When Napoleon (James Tolkan) invades Austria during the Napoleonic Wars, Boris Grushenko (Woody Allen), a coward and pacifist scholar, is forced to enlist in the Russian Army. Desperate and disappointed after hearing the news that Sonja (Diane Keaton), his cousin twice removed, is to wed a herring merchant, he inadvertently becomes a war hero. He returns and marries the recently widowed Sonja, who does not want to marry Boris, but promises him that she will, in order to make him happy for one night, when she thinks that he is about to be killed in a duel. To her surprise and disappointment, he survives the duel. Their marriage is filled with philosophical debates, and no money. Their life together is interrupted when Napoleon invades the Russian Empire. Boris wants to flee but his wife, angered that the invasion will interfere with their plans to start a family that year, conceives a plot to assassinate Napoleon at his headquarters in Moscow. Boris and Sonja debate the matter with some degree of philosophical double-talk, and Boris reluctantly goes along with it. They fail to kill Napoleon and Sonja escapes arrest while Boris is executed, despite being told by a vision that he will be pardoned.
Allen shot the film outside of the United States, in France and Hungary, where he had to deal with bad weather, spoiled negatives, food poisoning, and physical injuries, as well as multi-lingual crews and extras who had difficulty communicating with each other, and with Allen. This made the director swear never to shoot a movie outside the US again. However, starting twenty-one years later, in 1996 with Everyone Says I Love You, Allen did in fact shoot a number of other movies outside the US.
Coming between Allen's Sleeper and Annie Hall, Love and Death is in many respects an artistic transition between the two. Allen pays tribute to the humor of The Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin throughout this film.
The dialogue and scenarios parody Russian novels, particularly those by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, such as The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Gambler, The Idiot, and War and Peace. This includes a dialogue between Boris and his father, with each line alluding to or being composed entirely of Dostoyevsky titles.
The use of Prokofiev on the soundtrack adds to the Russian flavor of the film. Prokofiev's "Troika" from the Lieutenant Kijé Suite is featured prominently, for the film's opening and closing credits, and in selected scenes in the film when a "bouncy" theme is required. The battle scene is accompanied with the music from Sergei Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev's cantata for Alexander Nevsky. Boris is marched to his execution to the "March" from Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges.
Some of the humor is straightforward; other jokes rely on the viewer's awareness of classic literature or contemporary European cinema. For example, the final shot of Keaton is a reference to Ingmar Bergman's Persona. The sequence with the stone lions is a parody of Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, while the Russian battle against Napoleon's army heavily parodies the same film's "Odessa steps" sequence. Bergman's The Seventh Seal is parodied several times, including during the climax.
The film grossed over $20 million in North America, making it the 18th highest grossing picture of 1975 (theatrical rentals were $5 million).
At Rotten Tomatoes, 18 out of 18 critics—including three of the site's "top critics"—consider the film "fresh", with an average 8.1/10 rating.
In September 2008, in a poll held by Empire magazine, the film was voted as the 301st greatest film out of a list of 500. In October 2013, the film was voted by the Guardian readers as the seventh best film directed by Woody Allen.
At the 25th Berlin International Film Festival in 1975, the film won the Silver Bear for an outstanding artistic contribution.
Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars:
Miss Keaton is very good in Love and Death, perhaps because here she gets to establish and develop a character, instead of just providing a foil, as she's often done in other Allen films ... There are dozens of little moments when their looks have to be exactly right, and they almost always are. There are shadings of comic meaning that could have gotten lost if all we had were the words, and there are whole scenes that play off facial expressions. It's a good movie to watch just for that reason, because it's been done with such care, love and lunacy.