Untimely Movie Review: Doctor Zhivago

I thought there could be no better time to resume my on-again, off-again relationship with the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection than during a global pandemic.

In fairness to me, the reason I hit pause after the most recent few entries was that the runtime for the next film, Doctor Zhivago, checked in at a daunting 300 minutes.

Now, with all the time in the world, I turn my attention to the 1965 sweeping epic.

The bulk of Part I is fairly dull, albeit with impressive costumes, sets, and visuals.  The film uses the conventional substitution of an English accent for a foreign tongue.  However, what’s somewhat curious is that this film goes even farther, with characters using quintessential British-isms like “old chap.”  What’s more, the aristocracy uses French terms (e.g. “Monsieur” Komarovsky), and the servants and attendants for the elites have French accents.

Outside of that, and the amazing sets and costumes, it was a fairly typical, big-budget, 1960s melodrama until a few minutes before the intermission.  That’s when the titular Zhivago, now returned to Moscow after World War I, is first introduced to the utter horrors of communism and the Russian Revolution.

This is where my interest piqued, as the film portrays property confiscation, a ruthless police state, starvation, suppression of speech (including Zhivago’s poetry), and the general misery and/or fear that is an inevitable, intrinsic part of any communist regime.

Part II begins with more of the same, including Zhivago’s interrogation by activist-turned-military strongman Strelnikov (formerly known as Pasha Antipov, once the husband of Lara, the object of Zhivago’s secret love).  Zhivago is also kidnapped (conscripted) by a band of Bolsheviks, and held in service for two years—without his family being notified.

A harsh winter follows his desertion from these forces, and Zhivago is left to wander in the snow, looking for his family.  Except that, because you can’t stop true love, he eventually winds up looking for Lara.  Looking very much like a zombie, he eventually reaches her home.

Conveniently, she has a letter from his wife, who informs him that (1) he now has a daughter, born during his conscription, and (2) the family is being deported.  As a bonus, Komarovsky (the father of Lara’s child) is apparently alive and well.  He shows up, claiming to be Zhivago’s only possibility of escape, as a deserted and a writer of subversive materials.  He also reveals that her marriage to Pasha / Strelnikov has caused her to be under close surveillance.

We hit another boring stretch, as Lara and Zhivago find their way back to the Varykino estate, where he had lived with his wife and son after leaving Moscow.  Eventually, Komarovsky tracks down Lara and Zhivago again, reveals that Pasha is dead, and that, because of this, Lara will likely be executed if they don’t leave at once.  She does, under Komarovsky’s protection, but Zhivago remains behind.

However, Lara reveals she’s pregnant, which clarifies (after three hours) the opening framing device of Zhivago’s half-brother (played by Alex Guinness) interrogating a young, female worker named Tanya sometime around 1950.

Finally, Guinness reveals that he met his half-brother again years later, after Tanya was born.  In a flashback to that moment, Zhivago gets on a trolley, sees Lara through the window, and has a fatal heart attack attempting to catch her in the street.

Guinness reveals that she died in a labor camp, which comes as a surprise to the fairly simple-minded Tanya.  She, in turn, reveals that she was lost when her “father,” Komarovsky, let go of her hand to facilitate his own escape.

Guinness then explains that a father wouldn’t do that, and that Doctor Zhivago is, in fact, her true father.

All of which makes sense.  From a certain point of view.

Look, this movie is certainly sweeping in its scope, and I suppose its melodrama and long, silent close-ups of Omar Sharif’s pained expressions played well with audiences in the 60s.  But, for me, it was largely dull, if inoffensive, with perfectly acceptable performances, and a musical theme played approximately 5,000 times.  Its primary redeeming quality was the disturbing portrayal of communism throughout the middle portion of the film.

It’s also interesting to me that Zhivago is presented as a fairly straightforward protagonist.  That is, the tone of the film, and the framing of his scenes, is always meant to portray him in a sympathetic light, even when he’s doing things that are objectively questionable.  This strikes me as odd, since his wife is pretty clearly an innocent victim in all of this.  Yet, somehow, Zhivago comes out tonally unscathed.

A modern retelling of this story would undoubtedly portray Zhivago with more moral ambiguity, rather than as a fully sympathetic figure who just happens to cheat on his loyal, dutiful wife, with whom he has two children.

Anyway, the good news is that, with this three-hour-and-twenty-minute monster out of the way, I can continue on with the next several films in this series in fairly short order (read: six months).

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