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Originally published Friday, December 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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"War and Peace" still a wonder of epic cinema

There's more than one acclaimed new translation of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" in bookstores — and an expanded version of Sergei...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"War and Peace," with Ludmila Savelyeva, Sergei Bondarchuk. Directed by Bondarchuk, from a script by Bondarchuk and Vasily Solovyov. 411 minutes. No rating; includes graphic battle scenes. In Russian, with English subtitles. SIFF Cinema, through Dec. 20. Screened in two parts, with separate admissions.

There's more than one acclaimed new translation of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" in bookstores — and an expanded version of Sergei Bondarchuk's late-1960s film adaptation at SIFF Cinema.

Exhaustive, spectacular, often dazzling in its ambition and faithfulness to Tolstoy, the movie is still regarded as one of the wonders of epic cinema. The early-19th-century battle scenes between Russian soldiers and Napoleon's troops, never compromised by computer-generated effects, are the real thing.

So are the leading actors. Ludmila Savelyeva, a ballerina who grew into the role of Natasha Rostov over the course of a couple of years of filming, makes an entrancing heroine. While Napoleon sets his sights on Moscow, she becomes engaged to one man, flirts disastrously with another, but finds herself emotionally tied to the portly, awkward hero, Pierre Bezukhov. The latter is played by Bondarchuk, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay.

While the new translations of the book attempt to recover Tolstoy's voice, so does this restoration of Bondarchuk's movie. Much was lost when the film first played here.

When it had its Seattle premiere, at the 5th Avenue Theatre in the spring of 1969, "War and Peace" had just won the Academy Award for best foreign-language film. But its American distributor insisted on removing the original Russian-language soundtrack, dubbing it in English (poorly) and reducing it to a mere 373 minutes.

Promoted as the most expensive film ever made, it cost at least $100 million to produce (in 1960s dollars), employed more than 100,000 Red Army troops and was released in four feature-length parts in the Soviet Union. The American version was shown in two parts.

This is how SIFF Cinema will screen it, but the parts, which will both include intermissions, will be longer than before. According to several sources, the Russian original ran 507 minutes. The current edition is listed as 411 minutes, which is apparently the longest version that now exists.

Especially during the battle of Borodino — a massive aria that doesn't quite come off — you may wish it were shorter. After a few minutes, the horror of amputated limbs, stricken horses, smoking cannons and agonizing deaths begins to pall. But this is the crucial confrontation in "War and Peace," and Bondarchuk insists on devoting the better part of an hour to it.

He's strenuously faithful to Tolstoy's text, often quoting it verbatim when the characters make philosophical asides or otherwise depart from telling a story. Captured by Napoleon, facing a long death march in the snow, Pierre still has a moment of transcendental bliss, looking up at the stars and exclaiming, "All this is mine, and all this is in me, and all this is me!"

This is a very dreamy movie, stuffed with wide-screen images of clouds and trees and dripping water that would not be out of place in a Terrence Malick nature epic. The opening scenes seem to look back to Fellini (for disorienting sound effects) and forward to David Lynch (something sinister is rustling beneath the foliage). Bondarchuk is never afraid to use split screens, slow motion, distorting lenses, aerial shots or momentarily blurry images to get his effects.

There have been other adaptations of Tolstoy's classic. "Harry Potter" director Mike Newell, among others, prefers King Vidor's handsome 1956 version starring Audrey Hepburn as Natasha and Henry Fonda as a remarkably skinny Pierre. (A commercial flop, it nevertheless earned an Oscar nomination for Vidor's direction.)

Some swear by the 1972 British mini-series with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre. And who could forget Woody Allen's 1975 parody, "Love and Death," with its lusty re-creation of the opera scene in which Natasha is seduced by looks alone? But the scale and sweep of Bondarchuk's achievement have never been surpassed. His movie is stocked with big moments you don't forget: Natasha's giddy ballroom entrance, a couple of cosmic detours with Prince Andrei (Natasha's fiancé), the massing of tens of thousands of soldiers at Borodino, a montage of images of Moscow burning that suggests a motion-picture mosaic.

Clearly, Bondarchuk never heard of "less is more." But if you're in the mood for the kind of transporting experience the movies rarely offer these days, you can spend the day with "War and Peace."

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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