Remembering a legendary Russian actor and director Sergei Bondarchuk

When it comes to Soviet/Russian film personalities, few have a legacy that can be compared to that of Sergei Bondarchuk.  Born in 1920 in Belozerska in southern Ukraine, Bondarchuk had the unique distinction of being an actor, screen-writer as well as director.

 The Russian Centre for Science and Culture in New Delhi marked Bondarchuk’s 91st birthday on September 28 with a discussion on his life and a screening of his directorial debut: ‘Destiny of a Man,’ a classic about the Second World War, based on a short story by Nobel Prize Laureate Mikhail Sholokhov.  Before the special screening in New Delhi, noted Indian documentary film-maker and film historian Vijaya Mulay, who was born in the same year as Bondarchuk, spoke about the legacy of the great Russian director, while recalling his visit to India’s capital in the 1980s.

World War 2 (or the Great Patriotic War as it’s called in Russia), in which 27 million Soviet citizens perished, was a topic close to Bondarchuk’s heart. He was drafted into the Red Army in 1942 and fought in the war against Nazi Germany, before being discharged in 1946. Destiny of a Man is a neutral and almost unsentimental look at the sufferings of Private Andrei Sokolov during the war.  The film, made in 1959, uses a series of flashbacks to document the experiences of Sokolov, who was played by Bondarchuk, himself. 

Technically brilliant ‘Destiny’ relies as much on the experiences of Bondarchuk, as a war veteran as it does on the short story it was adapted from. The incredibly moving film graphically displayed the effects of Nazi Germany’s attack on the USSR and was effectively able to bring the human suffering caused by the war, on to the silver screen. ‘Destiny’ was also years ahead of its time in its portrayal of concentration camps and would most likely have served as an inspiration for Hollywood films about the Holocaust.

While ‘Destiny’ won the Grand Prize at the Moscow Film Festival in 1959, it wasn’t until about a decade later that Bondarchuk received the kind of international acclaim that he deserved. Bondarchuk’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel ‘War and Peace’ was released in 1968, and won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film the following year. Other awards for the film included the Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for the Best Foreign Language Film. The original cut of the film was a long ten hours, and it took over 7 years to make the film. Like in ‘Destiny,’ Bondarchuk acted as the protagonist, Pierre Bezukhov.

Bondarchuk’s adaptation of the Tolstoy masterpiece was divided into 4 parts because of its length and had a cast of 120,000! The production was believed to have cost an astronomical figure (for that time) of US$ 100 million. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the subsequent Russian fight back were brutal and the film chronicles some of the bloodiest battles, with one battle scene stretching to 45 minutes. The international release was condensed into a 6-hour, 2 part series. As a fan of the book and the film, this writer strongly recommends that the viewer get a DVD of the Russian release with subtitles instead of watching the dubbed English version with a linking narration.

With War and Peace propelling Bondarchuk into the international stage, he acted with Franco Nero, Orson Welles and Yul Brynner in ‘The Battle of Neretva,’ a Yugoslav film directed by Veljko Bulajic. This World War 2 film based on the Yugoslav partisans also received an Oscar nomination.

Bondarchuk’s English-language films ‘Waterloo’ and ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ were both technically brilliant but weren’t commercial successes, with the latter being released 14 years after it was filmed, because of a contractual dispute with an Italian studio.

Bondarchuk died in Moscow of a heart attack at the age of 74, but his children continued to carry his legacy in Russian films. His daughter, Natalya, starred in ‘Solaris,’ a film by Andrei Tarkovsky. There were several traces of Sergei Bondarchuk’s films in ‘9th Company,’ a film about Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, directed by his son Fyodor.  Although several international directors have borrowed from Sergei Bondarchuk’s films, his sheer ability to write, direct and portray his own characters remains unsurpassable.

Film lovers in New Delhi may have a chance to see ‘War and Peace,’ when a Russian Film Festival is held in the city in November.

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