“Doctor Zhivago” - David Lean (1965)

Doctor Zhivago (1965) is an epic historical romantic drama directed by British film director David Lean.  Lean’s meticulous cinematic craftsmanship had already been manifested in his earlier prize-winning epics, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1965); but here indeed in Doctor Zhivago the term “romantic epic” is a particularly definitive characterization of this film.  That is because it emphatically exemplifies many of the features that go into the making of a romantic epic film – (a) a dynamic and disruptive historical setting, (b) emphatically stylized principal characters, and (c) passionate, romantic relationships.  In these respects, the film that most closely comes to my mind for comparison with Doctor Zhivago is Gone with the Wind (1939).  And like that earlier classic romantic epic film, Doctor Zhivago was (generally) a success with the critics and with the public.  The film that David Lean fashioned here, with the help of Robert Bolt’s screenplay, Freddie Young’s cinematography, Norman Savage’s film editing (despite numerous jump-cuts), and the musical score by Maurice Jarre (who also wrote the haunting musical score for Sundays and Cybele (1962)), was a masterpiece; and it earned 10 Oscar (U.S. Academy Awards) nominations and winning five of them, as well as numerous other accolades.
The film Doctor Zhivago was based on Boris Pasternak’s Nobel-prize-winning novel of the same name that was published in 1957 and is about a Russian physician and poet who lived during the turbulent years of World War I and the subsequent Russian Communist Revolution of 1917 and the Russian Civil War.  Both the novel and the film take a skeptical view of the Communist Revolution, and so it was not surprising that the early distributions of both of these two works in the Soviet Union were suppressed.  And in addition, since both of them were made during the height of the U.S.-Russian Cold War, there was an inordinate amount of critical interest in the West in these political aspects of the story.  But we must remember that the film Doctor Zhivago was more than just a political saga about disruptive social conflict; rather, like Gone with the Wind, it was really about in-depth human feelings and experiences of some passionate people who lived inn the midst of this turmoil.

As mentioned, the story of this film concerns the experiences of a young Russian doctor, Yuri Zhivago, (played by Omar Sharif), during the early part of the 20th century.  When Yuri is a boy, his mother passes away, and he is taken in by family friends Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and Anna (Siobhán McKenna) Gromeko.  The Gromeko's have a daughter, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and Yuri and Tonya soon become fast friends.  After a period of schooling in Paris, Tonya returns to Moscow, and Yuri and Tonya develop a mutual romantic attachment which leads to their becoming engaged to be married.  

In an initially separate thread, beautiful 17-year-old Larissa ("Lara", and played by Julie Christie) is coercively seduced sexually by her own mother’s paramour, the cynical opportunist Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger).  When Lara’s mother learns of Komarovsky’s infidelity, she attempts suicide, and one of the doctors summoned to attend to the woman is Yuri Zhivago.  This is the first time that Yuri becomes aware of Lara.  Anyway, Lara’s real romantic interest is in a younger, idealistic political revolutionary, Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay), and the two of them eventually get married and have a child.

When World War I breaks out, the idealistic Pasha enlists in the military, but he is soon reported missing-in-action.  So Lara enlists as a military nurse in hopes of finding her husband.  Meanwhile Yuri Zhivago is drafted into the military to serve as a doctor.  When Yuri meets Lara out in the field, they join up to work together in a field hospital, where the two of them soon fall  in love.  This is the major romantic relationship of the story.  However, since both Yuri and Lara have spouses to whom they feel they should be faithful, they separate wistfully at the end of their term of service, and Yuri returns home.

At this point, though. we are still in the early stages of a complex drama, and there is still much more to come.  The Russian Revolution and Civil War break out, and the whole society is further disrupted.  Because of Communist disapproval of his poetry, the Zhivagos take refuge at a Gromeko-owned home in the Ural Mountains.  In that area Yuri encounters Lara, and they resume their romantic passion for each other.  He also encounters Lara’s supposedly missing husband, Pasha Antipov, who now identifies himself by the name “Strelnikov” and has become a high Bolshevik commander.  When Pasha had been seen earlier, he had been an idealistic revolutionary, but skeptical of the communist Bolsheviks; however, now, as Strelnikov, he is seen to have become a dogmatic and ruthless Bolshevik fanatic.

Revolutionary turmoil has further disruptive effects on our characters.  Though Tonya manages to escape with her children to France, Yuri is captured by communist forces and impressed into field medical service.  After a couple of years of forced service, however, Yuri escapes from his captors and harrowingly makes his way back to Lara, whereupon they again resume their romantic affair.  

Later Komarovsky surprisingly shows up where Yuri and Lara are living, and this time, even more surprisingly, the normally opportunistic Komarovsky seeks to help someone other than himself.  He informs Lara that her estranged husband Strelnikov’s political enemies are out to kill him, and since her life is thereby endangered, too, he offers to facilitate her escape.  In the escape event, though, Lara and Yuri become separated again, this time for good.  And so it goes.

The whole story of Doctor Zhivago, which covers the full span of Yuri Zhivago’s life, from his boyhood to his death many years after the primary events I have described here, is encapsulated in a narrative framing device set in the 1940s that involves a high officer of the state police, Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness), who is Yuri Zhivago’s half-brother and who is looking for the lost daughter of Yuri and Lara.  Yevgraf finds a young woman, Tanya Komarova (Rita Tushingham), who was separated from her parents when she was a very small child and who may be the missing daughter.  To help prod Tanya’s memory, Yevgraf tells her the story of Yuri Zhivago’s life.  This narrative framing device has seemed artificial to some viewers, but I believe it contains a crucial hint as to what this film is ultimately about.  

Many critics have liked the film (e.g. [1,2,3,4,5,6]), although some of them did complain that the film’s running time, which comprises about three-and-a-quarter hours of screen time, is too long [5,6,7].  And there were some naysayers.  For example, notable critic Andrew Sarris was sarcastically critical of how he felt the film overlooked Pasternak’s original message [8].  And New York Times critic Bosley Crowther complained about what he felt was the film’s lack of depth [9].  But despite this range, none of the reviews that I encountered made much mention of what I think is the film’s ultimate message.

So what is this tale, ultimately about?  It seems up-front to be essentially a tale about the love between Yuri and Lara.  In this sense it is like Gone with the Wind, which despite its highly dramatic backdrop, is really a story about the romantic relationship between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.  And also, similarly to the situation in Gone with the Wind (with its iconic characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes, and Melanie Hamilton), we have here in Doctor Zhivago several iconic characters:
  • Doctor Yuri Zhivago – the poetic humanist who sought the welfare of all concerned;
  • Lara – the passionate romantic who couldn’t help giving way to her feelings;
  • Komarovsky – the selfish opportunist who always sought to maximize his own utility;
  • Strelnikov (Pasha) – a person who dogmatically sought the establishment of an uncompromising political order that, even though it may trample the welfare and “rights” of many. was believed to be best for the society as a whole;
  • Tonya – the loyal, loving, and considerate wife.
This character breakdown, as well as the final spoken lines that close the narrative framing device, point us to what is Doctor Zhivago’s real message.  That message revolves around Yuri Zhivago’s character and what it represents as to the meaning of life.  What is it, after all, that makes human life so special, so different from that of the animals?  What is it that we should pursue and treasure?  We know that it must be more than just the acquisition of material comforts and the satisfaction of physical lusts, as was the practice of the ruthless utilitarian Komarovsky.  He was successful in his selfish pursuits, but he was little more than a clever animal.  We also know that it must go beyond the collectivist vision of someone like Strelnikov, who was also operating on the material plane, but at the same time suppressing the freedom of individuals.  As for love, as embodied by Lara and Tonya (and also by Yuri), we know that that is special, but it is often ephemeral and localized.  

But Yuri added something more, and that was his ability to see and appreciate all the beautiful experiential moments of human life that were happening around him all the time – and then to aesthetically express his feelings about those experiences by means of his poetry.  This was a “gift” that he presumably shared with Tanya Komarova, the girl who was probably Yuri’s daughter and who had a gift for music.

Life is beautiful all the time, but we too often neglect the constant flow of beautiful moments by our petty involvements in the mundane.  Our lives can be enhanced by being exposed to those people who have this gift for sharing their feelings about life’s beauty in aesthetic form.  This was the film Doctor Zhivago’s final message, and its final scene shows the gifts of Boris Pasternak and David Lean in displaying it.  As critic Powers remarked [1],
Doctor Zhivago is more than a masterful motion picture; it is a life experience.”

  1. James Powers, “‘Doctor Zhivago’: THR’s 1965 Review”, The Hollywood Reporter, (23 December 1965).  
  2. “Cinema: To Russia with Love”, Time, (31 December 1965).   
  3. Arthur D. Murphy, "Film Reviews: Doctor Zhivago", Variety, (29 December 1965).   
  4. Roger Ebert, “Doctor Zhivago”, RogerEbert.com, (7 April 1995).   
  5. Philip K. Scheuer, "'Zhivago'---a Poetic Picture", Los Angeles Times, (24 December 1965).   
  6. Richard L. Coe, "Doctor Zhivago", The Washington Post, (4 February 1966).   
  7. Clifford Terry, “Acting Excellent, So Is Production in ‘Doctor Zhivago’”, Chicago Tribune, (28 January 1966 ).   
  8. Andrew Sarris, “films”, The Village Voice, (30 December 1965).  
  9. Bosley Crowther, “The Screen: David Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ Has Premiere, Adaptation of Pasternak Novel at the Capitol”, The New York Times, (23 December 1965).  

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