War and Peace (1972) – The First BBC Adaptation

22 Jan

200px-WarAndPeace_dvd890 minutes in length, 20 episodes long, often slow, filmed like a stage play (there is no music) with some actors too old for their roles –  but like Tolstoy’s novel, by the time I had finished the 1972 BBC adaptation of War and Peace I felt like I had really accomplished something. It is, to say the least, the most faithful adaptation of the novel ever committed to film and really allows space to relate to the characters and explore the world and ideas of Tolstoy.

One of the film’s greatest strengths is that we spend so much time with the characters that we can watch them grow and change and interact with each other and by the end we are highly invested in them. Anthony Hopkins plays Pierre Bezukhov, not exactly like he is in the book, but he captures the awkwardness Pierre often feels, as well as his ever searching spirit and inherent kindness. We are able to follow the ups and downs and varying phases in Pierre’s search for his place in life.

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky is played by Alan Dobie and one thing I especially enjoyed about this adaptation is how it portrayed the friendship between Andrei and Pierre. They debate philosophy, discuss love, and it is clear that the two characters care for each other very much, despite being very different and on different paths in life. I didn’t warm to Andrei as much in the novel, but Dobie made him likeable: sincere (it’s a sincere adaptation, everyone is sincere), focused, introverted, earnest. He was able to convey how deeply Andrei feels, but how little he was able to express it and how cold he could appear without ever letting you think Andrei really was a cold man.

Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova is one serious blot on the production, at least for the first two-thirds. The actress was around thirty and had to play Natasha even when she was a child of thirteen, which could be embarrassing to watch and she seemed affected (admittedly, Natasha is a difficult role to play). But surprisingly, by the last third of the series, I actually started to like her – she seemed exactly like I could imagine Natasha being later in life and somehow I left the series feeling more charitable considering the uncharitable things I had originally thought.

Another wonderful aspect of the series is that it brings out two of my favorite characters from the novel, Nikolai Rostov (Sylvester Morand) and Princess Maria Bolkonsky (Angela Down), who always get short shrift in shorter adaptations. When those two are largely removed from a script, it changes the dynamics, pushing the story into love triangle territory. Instead, allowing these five characters to interact, brings added richness to the story, bringing out family resemblances (Nikolai and Natasha are alike, Maria and Andrei share family similarities and background), but also sets up contrasts of character and the different choices people make in negotiating life, falling in love, forming friendships, misunderstanding each other, learning from each other.

Nikolai, in particular, we get to see grow from eager young man to confident officer to responsible husband and farmer (as his mustache and hair grow bushier). I also thought Angela Down did an excellent job making the devout and serious Maria sympathetic and interesting. Showing her father, Prince Bolkonsky, and how he becomes increasingly senile and irrational goes along way towards giving her a context (and though he often seems quite shrill, he was described exactly like that in the novel).

Sir Anthony Hopkins as Count Pierre Bezuhov

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, rescuing a child during the burning of Moscow

Sonya is of slightly lesser importance in the book (because she has a lesser developed inner spiritual life than the five main characters, so Tolstoy isn’t quite as interested in her), but still integral to the story and what is curious is just how integral she is to the story. You really see it in a film adaptation, where she is present nearly every time Natasha is (I had a similar sensation watching the truncated 1956 Hollywood adaptation). Joanna David plays her with a bit more spirit, resentment and sadness than Tolstoy actually gives her in the book and it certainly didn’t help that Nikolai’s mother was constantly pressuring her to give up her engagement to Nikolai. To read that the Countess Rostova is persecuting Sonya is one thing, but it is an entirely different to see it and my general good opinion of the countess never quite recovered from the sight.

But the ’72 adaptation does not skimp on the military side of the story. All outdoor sequences were filmed in Yugoslavia. And we get a lot of military discussion. General Kutuzov, Tolstoy’s hero who represents the Russian people and Russian spirit, is somewhat hampered in the film because he gets saddled with a lot of Tolstoy’s thoughts on history, but the actor (Frank Middlemass) did bring out just how old and ill the general was (he’s a martyr in this film). General Kutuzov would, in fact, die only months after pushing the French out of Russia and in this performance I believe it. There is also quite a bit of Napoleon, who (played by David Swift) is a posturing man who likes to hear the sound of his own voice and believes he can do no wrong (which is pretty much how Tolstoy viewed him). It did take me aback, however, that Napoleon had a British accent (though it shouldn’t have – everyone has a British accent in this one; it’s a very British production).

It is, as I said, often very slow, but the very slowness of the pacing brings out some perhaps unintended truths. We spend so much time with soldiers marching, wounded be carted away, soldiers waiting, soldiers charging, cameras always at ground level, that it actually succeeded in robbing war of its glamour and brought a greater sense of reality, both the long moments of boredom as well as the moments of confusion. There are none of those sweeping camera shots that make war seem exciting. In this film, war is a bloody and awful drudgery, not especially heroic, executed by individual men. The series also succeeds in humanizing both sides, both the French and the Russians, which is something that also comes out in the novel.

Almost all of Tolstoy’s minor characters are given their due. The inner lives of characters are also illuminated through a voice-over of the actor thinking to themselves. We see Tolstoy’s vision represented through the choices people make. It all adds up to a remarkably rich experience.

The adaptation is somewhat difficult to get into at first. I tried watching it years ago and didn’t even get past the first episode. I think it helps to read the book first. It starts out slowly (like the music playing during the credits, “God Save the Tsar”) and builds to a tremendous crescendo. It has a limited visual scope, but the emotional scope and characters turns out to be tremendous.

This series can actually be viewed on youtube.


Posted by on January 22, 2016 in Movies, Uncategorized


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13 responses to “War and Peace (1972) – The First BBC Adaptation

  1. Silver Screenings

    January 22, 2016 at 2:45 pm

    You raise a good point about slowness revealing unintentional truths in a film. It’s easy to become frustrated with a more methodical pace, but sometimes these truths provide a big pay-off.

    I can’t say I will add this to my Must Watch List, but I am still kicking around the idea of reading the novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 22, 2016 at 3:13 pm

      I think that was this version’s greatest strength – the unexpected payoffs that seemed to build the deeper into the series one got. It is awfully long, though, and there were definitely moments when I wanted to watch something else (I had a bunch of Buster Keaton waiting for me.). But the book is even more rewarding!


  2. stephencwinter

    January 23, 2016 at 8:39 am

    War and Peace, both reading Tolstoy’s great novel and watching the 1972 BBC dramatisation, played a major part in my uncertain journey towards adulthood. Because of the great length of the story and, as you point out, the dramatisation, Pierre Bezukhov became almost a soul friend. I probably entrusted more of my innermost longings to him than to any of my friends. While my own spiritual search took me to Christianity it was Pierre who probably encouraged me to take the spiritual search seriously. It is only recently that I came across G.K Chesterton’s remark that inside every Englishman there is a Russian trying to get out but I do think that for many of us the great figures of Russian literature have acted as soul friends as Pierre did for me. My 21 year old daughter is currently fascinated by all things Russian.
    The BBC are currently dramatising War and Peace again. I realise as I watch it that is a story that belongs to young adulthood and I watch it now as a parent moving from kindly affection to parental anxiety. Would I want to read the book now? I don’t know.
    Thank you so much for this fine review. You have given me much to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 23, 2016 at 10:58 am

      Thanks for sharing your story! It is interesting you should mention it as a story that belongs to young adulthood. I had not previously considered it. I tried to read it as a teenager, but got stuck. It was only in my twenties that it really resonated so powerfully. One of the things that really stood out to me in War and Peace (and Anna Karenina) is how Tolstoy portrays characters as people who tend to think of themselves as having an important destiny (as I think all young adults do believe), as being the heroes of their own story. But then he subtly undermines it by showing how the world is so much bigger than those characters think and often more prosaic than we suppose (like Pierre thinking he is destined to kill Napoleon and save Europe, but instead rescues a screaming child and is captured). And yet Tolstoy isn’t talking down to Pierre – I think he loved Pierre. Pierre seems like the friend I would want to have.

      Liked by 1 person

      • stephencwinter

        January 23, 2016 at 12:38 pm

        I think that for a young adult it is an essential part of the maturing process to seek to be the hero of one’s own story; to have a sense of destiny; to be one of the chosen people. As you say, Pierre Bezukhov certainly has such a sense. I think Tolstoy certainly loved him. Surely Pierre’s encounter with the old peasant soldier as they are marched together by the French away from Moscow is Tolstoy’s own spiritual experience. The encounter with Russian peasant life was transformative for him. He is being gentle to an aspect of his younger self.
        Pierre was my secret friend. No one else knew about him. Looking back after 40 years or so I think I made a pretty good choice. I wonder how many other people make a soul friend of a figure in literature, film or a TV series?

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          January 23, 2016 at 2:05 pm

          I don’t know if I have a literary character who was quite as close as that, but I’ve always loved Fanny Price from Mansfield Park and felt a special kinship. I feel protective of her and whenever I read a word of criticism about her character (about how boring she is or something like that) it feels like a personal attack. But perhaps I identifywith her too much to make her a soulmate. But characters do become part of our internal life, a part of ourselves. I used to think that I would identify with all sorts of characters, but it’s actually very few…all the more special because of it.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. nlvoetbalt

    January 14, 2018 at 11:18 am

    I think this review covers my perception of the television series. The absence of film music and the length ( 20 episodes) enable the viewer to develop a relationship with the characters.
    In this series, the Bolkonsky family also receives much more attention than in other series. The grandfather Nikolay Bolkonsky, aptly portrayed by Anthony Jacobs, seems to represent the old warrior loyal to Empress Catherine. Furthermore, he also reflects the reluctance to accept the German and German-Baltic influences pervading politics and the army. His son combines the rational attitude of his father with the romanticism of his age. Alan Dobie carved this role in stone for me, having watched Alessio Boni playing his version ( 2007) of Bolkonsky albeit less captivating.
    Another vital member of the Bolkonsky family is Marya Bolkonskaya. I concur that shorter adaptations of War & Peace curtail her influence on the whole, so that clarifies my readily praising the 1972 version. This character was given ample space to assert herself, and Angela Down excelled giving the devout princess depth and character ( and beauty :-)) . In the final episode, she even seems to stabilise the conservative views of her husband.
    Young Nikolenka precurses events to come in Russia. As a child, he already told his father of his ambitions to join the army. During the final episode, young Nikolay surfaces as an idealist who harbours the wish to change things in Russia, which is in agreement with his late father’s opinion the things always change.
    The elaborate contribution this noble family made to the 1972 series is a valuable part which adds to the quality of the adaptation.
    Thanks for your review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 17, 2018 at 10:22 am

      And thank you for your comments! I agree! It seems so much richer with the Bolkonsky family. It feels like shorter adaptations end up partially like love-triangles and miss that contrast of different families, or even within the families. That’s an interesting point about how Nikolay is both like and unlike his father in his attitudes.

      I really liked Angela Down’s performance, too. It must be a difficult character to play and she really brought her to life. It seems like even discussions of the book seem to ignore her character sometimes!

      I have not seen the 2007 version yet. Was it a pretty good adaptation? I haven’t seen the most recent one from 2016, either, though reviews were positive.

      Liked by 1 person

      • nlvoetbalt

        January 17, 2018 at 12:33 pm

        Hi Christina! The 2007 version was satisfactory, since it emphasised the mismatch between Helene and Pierre. However, I don’t remember the elaborate dialogues between Pierre and Andrej, nor do I recall the inclusion of the philosophical part and the changes Russia goes through in this period.
        The Bolkonsky family receives less attention than they deserve. The old prince kept the most striking features of his personality, and his daughter’s piety is the main characteristic even though there is so much more to stress concerning these two characters.The young Bolkonsky could also have been elaborated much more. I hope I haven’t given away too much now, because it’s still worth a try.Nevertheless, you are likely to miss some aspects that made the first BBC adaptation so interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          January 23, 2018 at 3:28 pm

          Sorry for my delay in responding. Thanks so much for your answer! It sounds like it’s really hard to do better than the 1972 version. A book like War and Peace seems really difficult to boil down to it’s essence for a shorter series. It’s too vast!

          Liked by 1 person

          • nlvoetbalt

            January 24, 2018 at 1:42 pm

            No problem! I am very pleased with the fact that my interest in this masterpiece is shared by quite a few others. On topic: I completely agree with you. This work is so extensive that it is impossible to downsize it. I seems to attracts crowds, but it diverts from the essence of the book.

            Liked by 1 person


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