I Watch Bad Movies So You Don’t Have To – War & Peace

By | March 27, 2009

There is one Tolstoy essay in the 8-week Class of Nonviolence, the intriguing “Patriotism or Peace,” in which Tolstoy proposes that the two are inherently incompatible. In the 16-week “University” Class, there are five more. At the San Antonio peaceCENTER, we have always scheduled two hours for each session and, to be frank, I’d be hard-pressed to discuss Tolstoy for two hours based solely on these readings. Two of the Tolstoy extracts—“Napoleon” and the two-page extract from “War and Peace”—are dense unless you are really, really into 19th Century military history.

I’ve started the search for the perfect film clip to show to add some bling to this lesson. Yesterday I watched the King Vidor / Dino DeLaurentis 1956 interpretation of “War and Peace,” starring Audrey Hepburn as Natasha, Henry Fonda as Pierre and Mel Ferrer as Prince Andrei. The first half of the more than three-hour-long film is a stinker: a clunky period piece. This was the “peace” part of the film, covering the time roughly from the Battle of Austerlitz (1805) until Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. It got better in the second, “War” half of the film. I would reluctantly recommend scenes 23 (Napoleon’s Army Decay) and 24 (The Animal Runs) as the most meaningful – it’s about 15 minutes of film.

Prior to these scenes, the Russian commander, Field Marshal Kurtuzov, decides to allow the French to take Moscow unopposed. His generals argue that honor demands defense of their sacred city; Kurtzov counters that if they try they would lose their army, Moscow and, ultimately, Russia. As the Russians strategically retreat into the interior, they set fire to everything left behind. The scene opens with Napoleon realizing that he cannot sustain his Army without food or forage in the ruins of Moscow: he decides to return to Poland and begins his 550-mile trek on 19 October, in bitter wind and heavy snow. The Russians celebrate. By the time he crosses the border on 14 December, Napoleon’s Grand Army of 450,000 is depleted to a rabble of fewer than 40,000 starving, frostbitten survivors.

One other clip is interesting. At the very beginning of Scene 16 (Eve of War) there is a fleeting minute or so of a church service where the priest prays for God’s support in defeating the French. We can imagine Napoleon attending a similar service where his priest utters similar prayers to the same god for the defeat of the Russians.

As students assemble, set the scene by playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, written in honor the Battle of Borodino (7 September, 1812.) This version is by The Berliner Philharmonic, under the direction of Seiji Ozawa.

Tomorrow I start watching all 7 ½ hours of Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1967 “Voyna i Mir,” which promises to be better (it won the Oscar for best foreign film.) I’ll let you know.

One thought on “I Watch Bad Movies So You Don’t Have To – War & Peace

  1. narjis

    wow! unbelievable that Hitler would attempt the same feat of conquering Russia, only for the bittercold to defeat them too.
    Why would he do that, since he had Napoleons example before him?
    thanks for the history and the music video.


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