One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 15
By Laurence Lerman
An August convergence of Democratic and Republican National Conventions, a determination to deflect some of the unwanted anxiety that may arise from watching them, the wish to embrace something—anything—of equal size and scope, and the arrival of HBO Max and its vast library (2,000-plus titles and counting) yielded a multi-night summer streaming highlight: Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace, the Soviet Union’s 1966-67 epic film version of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel about the French invasion of Russia in the early 19th century.
Remastered and reissued in 2005 by Mosfilm, the biggest and oldest studio in the Russian Federation (it dates back to Eisenstein), issued on disc stateside by the esteemed Criterion Collection in 2019, and premiering on HBO Max just a couple of months back, Bondarchuk’s landmark endeavor is a “film series" (as it was initially billed) that I’d long wanted to see, and what better time or way to take it on than as a palate cleanser between the two conventions, happenings of both war and peace in their own right?
I’ve never picked up Tolstoy’s 1,200-page novel, nor any of his work for that matter, though I did see the original Off-Broadway production of the musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 at Hell’s Kitchen’s Ars Nova back in 2012. Based on a 70-page segment of the novel War and Peace, it was an exquisite and immersive production that snaked through its cabaret-styled theater and its audience, which was happily plied with vodka, perogies and a pleasing performance by a pre-Hamilton Phillipa Soo.
One of those movies that rewards a behind-the-scenes look or a quick glance at a Wikipedia write-up (a well-researched one), Mosfilm’s production of War and Peace was prompted as a response to King Vidor’s 1959 American-Italian big-screen adaptation of the imposing literary classic. Starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn, it was released around the world as well as the Soviet Union, where it garnered tens of millions of viewers, international acclaim and some boffo box office. Seeing what Hollywood’s Vidor has done with the novel (can you imagine how worked up members of the Politburo must have been!?), the Soviet State, in an action that reflected the time’s “Khrushchev Thaw” of relaxed artistic censorship, set out to make their own bigger and better screen version of the Russian national epic, which Germany’s Der Spiegel trumpeted was a “counterstrike” to the one made by Vidor.
Following a lengthy development and pre-production period that contained a documentary’s worth of stories involving the securing of a filmmaker, scripting, casting, costuming and construction, 40-yar-old Sergei Bondarchuk began filming the proposed four-part War and Peace. Five years, eight million rubles, 10,000 costumed extras, 2,000 horses, hundreds of props from Russia museums and two heart attacks later, Bondarchuk completed his project.
And the film? Saying that it’s not a chore to sit through all seven-plus hours of it might not sound flattering, but that’s what it’s meant to be. (Think about the 90-minute movies you’ve squirmed through.) Formally constructed with flourishes of a modernist style that had rarely been seen in earlier Soviet-produced social realist cinema, War and Peace makes for a genuinely engaging—and lengthy—large-scale entertainment. And that means everything from the human story of the panoramic tale’s four aristocratic players, led by actress and ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva as Natasha and Bondarchuk himself as Pierre (he went through a number of possible actors before casting himself as the lead) to the awesome battle sequences. It’s those extended scenes where Bondarchuk lets loose all manner of cinematic invention, utilizing the kinds of “tricks” that are reminiscent of those wielded by France’s Abel Gance for his 1927 silent masterwork Napoléon. Among them are a variety of hand-held camera movements, POV shots, multiple exposures, superimposition, crane shots, film tinting, split screens and what looks like shots that were attained by tying a rope to the camera and swinging it through the air. War and Peace’s society ball segments, a pair of them, match the war scenes in scope and grandeur, making for a nice break from the battles.
Like its Hollywood predecessor, War and Peace was a critically lauded and respected moneymaker; it won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and was the U.S.S.R.’s top film of the year—even with the critics crying foul at the removal of large swaths of the novel, necessary to allow the film a “realistic” running time of seven hours. But are the naysayers satisfied with Vidor’s version, which clocks in at half that length? Or maybe they would dig a regional production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
Following my very satisfying four-night streaming saga, I decided to go American and fill in a blank in my Seventies portfolio with a Burt Reynolds flick. Yeah, Burt Reynolds.
From 1978, Hooper was director Hal Needham and Reynolds’ follow-up to Needham’s wildly popular 1977 directorial debut, the high-octane road comedy Smokey and the Bandit, which quickly became the template for Reynolds’ subsequent work for the next decade. In this one, he’s Sonny Hooper, a veteran stunt coordinator and stuntman whose years of broken bones, back problems, painkillers and booze are beginning to catch up with him as he works on his latest James Bond-ish endeavor, The Spy Who Laughed at Danger—and the stunts grow even bigger and more dangerous.
Both Reynolds and Needham worked as stuntmen early in their careers and Hooper pays tribute to them, and specifically to late stuntman Jock Mahoney, whose work dated back to Columbia Pictures’ two-reel comedies of the Forties. Is it a coincidence that Mahoney was stepfather to Hooper co-star Sally Field, who was post-Smokey, pre-Norma Rae, and just at the beginning of her three-year relationship with Reynolds? The film itself is reportedly based on a fictionalized account of veteran stunt coordinator and driver Buddy Joe Hooker.
Featuring Jan-Michael Vincent as a rising rival stuntman and Robert Kline as the overbearing director of the film within the film, Hooper hit a line drive up-the-middle of Reynolds’ late Seventies/early Eighties oeuvre—lively, but not as much as Smokey; insouciant, but not nearly as detached as Stroker Ace (1983) or, God forbid, Cannonball Run 2 (1984). You get the picture. At its center is Burt sporting the action-comedy persona that audiences loved at the time—handsome, funny, self-deprecating, affable and able to take a punch and leap a sports car over a gorge.
And a helluva gorge it is! Following an hour-and-a-half of spirited barroom brawls, dizzying freefalls, fiery explosions, full-gallop horses, car-flipping hijinks and collapsing buildings, Burt’s Hooper—who, at the climax of The Spy Who Laughed at Danger, who climatically launches his ’78 Pontiac Trans Am off the remains of a flaming bridge and over a ravine in a 325-foot jump that set some kind of official world record for “rocket-assisted stunts.”
Incidentally, the incredible car jump was made not by Burt, but driver Buddy Joe Hooker. Hooper’s leading man might be likeable and good-natured, but he ain’t crazy.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.