04/13/2011 06:35 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2011

Thinking About War and Peace

I recently attended a reception honoring immigrant writers and scientists sponsored by the Vilcek Foundation. It was held on the 36th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel with stupendous views of Central Park. A good time was had by all.

A fellow guest, a literary translator and book critic, was sitting next to me at dinner. We were discussing films and novels, and she said, "It's amazing how there has never been a great film of War and Peace."

It was with great pleasure that I paused dramatically then uttered the word "Bondarchuk." She blinked.

She mentioned the Audrey Hepburn version of War and Peace from 1957.

I said something to the effect that as an artist, I am very proud of what other artists like the director King Vidor and actor Henry Fonda did with that film. It was a start. And the film score by Nino Rota is one of the very greatest. And Audrey works as Natasha for me.

I am something of a fan of War and Peace in its many incarnations. In 1968, I read the old Modern Library Giant version, translated by Constance Garnett. I hope to find the time to read the recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

But back to Bondarchuk.

A Soviet film director, Sergei Bondarchuk (1920-1994) saw the Vidor version, and starting in 1961, he built on it. He built and he built and he built, and by 1967 he had the most expensive movie ever made, and one of the longest, premiering at 507 minutes. Well, the two available translations of the novel are 1,200 and 1,296 pages, so eight and a half hours is about right.

The best edition of the Bondarchuk War and Peace that is now available on DVD, from Image, is 503 minutes, and I am not going to complain about the four missing minutes.

When I first saw the film, in 1968, in New York, it was presented in two parts and ran six hours. You went in the afternoon, broke for dinner, then came back for the rest.

It was stupendous. It was dubbed, but well dubbed. Norman Rose spoke the narration and the role of Pierre Bezuhov. It worked. At the film's beginning and end, Rose (Tolstoy) said something like: "Every great idea is simple. Here is mine. If evil men can work together to get what they want, so can good people work together to get what they want." At the end this was spoken as the camera left earth and rose into the sky, so that the people and land and water became smaller, then we were in the clouds higher and higher. Between beginning and end was the story of the Rostovs, Natasha, Pierre, Andrei Bolkonsky, Napoleon, General Kutuzov, and a cast of thousands.

The day in 1968 that I saw War and Peace, I walked down to Times Square at dinner break and there was the headline that Soviet troops had entered Prague. The period of liberalization known as Prague Spring was crushed. We would have to wait another 17 years, for Mikhail Gorbachev to open things up again.

At the Vilcek reception, I told my dinner partner that I was proud of Vidor, Hepburn, and Fonda for doing so well with their War and Peace. Vidor is not so well known, of course, as Fonda or Hepburn, but he was one of the handful of great silent film directors, a real innovator, with two silent masterpieces: The Big Parade, about World War I, and The Crowd, about modern urban life.

King Vidor was 62 when he made War and Peace. He had just enough backing to make the film, all in Europe, with Turin standing in for Moscow. But he had to scrimp. And once when he had run out of money and needed a shot of the tiers and balconies of an opera house, he bought a post card of a 19th-century opera house's tiers and balconies, took a pin and poked holes in it, stuck tiny pieces of tinsel in them, turned a fan on the card, and lo, for a brief second, he had his shot. It works. You would never notice unless you knew.

And then there is the opera version. From late the 1940s and into the 1960s, NBC TV had its own opera company and opera series. Probably inspired by the opening of the Vidor film, NBC Opera Theatre presented the American premiere of Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace also in 1957. I watched it. I have since listened to it often, first in the Bulgarian State Opera recording, then in the Bolshoi Opera recording, and seen two productions: one from the Bolshoi Opera at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1970s and another by the Met at the Met in 2002, with Anna Netrebko as Natasha and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Andrei, with Valery Gergiev conducting. It's a great opera, written in the 1940s as Hitler invaded Russia, much as Napoleon had done in 1812.

Back to Bondarchuk: His War and Peace had the backing of the whole country and the government. He was filming the greatest novel ever written, which happened to be Russian. It has a cast of thousands: specifically, 120,000, a record for a film. It is the most expensive movie ever made. The war scenes are the most realistic ever filmed. The peace scenes are intimate and heartfelt. Bondarchuk was inspired by the epic tradition that D. W. Griffith began but also by the experimental films of 1920s Moscow and 1960s New York. This War and Peace is an encyclopedia of film techniques.

There is a problem with the film stock, however: in the available DVDs a certain flickering in many scenes, and a rippling watery wash quality. The Soviets did not use Western stock, like Technicolor, and theirs was inferior. Still, this War and Peace is supremely, sublimely watchable.

Bondarchuk never made anything else like it. But then there is nothing else like it. And since Bondarchuk was Ukrainian, there are rumors that a pristine print without the rippling and flickering exists in an archive in Kiev.

As a writer, artist, and translator, I have learned from all these versions of War and Peace. First, you should choose a great subject if you want to make great art. Tolstoy did, and so did Garnett, Prokofiev, Vidor, Bondarchuk, and Pevear/Volokhonsky. The second step, once you have chosen a great subject, of course, is to do it justice.

And then from that dubbed Bondarchuk, there is the immortal motto:

"If evil men can work together to get what they want, so can good people work together to get what they want."