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So many good directors began their careers as actors. It's the last thing you'd expect. Bondarchuk, like surprisingly many other actors, knows how to handle a wide screen, how to enchant his images, how to keep seemingly mundane footage alive; he can handle everything from soliloquies to mammoth battle scenes; and he ALMOST manages to put it all together into a perfectly constructed seven-hour epic. Alas, not quite. Instalments three and four (three especially) have the air of having been made in the editing suite, after the director had failed to assemble all the shots he needed. But instalments one and two are perfect. Of the two, Part One is the more breathtaking ... not that there's anything wrong with Part Two, but its scope is narrower: it's heavily pre-occupied with its title character (Natasha), and the "war" part of the story is lost even as a backdrop.
The "war" scenes in Part One are the best in the whole four-part movie, by a long shot - mainly because they have a point. The scenes of Russia away from the front are all implicitly related to the war (and, by some magical means - it's all in Tolstoy, and I don't understand how it works there, either - to each other), and when we see the actual war, crystallised in a single battle, Bondarchuk (as Tolstoy was doing in the early parts of the book) is trying to convey something other than mere chaos.
Watch the whole four-part film. It's amazing. But almost all of the secret of its success is contained within Part One.
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