Doctor Zhivago – 1965
This was a true epic. It was a star-crossed romance set against the backdrop of the Russian Civil War that took place between 1917 and 1922. It starred Omar Sharif, Julie Christi, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Geraldine Chaplin, and Tom Courtenay. The cinematography and the directing were top-notch, and the score was memorable. The acting was a little understated, but not enough to make it unbelievable. The sets and costumes were superb, and the plot was grand and exciting.
Sharif played the title character, Doctor Yuri Zhivago, a young medical student engaged to Tonya, played by Chaplin. Christi played Lara, a young lady from a wealthy family who is the mistress of a well-connected older gentleman, played by Steiger. At the same time, Lara is engaged to Pasha, a young man with idealistic ideas of political reform.
The film actually starts out in the early 50s with Guiness playing a KGB agent searching for the long lost daughter of the famous Russian poet, Yuri Zhivago. He believes he has found her and questions the girl, played by Rita Tushingham, about her past. She knows very little and so he tells her the story of who he believes to be her parents. Then the heart of the film plays out in flashback, though from beginning to end, almost no reference is made to that fact. By the end of the movie, I nearly forgot that we needed to return to the 50s.
The plot follows all of the lead characters between the years of 1913 and 1936 or so, when Yuri dies of a heart attack. The characters float in and out of each other’s lives, seemingly by coincidence. Each time they meet, their relationships differ slightly with the passing years. Sometimes characters are friends while other times they are lovers or enemies. But the one thing that remains constant is the romance between Lara and Yuri. The two cannot always act out their love, but it is always there, relentlessly pulling at their hearts.
And that’s about it. The film, being a product of Hollywood, concentrated most of its attention on the romance, but I, and many critics of the time, would have liked it a little more if greater significance had been given to the revolution. It was a time of great upheaval in Russia, a time of enormous political turmoil. Many people died in the Civil War, the events of which had profound and far-reaching consequences for the entire world.
I understand that the film was about the romance and not the war, but maybe the romance could have been more poignant if the reasons behind the war had been more prominent. Maybe. I’m not saying that I didn’t like the movie. I did. But the original novel upon which the film was based gave the war a bigger role to play, which in turn gave the characters more solid motivations.
Sharif and Christi played their parts well, though at times they seemed a little dispassionate, even in their romance. But it was really Steiger and Courtenay that stood out to me as the better actors. True, their parts were smaller, but they both brought a higher level of skill to their performances. Steiger, in particular did a fantastic job. He was, without a doubt, a villain, but in the second half of the film, he goes out of his way to save Yuri and Lara’s lives. Steiger was able to retain the character’s arrogance even as he tried to do something good in a selfish attempt to achieve a kind of personal atonement for having raped Lara earlier in the film.
And as an interesting note, I learned that of all places, Russia banned not only the film, but also Boris Pasternak’s book upon which it was based. To quote Wikipedia: “A great lyric poet, Pasternak was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. While the citation noted his poetry, it was understood that the prize was mainly for Doctor Zhivago, which the Soviet government saw as an anti-Soviet work, thus interpreting the award of the Nobel Prize as a gesture hostile to the Soviet Union. A target of the Soviet government’s fervent campaign to label him a traitor, Pasternak felt compelled to refuse the Prize. The situation became an international cause célèbre and made Pasternak a Cold War symbol of resistance to Soviet communism.”