AFI Countdown Challenge #39: Doctor Zhivago

When I decided I wanted to be a film buff with a nice DVD collection, I would wander the aisles at Best Buy and grab DVDs for films I knew largely by reputation in one form of another.  Granted, like with books, I bought more than I could get through in a timely manner, so the pile of unwatched disks grew and grew.  When I had time and inclination, I’d watch some of these films and for the most part enjoyed them.  Sure, there were a couple I couldn’t really stand, but most of them were great.  However, there were a few I never got around to even now, many years later.

Doctor Zhivago was one of those unwatched films until now.

To a certain extent, I know why I waited.  This film was one of the ones I knew the least about, and it has a running time of somewhere in the neighborhood of three hours and twenty minutes.  And while David Lean did direct one of my favorite films in another long epic that I will get to in this project eventually in the form of  The Bridge on the River Kwai, he also directed another three hour film I had to watch in college and never really cared for in the form of Lawrence of Arabia.  That one is also coming up.  Besides, Alec Guinness is in all three of them, and he’s always good in these sorts of things.

As it is, I wouldn’t call Doctor Zhivago either a favorite or something I didn’t like.  It’s long but deliberately paced.  It may be vague on some areas, but I chalk that up to the times and necessity.  It’s still 1965, so much of the sex has to happen off-camera and through implication.  As for the quality of Zhivago’s poetry, better to leave that out and let people imagine it rather than read it and disappoint them.  More works of fiction need to do that with whatever art they try to represent.

But yes, Doctor Zhivago is basically the story of a poet mistreated by life in the form of who he loves and where he lives.  By the former, I mean he is a married man in love with another man’s wife.  By the latter, I mean much of what he loses (and he loses just about everything), he loses it to the state of the newly born Soviet Union.  What little he doesn’t lose is due to his half-brother Yevgrav (Guinness), a general in the KGB and a true-believer in the cause who is willing to bend the rules for what little family he has.  Yevgrav is a minor character in the narrative, all told, but he does act as the narrator and an occasional figure in his brother Yuri’s life.  Yuri, of course, is the title character, a man who took up medicine in order to pay the bills while being a talented poet at heart.  He’s a talented doctor too, from the looks of things, but his ambitions in the realm of medicine are rather low.  He wishes to write poetry.

And therein lies one of his downfalls.  Yuri, that great Russian character played by the Egyptian-born Omar Sharif, apparently wrote some poetry that was displeasing to the state.  What did he write?  The film doesn’t really say.  There’s something in the spirit of the thing that just doesn’t work for the Soviet government that claims it promotes anti-communistic ideals, so his work is banned.  And though Yuri lived what looked like a very comfortable upper middle class lifestyle, he certainly wasn’t the richest man out there.  His property is likewise taken from him, and all Yuri really wants is to live in peace with his family.  Or his mistress Lara.  Or both.

Most likely with Lara.

Yes, Yuri is involved with a love triangle, and for once, it didn’t feel like a cliche.  The true love of his life is Lara (Julie Christie).  The two seem to be running on the peripherals of each other for most of the first part of the film.  Yuri marries his childhood friend/adopted sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) while Lara is mistress to a rich asshole who managed to claim most of Yuri’s inheritance from Yuri’s father due to business practices and the asshole later rapes Lara when she tries to break it off after her mother nearly killed herself upon learning her daughter was a rich man’s mistress (Yuri and his mentor are the ones who keep her alive).  Lara herself marries a partisan idealist she calls Pasha, a man committed to communism more than, say, his wife.  Yuri and Lara formally meet on the fronts lines of World War I and gradually fall in love.  But they don’t consummate until Part Two.  In fact, my DVD copy was so old I had to flip the disk.  I am guessing I didn’t pay much for it if that is the case, though there was a nice introduction by Sharif that he filmed at some point before he died.

That said, I was actually somewhat fascinated by the portrayal of Tonya.  She’s not a shrew or unlikable.  She’s mostly a quiet, dutiful wife.  Yuri doesn’t hate her or even seem to feel too confined by her.  She was more or less his sister since his mother died, so she does mean something to him, and they did have two children together, the second after Yuri took up with Lara in Part Two.  I am not even sure she knew what was going on with Yuri and Lara.  If she did, she didn’t really say anything.  She is aware Yuri has some kind of relationship with Lara, but there was never a scene of her heart breaking or demanding Yuri choose his wife or his lover.  That’s actually a refreshing change of pace, and it makes the narrative more emotionally complex.  Arguably, Yuri does love Tonya.  He just doesn’t love her the way a man should maybe love his wife, or at least as much as he loves his mistress.

Lean filmed this one mostly in Spain, though the Cryllic alphabet is on display everywhere, and he fills his camera with shots of mountains and ice.  Is the ice representative of the frozen nature of Yuri’s life, where he cannot progress due to other forces, some by his own choices, others by ones made beyond his control?  It’s hard to say.  Yuri isn’t murdered directly by the state, despite being a deserter, but he does die of a sudden heart attack trying to flag down a woman on a Moscow street who may be Lara.  Yevgrav, apparently feeling some responsibility, works first with Lara and then later with a young woman he suspects may be Yuri and Lara’s lost daughter.  She declines his help for now, but Yevgrev at least seems content to know he has a family out there, and the artistic streak that came from her father survives in her.  That may be the best anyone can hope for.

NEXT UP:  We’re going back to Billy Wilder’s canon and his 1944 noir Double Indemnity.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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