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PICK OF THE EPICS A MASTERFUL RENDITION OF TOLSTOY'S MASTERPIECE

WAR AND PEACE 1967, no rating, Russian with subtitles, 6 hours and 43 minutes, White Star Video (available)

UNLESS YOU gobbled down the novel during your "Young Werther" phase, it may be time to dive headfirst into one of the very best versions of "War and Peace" to populate the cultural landscape since this most famous historical novel of all time appeared in 1869.

This one is the 25-year-old Mosfilm Sovcolor version, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, among other honors. It's not to be confused with the 10-reel Russian silent-film version in 1915, followed 41 years later by King Vidor's showy but static and grossly oversimplified film for Paramount.

American audiences are most familiar with that one -- Audrey Hepburn in the inflated role of Natasha, Mel Ferrer as the tortured Prince Andrei, as weirdly miscast as Henry Fonda in the role of the political changeling and unlikely hero, Pierre Bezuhov. Then there was Prokofiev's opera, widely acclaimed but, hey, how can you get 120,000 supernumeraries on the stage of the Seattle Opera?

Fortunately, this version has subtitles for the first time instead of the original dubbing, which was said to have detracted from the original American print. And don't worry about the length. It's shorter than the Russian release -- which at least was shorter than "Our Hitler" -- and quite spectacular. Definitely a gotta-see for Smolensk buffs.

Tolstoy's original epic was celebrated for its vast imaginative scope and richness of character. It tells the story of five aristocratic families against the background of Napoleon's invasion of Russia. The lives of all the principals are richly explored over a long period of time, imparting to them considerable depth and a pervasively mythic quality that raises them above the common ruck (although Tolstoy was sometimes fond of the common ruck, he was not one of them). These noble, golden lives are woven together into a splendid, if perishable, fabric that cloaks them from the intimations of the approaching disaster.

The scope of the novel is nothing short of staggering. It is a national epic, so your enjoyment of the film, like the novel, will be informed by a grasp of the monumental nature of the social and political upheaval it portrays. It was enormous enough to qualify as a fitting setting for the author's ambitious exploration of feelings that, as Gorki said, "explode the soul." And the film is a match for the intensity of the master's prose.

Director Sergei Bondarchuk (who also plays Pierre) has produced a very literal tribute to the original work, incorporating many of the poetic, soul-searching ponderings of Tolstoy's characters. I rather liked this, though some will find it excessive.

The film is flawed in some respects, but is likely to remain the definitive cinematic version of the story -- maybe forever -- in no small part because of its cost.

It was produced over five years with an estimated budget (in 1967 dollars) of up to $100 million. The film's transcendent majesty is enhanced by 272 sets (including a Moscow that is burned nearly to the ground), 30 starring roles, 120,000 soldier-extras, thousands of horses, 158 separate scenes, authentic props and paintings borrowed from museums, and cannons built to duplicate exactly those used in the Battles of Smolensk and Borodino, the splendid incorporation of a Russian men's chorus into what has been called one of the best scores in motion picture history.

The art direction by Vyecheslav Ovchinnikov is opulent, detailed and often breathtaking. The camera work and direction, assisted by Tatiana Likhacheva's excellent editing, beautifully balances the exceptional choreography of horrendous battle scenes (one lasts more than an hour) with lyrical ballroom sequences, panoramic sweeps of landscape and hazy romantic allusions to a transcendental nature.

Close-ups of appalling carnage melt into zooming shots that race through the grasses as if to escape; aerial pans seem to cover centuries of time and space in seconds; bloody stumps give way to magnificent sky, screams of the maimed and dying to the unbelievable courage of the common foot soldier, to more carnage, to exhaustion, to a young patrician's joyous return to the family estate, to a lovesick girl's tremulous eroticism.

The characterizations, on the other hand, seem oddly wooden, even cold, throughout.

As Pierre, Bondarchuk is perhaps the best here, although too old to play the 20-year-old boy he certainly isn't. He manages nevertheless to bring depth to his role of bastard son, cuckolded husband and loyal friend, drifting sadly but honorably through an increasingly meaningless life.

Director Bondarchuk frequently resorts to narrative ponderings in lieu of "showing" us what is going on. Perhaps this is what creates the distance between the viewer and these people. It left me sympathetic but not empathetic; concerned with their splendid surfaces but not the souls that they themselves worry and caress and consider in tortured interior monologues from beginning to end.

I found Prince Andrei (Vyacheslav Tikhonov) rather compelling at first -- his particular conflict being that he is not in love with his beautiful, young, sweet, kind, boring, pregnant wife but craves the adventure of accomplishment. His experience of battle, his wife's death, his guilt and his reaction to Natasha for not being in love with him, not to mention his complex relationships with war, with his father and sister and his friends, suggest a man as complex and perplexing of ego as Tolstoy himself.

We've seen frisking Borzois hunt the wolf, troikas fly across the flat snow fields into magnificent frozen nights, and we've seen lovely heroines melt from the heat of their unrequited passions -- Lara; Louise; the young, fetching Catharine the Great; Anna Karenina; assorted Romanov czarettes, and even Stalin's wife. But the cinematic queen of them all is Natasha Rostova.

In this role, the young ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva is like a woodland sprite. She never simply walks, but seems to fly and leap from magnificent room to magnificent room in her gauzy gowns and bouncing curls, a wide-eyed and silly, silly little girl.

For rental and purchase information call White Star, a division of Kultur Films, at (908) 229-2343, or write Kultur Films, 121 Highway 36, West Long Branch, N.J. 07764.

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