September 01, 2020

Sergei Bondarchuk



Sergei Bondarchuk
Bondarchuk as Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace.

When I was growing up, all the adults in my life seemed to express a mild disdain for the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk. Nobody said so outright, but it was clear that he simply was not taken seriously.

For example, people liked to make fun of Bondarchuk’s film adaptation of War and Peace. I remember a story about how, during the film’s planning stages, when it seemed that everyone in the Soviet Union had their own thoughts about who was worthy of playing the protagonists of Russia’s most important novel, the director received a letter that at first offered serious casting suggestions but ended with the rather sardonic punch line that the huge oak tree that holds such symbolic importance in the novel should be played by Sergei Bondarchuk.

In Russian, the word for oak – dub – can also be used to mean “blockhead” or “numbskull,” and that was how Bondarchuk was perceived: a bit dense. But, more importantly, he was also seen as a faithful servant of the regime who made “patriotic” movies that toed whatever ideological line was being mandated by the government. The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino was approaching – time to make a cinematic War and Peace, especially since Soviet filmmakers couldn’t let Americans steal that show, with their 1956 version starring the captivating Audrey Hepburn as Natasha. And when the 30th anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War was approaching, that, of course, was Bondarchuk’s cue to make They Fought for their Country. Both films featured colossal battle scenes, and it felt as if the whole country pitched in to help make them: the Defense Ministry sent soldiers; the Culture Ministry lent its generous support. The money poured in.


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