Movie Review – Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Written by Robert Bolt
Directed by David Lean

Coming off the meteoric success of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean desired to make a film more romantic & relationship-centered, a counter to Lawrence’s epic war themes. However, Hollywood now saw him as a filmmaker of sprawling bombastic movies. Doctor Zhivago, based on the worldwide bestseller by Boris Pasternak. Originally, Omar Sharif signed on with the expectation of playing Pasha, while Lean wanted Peter O’Toole as the lead again. O’Toole opted out, and so Lean asked Sharif to play the lead part. On December 22, 1965, just in time for Christmas, Doctor Zhivago was released in theaters and became one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time.

In the early 1950s, a KGB Lieutenant named Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) questions Tanya, a young woman he believes to be the long lost daughter of his deceased brother Yuri (Omar Sharif). The story of Yuri is told by his brother from bits and pieces he gathered over the years. Yuri was adopted by family friends after his mother died and moved to Moscow, where he grew to adulthood and became a general practitioner. Yuri was also a noted young poet gathering acclaim across Europe. His path crossed with Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman victimized by her mother’s lover Victor Komarofsky (Rod Steiger).

Yuri’s brief encounter with Lara before the Russian Revolution fades into memory until they are reunited by fate on the frontlines of World War I. She serves as Yuri’s nurse as he tends to wounded soldiers, and they witness the people turning against the rule of the czar firsthand. Lara has married Pasha (Tom Courtenay), a passionate revolutionary who abandons her and his child. Meanwhile, Yuri married his childhood sweetheart Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and they have a child together. The Revolution takes their palatial home as it is sectioned off into living quarters for thirteen other families. Yuri’s bourgeoisie background makes him suspect, so he and his family must flee to the countryside where he will meet Lara again, and their lives will forever be changed.

I have to say Doctor Zhivago was a visual letdown after the splendor of Lawrence of Arabia. Lean’s 1962 epic is a constant feast for the eyes, while Zhivago is a less flashy film. There’s a lot of history glazed over, which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it didn’t interfere enough to make its absence known. There is never a moment where someone explains the main factions involved in the ongoing Russian civil war, but it’s clear most of our characters know who they are. I usually don’t enjoy straightforward exposition, but I think it would have helped immensely in this instance.

The Revolution is the main antagonist in the narrative, but it’s never clearly defined. Lean could have presented it in the form of a person or persons or even a faceless force of nature. He tries to sort of do all these things but never commits to one fully. At a certain point, you think Victor will be the film’s villain and then Pasha and then Victor again. And there are long stretches where Yuri and his family simply struggle. But nothing ever builds on itself to feel like we’re headed in any particular direction. I suspect a lot was cut from the novel while including sequences that producers knew fans of the book would want to see. When an adaptation is made like that, it always feels half-baked.

I think two elements would have been well worth exploring, and both are set-up in the first act of the film. First, Yuri is a poet, and the film, while continually telling us what a profoundly beautiful poet he is, never once had anyone read one of his poems out loud. While this wouldn’t have been Lean’s style, I think the inner monologue used by director Terence Malick would help elucidate the poet’s mind within Yuri. I kept thinking about Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson and how beautifully it let me understand what it was like to think as a poet does.

The second aspect that the film drops the ball on is exploring Yuri’s conflicted feelings about the Revolution. There are moments where it’s commented that he shares the ideals of the Revolution; we see him react in horror as he watches the cossacks trample people protesting the abuses of the czar. He agrees that their home is so large it is justice if other people are allowed to live within it. But this is never explored as deeply as it could be. I think if the script had cut away a lot of the attempts at pitting Yuri against a specific antagonist and instead allowed the film to be about his inner conflicts: his relationships with Lara and Tonya, his poetic mind, and his support of the Revolution vs. his anger at the new injustices happening. 

David Lean struggled to make his next few pictures, with lots of ideas falling by the wayside. Ryan’s Daughter (1970) would be his next feature film was given an R rating due to scenes of nudity and themes about infidelity. It was a critical failure with many citing it as more paperback bestseller material like Zhivago with Lean losing his focus on character & themes while focusing more on the passion & romance. His next narrative feature would take fifteen years to come to the screen, and it would be his final film. That one is up next.

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