Today I implore you to harken back to the Golden age of Hollywood, as well as the whole of cinema, the 1960’s. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Leopard, Ben Hur, Cleopatra, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Lawrence of Arabia. These are truly epic films. A sprawling narrative, lavish sets, egregiously expensive production costs, and above all else a massive sense of scale. An epic should present an intricate mosaic so excessive; it teeters on being egotistical. An epic demands to be respected by the audience and should never bend to the will of the viewer via clunky exposition and corniness. These top tier epics feel unflinching in their presentation, if you get lost, that’s on you, the film will continue chugging onwards. There’s nothing faux or cheap about them, as any element of spuriousness will shatter the illusion it so painstakingly constructed.
These films are almost guaranteed to be found on any worthwhile critic’s best of all-time list, but what deserves to be crowned the king of the epics? This doesn’t mean the best film out of all of them, rather the film that best embodies the spirit of the epic film. Up until now, my vote would’ve gone to Lawrence of Arabia, no question about it, but it has just recently been usurped by another large-scale period piece. The film I think most embodies the spirit of the epic, as well as the film I feel is most deserving of the title “King of the epics” is none other than Sergey Bondarchuk’s 1965 masterpiece, War and Peace.
Whether you’re an avid fan of literature, or someone who hasn’t touched a book since the 6th grade, odds are you’re familiar with War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy’s mammoth novel that chronicles the lives of Russian aristocrats during the Napoleonic wars has not only embedded itself within the canon of literature, but it’s also garnered a near infamous reputation. The book is notoriously long, dense, and if we’re being totally honest, boring. Yes, despite mountains of critical acclaim and being regarded as one of the most important works of literature ever written, War and Peace isn’t the most accessible novel out there. So how does one take a book with an entire mythos surrounding its dryness and translate it into a film. Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t know how, but Bondarchuk certainly did.
Bondarchuk’s War and Peace feels like watching a series of meticulously crafted sticks of dynamite blowing up in a choreographed meltdown. There’s a deliberate element of chaos that War and Peace possesses, yet Bondarchuk’s control never feels lost. Bondarchuk embodies the essence of epic filmmaking, and he throws everything on the table. The film’s most spectacular element in my opinion is the directing, and I would go as far as to call it one of, if not the, best directed movie of all time. Bondarchuk and his directing style make War and Peace sustainable with 3 main pillars. Scale, balance, and vision.
Scale is the first of the three, and the element most synonymous with epic storytelling. Scale itself can be broken down into two main aspects, space, and time. Space concerns itself with the scale of the setting, and time is the scale of the period in which the story takes place. The space of an epic is something that most likely comes to mind when you hear the word epic. Middle Earth, the American Frontier, outer space. These are epic settings. Why? Because they feel huge. Epics hinge on the idea of a journey, if your film does not feel like a journey, it is not an epic. The easiest way to make an experience feel like a journey is exploration of the physical plane. Why does Dune feel more epic than Endgame? Because in Dune, we journey alongside the characters to new and exciting places. Every setting feels distinct and important to the story, a gradual crescendo via unique and engaging locations. War and Peace takes place in, you guessed it, Russia. And while Russia may not seem as grand as Arrakis or Minas Tirith, Bondarchuk makes it feel big. The stark contrast between the battlefield and high society makes the story feel like it’s progressing rather than stuck in one setting. The many aspects of Russia’s geography are paid particular attention to, and it helps keep the subsets of the settings distinct from one another, in turn making the larger world feel more expansive rather man monotonous. The camera also helps move the story through the physical plane.
Lawrence of Arabia is famous for having the camera constantly moving from left to right, reflecting a constant progression forward. War and Peace takes that to the next level with some of the most extravagant and intricate camera movements ever executed. This physical motion of the camera palpably brings the audience on the same physical journey through the space of the story. No two settings feel the same, and even returning to previous settings, set design and lighting signifies that the setting has fundamentally changed since our last visit, which brings us to time.
Time is the temporal journey that an epic must take the viewer on. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Rome cannot be fully explored in a day either. An epic must possess a large sense of time to convey the emotional journey and significant change in the characters and world. 1917’s one-take gimmick helps make it an exhilarating action experience and a unique film, but it’s also what ends up stripping the film of its epic sense. It’s immersive sure, but the sense of discovery and exploration that come with a larger time frame simply aren’t present. While it checks off the boxes of balance and vision, 1917’s scale is far from epic, which isn’t a criticism, just a distinction. 2001: A Space Odyssey begins at the dawn of man and ends with the birth of the new form of humankind, that is scale. Even The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which takes place over a few weeks, maintains the sense of scale. Both through the filmmaking and the story, the time period feels immersive and long.
It should be said that runtime is completely irrelevant in this section, this sense of time is purely within the film. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly has a story that takes viewers on a chase of sorts with an ending that feels conclusive. The time that has passed was significant, perhaps not in the quantitative sense, but within the story. War and Peace is a masterclass in temporal storytelling. Its presentation of the passage of time makes it easier for the viewer to be immersed inside the story’s world. Character arcs as well as physical changes in scenery illustrate time’s effect on the world and story. Bondarchuk’s extravagant style ends up highlighting minor changes and making the major changes meteoric. The years in which War and Peace take place feel like years, and the audience can get lost within its sprawling narrative as a result.
Scale in War and Peace is essential to making it tick. It makes it larger than life, but not too large as to alienate it from the audience. Had Bondarchuk made the movie bigger, with more settings and a few extra years of story, odds are the film would collapse. War and Peace is the pinnacle of scale since it stretches scale as far as it can possibly go before imploding on itself. While scale is integral to the epic film, the second element is the glue that holds the experience together.
Notice how I’ve had nothing but praise for this movie so far, well that’s because I haven’t talked about the story. The story of War and Peace is borderline incomprehensible. For reference, the Wikipedia page for the novel has 29 individuals listed under the “Prominent Characters” section. This means that during this movie, you’ll have to somehow remember 29 distinct character arcs, motivations, locations, positions, and worst of all, names. On top of that, it’s a very poetic screenplay with a lot of very dense and cryptic dialogue, not to mention it’s all in Russian. Yet, this didn’t bother me. Why did a very complicated and confusing story not affect my overall experience? Balance. Bondarchuk’s sense of balance in this film is nearly unmatched.
Why do I want to watch a seven-hour war epic? It’s not romance, it’s not high society drama, it’s not political turmoil, it’s a spectacle. But an epic purely reliant on spectacle isn’t an epic, it’s an action movie. Star Wars is not an epic. It quickly rushes through character moments and drama to get to cool space battles. This makes the characters feel very one-noted, which works for the corniness and light-heartedness of Star Wars, but it isn’t an epic. On the flip side, a film that focuses way too much on drama and leaves spectacle as an afterthought isn’t an epic either. Blade Runner 2049 will show a beautiful visual occasionally, but this dry story is what drives it. There’s an improper balance between drama and spectacle, which makes it the worst thing a movie can be… boring. War and Peace achieves balance in a very interesting and unique way. See, Bondarchuk seems to understand how daunting of a task it is to focus on so many characters at once. His solution is an interesting style of sprinkling moments throughout. Each character gets their own moment, one that defines who they are and what they represent in the story, but he doesn’t stop there. The spectacle that War and Peace is structured around is almost inseparable from these characters. There might be a character who I know nothing about, but when Bondarchuk smartly includes them within a battle scene or a dance scene, they become the sole focus of the movie. This makes the characters significant since their story is given particular attention, and it gives the spectacle significance since the flashiness now contains substance. This is balance.
Now, I hardly need to focus on anything in particular since the film tells an emotional journey in more an experiential form rather than a narrative form. So as a viewer who finds it hard to be invested in complex long form narratives, you’re able to appreciate the themes and emotions at play all without needing to invest too much energy in following the story. On top of that, the spectacle and drama balance each other out via engagement. Any type of audience member can get what they want, whether it be action or narrative, but War and Peace is at its best when it melds the two. There are dozens of examples of this pristine balancing act, but the best might be the opening of part 2. A ball, a dance between two characters. This sequence illustrates a blossoming romance between two characters with a wordless dance, therefore the narrative progresses. At the same time, the scene is among the most dazzling in all of cinema, fulfilling the film’s spectacle quota. War and Peace balances integral storytelling and bombastic displays of action all within an immense and engaging scale, but how? Vision.
If an epic was a vehicle, the car itself would be the scale, the driver would be the balance, and vision would be the engine. Vision is the driving force behind an epic, and it almost always lies solely on the director. Vision is interesting in the realm of epics, as it basically lies completely on extravagance. An epic hinges on a film’s commitment to being as excessive as possible. If an epic decides to hold back for fear of being too big, it lacks the proper epic vision. Part of the majesty of an epic is how it feels like it shouldn’t exist. An epic is a million spinning plates that cannot fall no matter what. A proper epic vision is one that stretches itself right to the limit. If you walk out of an epic saying “I wish they had also done…” that epic failed. Every possibility that makes sense in the story should be covered, that’s why epics are so long, they stretch themselves as thin as they can over every possibility. War and Peace does exactly that. No matter how hard I tried, I could not think of anything War and Peace could’ve done more. It’s a definitive vision, which makes it feel like a conclusive and satisfying journey.
Another aspect of vision is the technical filmmaking on display. Not to pick on Avengers Endgame again, but it is the perfect example for this. During the entire three hours of Endgame, there was never a moment where the filmmaking felt revolutionary or exciting. It’s a large scale story presented in the most stale and unimaginative package possible. It should be said that many of the greatest films of all time don’t reinvent the cinematic wheel, and that’s not a bad thing, but an epic must take on that responsibility. 2001, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord of the Rings, each of these movies feel like a completely idiosyncratic type of filmmaking. Even Dune, which was released last year, feel like something we’ve never seen before. That’s part of the filmmaking vision of an epic, show us something completely new. War and Peace is one of the most technically well made films of all time. The film had scenes with 12,000 extras, scenes where the camera would fly through chandeliers, scenes from the point of view of a horse in battle. There is no movie with this type of filmmaking. There are battle scenes in here that feel otherworldly, almost indescribable in how magnificent they are. Bondarchuk not only had an epic vision that pushed the boundaries of what filmmaking can accomplish, he went ahead and succeeded in making his vision a reality.
War and Peace is a long and sometimes grating film, but I found it to be one of the most gratifying cinematic experiences of my life. Watching War and Peace is truly like experiencing a never before seen, and never replicated, sector of film. With the new rise in CGI-heavy franchise storytelling, the outlook for these types of cinematic visions is seeming grimmer than ever. The epic is a remnant of a Hollywood of the past, back when directors had the opportunity to lavishly explore their artistic potential, often to great profit. Now, with surefire formulas for a box office hit, large scale experimentation is left in the dust. Hence why it’s special to have films like War and Peace, to remind us that this type of cinema existed at a time, and it was some of the most exciting and brave achievements of artistic expression. War and Peace is a beautiful and thunderous film that stands tall among its contemporaries, and I can truly see nobody more deserving than being crowned the King of the Epics.