Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Dr Zhivago PosterAs directed by David Lean, Dr. Zhivago is a movie of sweeping scale and swirling historical events about the life of a Russian poet. Once it was all over though, I wondered why more time wasn’t devoted to Zhivago and less time devoted to shots of trees fluttering, frosted over windows, and really cold countryside. As the movie drew to a close, I felt like all I knew about Zhivago was that he loves to pump blondes, write poems, and isn’t really sold on this Russian Revolution thing. Heck, that could describe any of us!

The first part of the movie spends a good hunk of its time with Lara (Julie Christie) and a Jabba the Hut-type of slime called Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a puffy old big wig who hangs around Lara’s mom.

Of course since it is Lara that is seventeen years old and blonde and not her mother, Komarovsky ends up taking Lara out to the opera. It is also Lara that ends up being his hoochie. As is so often the case with these May/December romances, things go a bit badly (somehow Lara also has time to have a fiancee during all this) and Lara’s mom tries to overdose on something.

Zhivago enters the scene as a fresh-faced dude accompanying another doctor to help Lara’s mom. Later, at a Christmas party, Lara shows up and shoots Komarovsky, but since he doesn’t really need the scandal, he tells everyone to let her go and she leaves with her fiancee.

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Her fiancée is one of these boring, intense, holier-than-thou types who is always talking about revolution and you can tell he’s probably not much of a firecracker in the sack. His name is Pasha, but once he becomes a leader in the revolution he adopts the much manlier sounding name of Strelnikov. He would later marry Lara, they would have a kid, and he would desert her to fight his little revolution.

Zhivago is pretty much taken with Lara from the start even though he has his own fiancée, Tonya (played by Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine). You may recall Geraldine Chaplin as the star of the turgid 1970s dystopia movie Z.P.G. She wishes you didn’t, I’m sure.

Tonya and Zhivago get married and have their own kid. Tonya is one of those wives that is very understanding of her husband, sacrificing for the family, not asking too many questions about why he’s always going off to war with cute blondes, and when she does ask questions, she is always very polite.

Much of the movie is devoted to watching Zhivago deal with all the events that scoop him up and toss him to and fro. He’s in the army fighting somewhere, he’s forced to work in a hospital for months healing injured soldiers, he’s victimized by the collectivization that goes on in the country, he’s sent off on a train trip to some far off part of Russia, he runs into Strelnikov, he gets captured by the Reds and is forced to fight the Whites, he escapes, and well, you get the idea.

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Eventually though, Zhivago’s attitude starts to make you wonder if he isn’t so much a person of good character and strong convictions, but simply a Russian Forrest Gump, being buffeted along on the waves of history, smiling most of the time, rarely expressing a negative emotion above the level of mildly perturbed.

In spite of everything that he experiences, he’s still very much the same man who first spotted Lara embracing Komarovsky way back when he was trying to save her mother. Maybe that’s the message the movie is trying to make – that a good man cannot be changed by all these awful things and that if he holds onto his dreams and still loves people (especially when they look like Julie Christie) he can survive anything. Of course, in the process of being this great man, he makes life fairly miserable for his family and his women, but this is about Zhivago not them, right?

Once Zhivago escapes from the Red Army and makes his way back home, he discovers that his family has gone back to Moscow, so he does what any frostbitten poet would do and just hangs out with Lara for the winter. These scenes are some of the best of the movie, showcasing the paradoxical beauty and danger the winter brings while showing Zhivago and Lara living as a de facto family in the mansion of his father-in-law.

The house is covered in snow and ice inside and out and calls to mind a bizarre winter wonderland. It is here that Lara inspires him to write poetry again, and one wishes the movie had concentrated more on these scenes of the characters relating and the effect they had on one another, than on simply moving Zhivago from one great event to the next.

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An interesting aspect of Doctor Zhivago was the battle between the individual and the State. Strelnikov had deserted his family for the good of the State and decries everything that Zhivago stands for, saying that his poetry is intensely egotistical and that the personal life is dead.

You can see why all real Americans identify with Zhivago. It is precisely because of the personal goals, the private lives, and yes even the egos, that people strive to make more of themselves and to survive. Who would ever think that it’s a good idea to abandon family in favor of some almighty, faceless bureaucracy that will provide all? Well, besides liberals, that is.

If the movie fails in convincingly bringing us Zhivago as a person with real feelings, it at least succeeded at using Zhivago as symbol of the individual standing up in the face of a machinery that existed solely to grind up people like him. He never lost faith, never stopped loving (all his women) and continued to express himself through his poetry, whatever the price.

A flawed and overrated film that still entertains most of the time and is enlivened by the beautiful photography and the memorable performances of all involved. But if I hear Lara’s Theme one more time, there’s going to be a pogrom!

© 2013 MonsterHunter

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