Monday, November 10, 2008


Beryl Frishtick wrote this essay for Ms. alsup's Senior Writing Seminar. Students are invited to submit essays to a teacher for posting on Life and times.

This July I experienced something grand, painful, and confusing: I watched Sergei Bondarchuk’s eight hour long film adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The Hopkins Center created a special showing for this semi-forgotten movie masterpiece by dividing it into two four-hour segments, the first on a Friday night and the second the following Sunday afternoon. There is a 95% chance that at least half the audience would have died of natural causes during the showing if the film had not been broken down, so it’s fortunate the Dartmouth Film Society knew where to draw the line.

Watching movies at the Hop is always a captivating and somewhat ludicrous experience. I love it because I am usually the one person under seventy-five years old in the audience. This means I don’t have to deal with ungrateful teenagers laughing and mocking the movie, or couples making out, or rowdy behavior in general. The only downside is that some older folks are hard of hearing, and therefore can’t whisper very well. In fact, their whispers are usually more like stage whispers, the point of which is to allow the audience to hear every word. I was sitting behind one kindly couple in particular who couldn’t stop “whispering” about their grown daughter and her children, even in the middle of the film. I now have a complete biography in my head of Sarah, who lives on Cape Cod with her three kids and husband Mark, and who will visit her parents this Thanksgiving, if not sooner. I remain understandably less thrilled about that than the grandparents sitting in from of me were. Nonetheless, I did my best to ignore side chatter and focus my attention on the movie, which between the two separate parts I had paid $16.00 (an hour-and-a-half’s worth of my summer wages) to see.Originally divided into four separate sections to convince Soviet viewers to actually watch it, War and Peace was the most expensive film ever made. It took seven years to shoot, and was finally released in the United States in 1968. Some scenes, like the Battle of Borodino or the burning of Moscow, make the expense understandable. Director Sergei Bondarchuk used tens of thousands of extras in most of the battles; the gore resulting from so many men trying to kill each other could at times prove too much to handle, and I would take those opportunities to close my eyes and concentrate all of my attention on the grandparents’ titillating conversation occurring in front of me.

As we can glean from the title, War and Peace can’t all be about war. The other storyline, in addition to Napoleon’s failed attempt (oh, I hope I didn’t give anything away!) to take over the largest country in the world, centers on the misadventures of Natasha Rostova, played by Lyudmila Savelyeva. Natasha attempts to find love throughout the movie, first with an army officer, then with a prince, then with another army officer, then with a society man, and finally with an ostrich (just kidding, but by the end of the eight-hour film I might not have noticed if this had happened). This young woman is shallow, weak-willed, and ignorant. Her character made me want to kick something, or someone—the couple in front of me afforded the easiest access, but I restrained myself because I did not want to be forever banned from the Hop. All Natasha does in the first part of the movie is prance around like a spoiled four-year-old and make a fool of herself with a soldier. By the end of Part One, I realized she reminded me of a young Audrey Hepburn—pretty, petite, slender, brunette, and unfailingly irritating. It wasn’t until I left the theater and googled the film that I learned Audrey Hepburn played the exact same character in the 1956 version of War and Peace. I gave myself a congratulatory pat on the back for stumbling upon this delicious morsel of useless trivia.

Aside from the vast literary and cultural benefits, the only reason to watch this film is to catch an eight-hour long glimpse of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov. He reminded me of a younger, thinner Christopher Plummer, before The Sound of Music. Stoic and brooding, Andrei doesn’t say much, but he has mastered the art of wearing epaulets so well that he distracts the audience; therefore his silence never reduces the quality of his appeal. When he does speak, though, it’s the low, pleasing, seductive type of Russian any teenage girl (or seventy-five-year-old retiree on an evening outing at the Hop) would be happy to hear.

The film was obviously made in Russian, and English subtitles were added for its international release. I first realized what a treat I was in for when the characters began to speak French, a common practice of the Russian aristocrats in the 19th century, and the actors’ voices were then used in voice-overs to aid non-French-speaking Russians. In these circumstances the American audience was forced to dig through two foreign languages to get to English. War and Peace has given me a newfound appreciation for the Russian language. By the end of the movie I felt I was able to realistically imitate how some characters sounded, even though what they were saying made sense (most of the time) and what I was saying certainly did not. I far as I can tell from watching the film, Russian is a very full and emotional language, albeit slightly ridiculous in its written form, as the film’s minutes and minutes and minutes of credits attest.

The end of this film did peculiar things to me. At one point I started looking for a sharp object with which I might be able to poke my brain out (sitting in front of a screen for four full hours TWICE will occasionally do that to you). At another I was insanely elated, and felt as though I’d accomplished something noble. Since I hadn’t read the book, I was thoroughly confused by the plot twist that took place in the last minutes of the 480-minute movie. Natasha’s final choice of a mate struck me as unacceptable—it made me think I had missed something important in the rest of the story.

When I stepped out of the theater I slowly realized it was a dreary, rainy day—no wonder the power had gone out in the middle of the movie for about twenty minutes, trapping me inside a black auditorium with sixty octogenarians (note to self: never attend a Hop movie alone again). I was emotionally drained and mentally invigorated, but had no idea how I was going to reenter the real world. Thanks to Sergei Bondarchuk, I’m still working on that.