev becomes unwell and Pierre feats that he will not survive. The retreat is observed by Denisov and Dolohov who intend to attack the French once they have learned how many there are and how they are defended. Petya arrives and begs Denisov that he be allowed to join the attacking party...
"The Road to Life"
At Yaroslavl, Natasha and Maria are still mourning the death of Andrei. Maria suggests that Natasha should come with her to Moscow, but she declines. When news reaches the Rostovs that Petya is dead, the Countess is inconsolable. Pierre returns to his house in Moscow and both Gerasim and Katishe are surprised to see him having thought he was dead Katishe tells him that Helene has died. Pierre attends a soiree given by the Drubetskoys and amazes everyone with his presence. Vasili Kuragin, who has now lost both of his children, is particularly moved by seeing him again. Pierre visits Maria Bolkonskya and is surprised to find Natasha there too. Natasha talks of Andrei for the first time since his death...
Russia, 1820. Natasha and her children are staying with Nikolai and Maria at Bald Hills while Pierre is away. Nikolai falls asleep and thinks back to the year after the burning of Moscow, when the Rostovs were living in reduced circumstances in the city. Maria Bolkonskya came to visit them and Nikolai's pride prevented him from being polite to her. Countess Rostova insisted he return the courtesy by calling on her. When he did so, he reluctantly revealed to Maria that he had nothing to offer her and that was the reason why he felt he couldn't marry her. Nikolai wakes to find Maria, who is now his wife, and their son at his side. The pair discuss buying back the Rostov home at Otradnoe...
When I was in my late teens, I took on the task of reading the great Leo Tolstoy novel this lengthy mini-series is based on. When I finally finished the book, there was an overwhelming sense of having just returned from a long journey. I felt as if I had truly been swept away into another world, that I had spent a great deal of time there, and that I had gotten to meet some very compelling characters. This BBC adaptation of War and Peace managed to recreate those very same feelings within me. The series earns every last minute of its 15-hour running time, never spending too much (or too little) time with any particular subplot or character.
At the time of its creation, War and Peace was one of the most ambitious projects the BBC had ever attempted to undertake. Unlike many other BBC productions of literary classics (which often feel and look like stage plays), War and Peace was a project that needed to be epic in scope. Hundreds of extras would be required for the many war scenes, grand sets would need to be designed for the lavish ballroom sequences, and a large handful of capable actors would need to be up to the task of keeping characters interesting over the course of a very, very long story. David Conroy liked the cinematic scope of the previous adaptations (the three and a half hour 1950s version with Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn and the six-hour Russian version from the 1960s), but he felt that neither film had been able to successfully capture many of the nuances and smaller elements Conroy admired so much from the novel. Conroy's expansive, comprehensive take on War and Peace not only does justice to the historical majesty of Tolstoy's tale, but also to the novel's introspective and thoughtful tone.
War and Peace is certainly compelling for its very accurate and engaging portrait of the conflict between Russia and France during the early 1800s. It's also quite interesting in the way it examines the class system, the societal relationship between the rich families of nobility and the simple peasants. The manners and rules of marriage and romance in 19th-century Russia are examined carefully as well, to great effect. However, I feel that the extra element that places War and Peace above so many other great historical novels (and in this case, above so many film and television adaptations of those novels) is the way Tolstoy examines all of these events though a philosophical lens. Conroy's adaptation successfully attempts to do the same, never shying away from dropping the action or the plot in favor of taking time to listen in on a lengthy, ponderous conversation between characters attempting to discover the bigger picture in life.
This particular quality comes most often courtesy of the story's main character, Pierre Bezuhov. Pierre is a man who never seems to be particularly content in life, and always seems to be searching for his purpose. The spiritual journey Pierre takes over the course of the story is handled masterfully, and inspires many of the best scenes in War and Peace. Pierre's life changes are made very convincing thanks to a superb performance from a young Anthony Hopkins, who demonstrates what a remarkably mature actor he was even at this stage. Hopkins subtly moves from place to place in Pierre's story with natural ease, whether he is playing Pierre as a nervous and fumbling young man, a paranoid conspiracy theorist, or a peaceful philosopher. Hopkins won a BAFTA for his performance here, quite deservedly. Pierre's journey is perhaps so convincing and moving because it was a journey taken by Tolstoy himself. Many of the elements in the lives of the character and the author are the same: the failed first marriage, the early life struggles, the attempts to find purpose in life...when Pierre ultimately finds peace and contentment, we believe it, and that is quite probably because Pierre's story has been told by a man who found peace in a very similar manner.
Another key role in War and Peace is that of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, played with reserved class by Alan Dobie. Andrei is one of Pierre's close friends, but he chooses to deal with life in a very different way, simply doing his duty in as professional and painless manner as possible. He doesn't struggle much with the challenges of life, because he has closed off his emotions and feelings to the point of being nearly numb to his surroundings. Dobie offers a performance that may seem a bit wooden from a purely physical perspective (his face and voice rarely seem to change expression), but Dobie seems to have dug very deep into the part internally. He is very convincing as Andrei, and always seems as if he is living the part, not playing it.
Angela Down is very nuanced in an impressive turn as Andrei's sister Maria, and Anthony Jacobs offers a wildly intense performance as the father of the family (perhaps too wild, but I still liked the performance). Rupert Davies and Faith Brook demonstrate very believable chemistry as the financially incompetent Count and Countess Rostov, a generally nice couple who are parents to some of the other key characters in War and Peace. Sylvester Morand plays their son, Nikolai, a very intense young man of great conviction (if not imagination). The daughter of the family is Natasha, the central female character of the story (more on her later). The Rostovs also have raised their niece Sonya (Joanna David), a young woman who is deeply in love with Nikolai (much to the horror of Countess Rostov, who knows that such a marriage would not bring any extra money into the family).
There are also some real-life military figures that play a part in the grand scheme of War and Peace. David Swift gives an excellent performance as Napoleon Bonaparte, a character given a very interesting arc over the course of the story. At first, I was surprised to see the way Swift played Napoleon as nothing less than a grand and brilliant saint, suggesting the mythical version of the character rather than the real-life one. However, as War and Peace progresses, we see Napoleon's grandeur slowly transform into monstrous egomania, and Swift transforms himself from a noble hero into a repulsive toad. Frank Middlemass gives us the other side of historical perspective with his portrayal of the one-eyed Russian General Kutuzov. Middlemass is very good in the role, but doesn't have nearly as much to do as Swift.
Unfortunately, the DVD doesn't look too great, though it's not terrible. The outdoor scenes/battle scenes in particular seem to be a bit damaged, with lots of scratches everywhere. The indoor scenes still look flat and mundane (typical for a DVD featuring a 1970's television production), but are generally free of flecks and so on. The worst instance comes during a couple minutes midway through the final episode, when the picture looks like it was taken from a very poor video tape source. That's the one single instance where the video is distractingly bad, taking the viewer out of the world of War and Peace (thankfully it doesn't come during a particularly crucial moment). Audio is unremarkable, but perfectly acceptable for the most part. The exceptions come during some of the end credit sequences, when the music sounds garbled. There aren't any extras to speak of on the disc, but a very helpful and informative 44-page booklet is provided that has a lot of interesting information about the production.
Though most of the performances are very impressive, I must take exception to the casting of Morag Hood in the key role of Natasha. Hood certainly isn't a terrible actress; she's probably as capable as some of the others here. However, it takes someone special to play the role of Natasha, and Hood doesn't have the indescribable quality required. Natasha is a character who unknowingly enchants and breaks the heart of nearly every man that enters her life. She is a woman who can somehow instantly melt a man as closed-off as Prince Andrei. Audrey Hepburn certainly had that element in the (otherwise inferior) American version of War and Peace, and Hood just doesn't. She's also not particularly effective in the early scenes where she is required to play a 13-year-old girl...she attempts to achieve the effect by giggling and bouncing around as much as possible. However, while we don't believe the "enchanting" quality that she is supposed to have, she isn't incompetent as an actress (particularly playing a woman her own age), so she does not do anything to damage most of her scenes.
There's also something that may just be enough to ruin this superb production for a lot of viewers out there, though it certainly didn't for me: War and Peace, a story that is as Russian as they come, has never seemed quite so British before. While the acting here is all excellent, much of the behavior and mannerisms seem much more English than Russian. This is not helped by the fact that no one attempts a Russian accent...well, Hopkins and Dobie seem to try one on every once in a while, just as a quick reminder, but everyone here sounds very British and acts very British (Count and Countess Rostov could very easily be mistaken for Mr. and Mrs. Bennett of Pride and Prejudice). Those seeking authenticity in this department would be better-served seeking out the (very good) Russian version.
Despite the few notable flaws, I must say that I feel this is the very best version of War and Peace that has been made to date and it's hard to imagine anyone topping it. Despite the fact that it runs 15 hours long, it never seems bloated. War and Peace is an immensely engaging and satisfying production, and my hat is off to the BBC for having the courage to fund such an ambitious and intelligent literary adaptation. For those who seek out great adaptations of great novels, this sweeping series should be considered essential viewing.
Review content copyright © 2007 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 890 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* 44-Page Booklet
* Online Literature: Tolstoy