Sergey Bondarchuk: Director Who Sang the War

On September 25, the actor and director Sergey Bondarchuk would have been 100 years old. There are several dozen film roles in his acting career. But his directorial works which have countless international awards are even more curious. These literary and historical epics are an important milestone in the history of the Russian cinema. Let's talk about all the films by Bondarchuk.

by Anastasia Odintsova


Fate of a Man (Судьба человека, 1959)
The film was the directorial debut of Sergei Bondarchuk. It is based on the homonymous story by Mikhail Sholokhov and tells about a man whose life was ruthlessly crippled by the Great Patriotic War. His whole family died, he lost his home and got into a concentration camp, but he didn't lose the ability to love.
Despite the fact that the movie was released before War and Peace (see next), it already has impressive war scenes. It's a great example of how a black-and-white film that doesn't yet have computer-generated special effects is amazing and causes envy even among modern directors.
War and Peace (Война и мир, 1965)
Perhaps, the main film's advantage is its emotional side. This exciting movie will make you cry more than once while watching. This is largely due to Bondarchuk himself who played the main role very movingly. But though it's a sad tearjerker, it leaves a hope that after all the challenges the main character will be able to build a normal and happy life.
After the international success of War and Peace the Italian director Dino De Laurentiis offered Bondarchuk to work together on the film about the Waterloo battle. This battle between Napoleon and the combined forces of European monarchs was the last major battle of Bonaparte and ended in his defeat.
It was decided to make a film based on the novel by Leo Tolstoy after the release of the American version with Audrey Hepburn playing Natasha Rostova. The movie was shot in 6 years and became one of the largest films in the history of the world cinema. The scale of the project consists of several aspects.
Waterloo (Ватерлоо, 1970)
  1. Breathtaking battle scenes. The creators of the film got to achieve realism in the image of battles due to innovative panoramic shooting.
  2. The number of participants in the shooting process. About a thousand professional artists, designers, decorators and museum specialists worked on sets construction, design and decoration. Only the main roles were given to several dozen actors. Thousands of people were involved in the extras. The scene of the Borodino battle even entered the Guinness Book of Records. There is a controversial fact that about 120 000 people took part in it. Among them was even my grandfather who played the role of a soldier in the French army.
  3. The movie props. Bondarchuk was very sensitive to the great novel and tried to recreate the historical era exactly down to the smallest details of architecture, interior and clothing. Therefore, the filmmakers got access to the funds of more than 50 museums, used authentic furniture and accessories of the 19th century, and even engaged the Ministry of light industry of the USSR for tailoring costumes.
  4. Geography of filming. Episodes were shot not only in major cities, Moscow and Leningrad, but also in numerous small towns and villages of Russia and even in Moldova.
Critics received the film differently. Some of them scolded the movie for the discrepancies with the text of the novel. For example, at the beginning of the story Pierre Bezukhov must be 20 years old, while Bondarchuk who played him was 45 years old. Others estimated the film as canonical and called the director too meticulous in following the way the novel was depicted in the Soviet school curriculum. But the scale of the project, the approving reviews and the warm welcome of the audience eclipsed all the negative. In the end, the film won an Oscar as the best foreign language film.
The movie tells about the preparation for the fighting and about the battle itself. Again we see famous scaled war scenes by Bondarchuk. But the film also draws attention with deep psychological portraits of the main characters – Napoleon, commander-in-chief of the French army, and the Duke of Wellington, commander-in-chief of the combined army.
They Fought for Their Country (Они сражались за Родину, 1975)
A huge number of famous actors from Russia, Italy, Great Britain, the U.S. and other countries are involved here. But, in fact, the film has only 2 main roles - Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. They are the key players on the battlefield and it was important for the filmmakers to understand the motivation of their actions.

Despite all its artistic merits, the film failed at the box office. But this didn't prevent it from receiving 3 international awards.
Steppe (Степь, 1977)
This little-known, but atmospheric film is based on the homonymous story by Anton Chekhov. It tells about the boy Yegorushka who went from the provincial town to the city to study at his mother's insistence. He spent about a few days travelling across the steppe. During this time, he met different people and got to know the life and mores of the Russian people better.

The same way as in the story, the film shows everything that happens around through the perception of the boy himself. His love for his native places is well conveyed through the screen. Panoramic surveys of the Russian expanse make the audience feel that love. Then it becomes clear why Yegorushka doesn't want to leave his native land for a new, unfamiliar life.

Bondarchuk was in love with the story "Steppe". He had been dreaming of its adaptation for many years and didn't stop working on the script since the early 1960s. But shooting was constantly postponed because of the involvement in the projects "War and Peace" and "They Fought for Their Country". Unfortunately, the film didn't gain success with the public. It is noteworthy that this is the only Bondarchuk's movie which doesn't have battle scenes at all.
Before the 30th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War Bondarchuk decided to shoot a military patriotic film. He again turned to the works of Mikhail Sholokhov and adapted his novel with the same name. This story wasn't finished by Sholokhov and at first the writer didn't allow it to be adapted, but later he agreed.
Dilogy Red Bells (Красные колокола, 1982)
The first part called Red Bells Part I: Insurgent Mexico (Красные колокола. Фильм 1. Мексика в огне,1982) is based on the book "Insurgent Mexico" by John Reed. First of all, he was a brilliant military journalist and his book is compiled from his newspaper materials about the Civil war in Mexico. The first part of the dilogy shows Reed coming north to do an interview with the leader of the Northern peasant army. He finds himself in the midst of fighting between the peasant armies and General Huerta, the dictator and the interim President of the country. But he is not afraid. Reed's empathy for the people and agreement with them are stronger than fear.

The second part called Red Bells Part II: Ten Days That Shook the World (Красные колокола. Фильм 2. Я видел рождение нового мира, 1982) is based on another Reed's book "Ten Days That Shook the World" which is his most famous literary work. This part is devoted to the October Revolution of 1917. Again we see the events through the eyes of the correspondent John Reed. Following the original source, Bondarchuk shows the chronicle of events as reliably as possible.

The dilogy resembles a documentary. This is especially felt in the second part. But still the films remain artistic. The symbolic red color is reflected here not only in the name. Red prevails throughout all the movies. This is not surprising. After all, red is the color of blood, revolution and changes.
Boris Godunov (Борис Годунов, 1986)
The film is an adaptation of the homonymous tragedy by Alexander Pushkin. Bondarchuk follows the text of the play fairly accurately. Once again, the audience is fascinated by historical interiors and costumes that convey the spirit of the era. But the most striking thing about the film is something else.

It's important to be reminded that the tragedy tells about Boris Godunov who just became a tsar and about the monk Grigory Otrepyev who declared himself tsarevich Dmitry, the survived son of Ivan the Terrible. Together with the Polish military forces, he moved to Moscow to overthrow Godunov and take the throne.

While watching the film, it seems that the angle is deliberately shifted to Boris himself. We hear his painful monologues, see his mad face and his eyes full of horror. It seems like he is torn between conscience and fear of an impending threat. Actually, the whole film is imbued with a sense of approaching danger. Disturbing music sounds already during the coronation of Boris and sets the rhythm of the entire story. Even Boris's entourage is alarmed, as if anticipating the upcoming changes.

The last scene of the film, which accurately conveys the end of Pushkin's tragedy, is significant. After the people are informed about the poisoning of Godunov's wife and son, they keep silence. The meaning and the mood of Pushkin's tragedy are expressed with greatness in these devastated looks. A mixture of tragedy, conscientiousness, resignation to fate and fear of the future is reflected in people's faces. The logical conclusion of this scene is a sound of a fallen bell echoing in the head.

Perhaps, this film is Bondarchuk's most profound, meaningful and metaphorical work. And the battle scene in the middle of the film doesn't even matter so much as in other movies. It is symbolic that it was the last work that Bondarchuk managed to see.
Quiet Flows the Don (Тихий дон, 1992-2006)
Bondarchuk's last directorial work is again referred to Sholokhov. He wanted to adapt a famous novel even in the 1960s, but he managed to start shooting only after the perestroika.

All of Bondarchuk's favourite things are again presented in the film. A huge novel has a fertile material - lots of storylines and characters, dramatic events, powerful battle scenes, deep psychologism of the main characters, etc.
The film is about ordinary Soviet soldiers. They suffer a lot of losses on the outskirts of Stalingrad, but they are not going to give up. Everything in the film symbolizes boundless love for the motherland. Soldiers' worries for the fate of the country are felt in their conversations with each other and with the residents of the surrounding areas. They are relentlessly eager to fight, even from the infirmary. And one of the key scenes is the one where the Colonel kisses the flag of the regiment which was carefully protected throughout the film.
Let's briefly describe the plot. Young and frivolous cossack Grigory Melikhov faces World War I and the Civil war. Gradually, his attitude to life changes. Grigory has long been trying to understand why the wars are needed and which side in the civil conflict he should join. Against the background of these reflections and the inner struggle, his love drama is played out. He has to split himself between his wife Natalia and Aksinya whom he has loved since his youth. Several years will pass before Grigory understands what is important for him.
The film was made in the format of a TV series in collaboration with the United Kingdom and Italy. The leading roles were played by foreign actors, and the movie itself was released in English.

Returning to his favourite genre of epic films, Bondarchuk didn't live to see the premiere of the film. For a long time, only the Italian company had the rights to show the movie. In 2006 Russia finally managed to buy the movie rights. For the first time since the premiere, the film was shown at home.
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