It is, of course, an adaptation of the novel War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The film opens in 1805 as Pierre Bezhukov (played by Bondarchuk), son of a nobleman, is making the rounds of St. Petersburg high society. While Pierre wants no part of The Napoleonic Wars, his friend Prince Andrei Bolkonsky (Vyacheslav Tikhonov) joins the army, and narrowly escapes death when Napoleon crushes the Russian and Austrians at the battle of Austerlitz.
Bolkonsky comes back home after the war and meets Natasha Rostrova, daughter of Count Rostrov. They fall in love and get engaged. Pierre for his part marries the beautiful Hélène Kuragina, but the marriage is a disaster, and she cheats on him. Natasha strays as well, falling in love with Prince Anatol Kuragin while Bolkonsky is touring Europe. An enraged Bolkonsky breaks off their engagement, only for Pierre, still stuck in his horrible marriage to Hélène, to proclaim his love for Natasha. All of these romantic entanglements are rendered temporarily irrelevant when Napoleon invades Russia in 1812.
War and Peace came ten years after an epic American film adaptation directed by King Vidor (which was screened in the Soviet Union in 1959). The Soviets, miffed at their American Cold War rivals producing a successful adaptation of their story, elected to make one of their own. Mosfilm spared no expense; the film cost nearly 8.3 million rubles, some $70 million in American dollars of fifty years later. The film was made to be even more faithful to the book than the Vidor film, and consequently ran for seven hours and 11 minutes. It was released in Russia in 1966 and 1967 in four separate installments, and was a box-office smash. The version released in the United States, which was cut down to six hours, became the first Russian film to win the Oscar for Foreign Language Film; it was the longest film to win an Oscar for nearly 50 years until 2016, when the seven-and-three-quarter-hour O.J.: Made in America won for Best Documentary Feature.
- Abandoned Area: Moscow, after almost everyone evacuates in Part IV. Bits of paper drift through empty streets.
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Prince Bolkonsky's scheme to break up Andrei and Natasha works only too well, as she falls madly in love with Kuragin the rake while Andrei is off at Tilsit for a year.
- Breaking the Fourth Wall: Pierre has a little bit of a breakdown while being held by the French in Part IV, going Laughing Mad for a bit and ranting straight at the camera about how the French are holding not only him but his "immortal soul".
- Cliffhanger: Part II ends with a bang, as the domestic drama of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei is suddenly swept aside by the French invading Russia in 1812.
- Comet of Doom: The great comet of 1811-12 is seen as a harbinger of death and destruction. Napoleon invades soon after.
- Death by Childbirth: Andrei's wife Lise dies just as he's getting back from Austerlitz.
- Divided for Adaptation: Released in four separate installments over a year and a half, 1966-67.
- Dutch Angle: Seen in moments of emotional distress. In Part I the camera tilts and sways repeatedly during Pierre's duel with Dolokhov. In Part III the camera is tilting around again when the French are marching through a burning village. In Part IV this is used multiple times during the chaotic sack and burning of Moscow.
- Epic Movie: Cripes. Filming lasted for four years. Bondarchuk had 12,000 extras for the battle scenes. The original Russian version was originally released in four parts in 1966 and 1967. The four parts are:
- Part I: Andrei Bolkonsky (released March 1966)
- Part II: Natasha Rostova (July 1966)
- Part III: 1812 (July 1967)
- Part IV: Pierre Bezhukov (November 1967)
- Epic Tracking Shot: Natasha's entrance into her first grand ball is accompanied with a shot of a little over 2 1/2 minutes in which the camera swoops into, out of, and around the main ballroom. This appears to have been done with trickery, as people pass in front of the camera multiple times in ways that could hide a cut.
- The Film of the Book: Made to be even more faithful than the American version, which is why it's so long—the novel is quite the Doorstopper.
- Gorgeous Period Dress: Bondarchuk did not stint in his recreation of early 19th century Russian aristocratic life.
- Immediate Sequel: Part III begins exactly where Part II left off, with the same scene in fact; Napoleon's horde crossing the river into Russia in June 1812.
- Impairment Shot: A POV shot in Part I from the perspective of dying Count Kyrill has the picture blurring in and out.
- Match Cut: Between an angry Pierre turning away from Anatol, and Andrei turning back to Pierre as he returns Natasha's letters.
- The Noun and the Noun: War and Peace
- Scare Chord: Heard in Part I when General Mack shows up unexpectedly at the Russian HQ. This turns out to be very bad news—Mack's Austrian army has been captured at the battle of Ulm, which means the Russians are screwed.
- Split Screen: Used by Bondarchuk many times.
- Used in Part I for an Imagine Spot in which Andrei Bolkonsky imagines himself winning glory in battle and being hailed by the troops.
- Part II kicks off with a three-way split screen that shows Napoleon and Alexander I meeting in a barge in the Neman River to sign the 1807 Treaty of Tilsit, while their armies watch from each bank.
- Another split screen for the Part II scene in which Andrei and Natasha are both proclaiming their love for each other after the ball.
- A split screen in Part II when Anatol is explaining his plan to run away with Natasha while she sleeps on the other side of the screen.
- Part IV has a split screen shot showing the many horrors Pierre sees as Moscow burns—a hanged man, a man being shot by firing squad, statuses being pulled down, churches burning, French soldiers looting a wine cellar.
- Staggered Zoom: For the introduction of Natasha (Ludmila Savelyeva).
- Ten Paces and Turn: Pierre fights a duel against Dolokhov after finding out about Dolokhov's affair with his wife.