This was a pretty amazing film, that made me very interested in reading the Novel of the same name that inspired it. We continue Revolution Week with “Doctor Zhivago” which covers era of the fall of the Tsar and the Russian Revolution and the purgings that happened after, as well as the cost of all of this on the common person.
“Doctor Zhivago” was directed by David Lean, written by Robert Bolt, produced by Carlo Ponti and based off the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak.
The story begins with Lieutenant General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) who is looking for the daughter of his half-brother Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) whose poetry has no become famous in the Soviet Union. Tonya (Rita Tushingham) does not believe she is the daughter of him since she never knew her father leading Yevgraf to retrace Yuri and her mother Lara’s (Julie Christie) story in the leadup to the Revolution and all that happened after.
The Pros: The Setting – The backdrop of World War 1 and the Russian Revolution is a fascinating time, especially since this film goes in depth into how no one was really safe after the Revolution and the cost of change and what it did to families.
The Cinematography – The Cinematography is gorgeous. There are lots of long shots, very reminscent of films like “Ben-Hur” or “Spartacus” it also gets personal too in small spaces and does some fascinating shots where it will be in the room and then go full shot through the open space in a foggy window. It truly is masterful.
The Soundtrack – Maurice Jarr did an amazing job on this soundtrack! Classic instruments like the Balalaika are incorporated in and it can big and epic as well as sad and personal. It feels large and captures the scale of the story really well.
The Characters – The characters in this are all rich, no one is static and everyone is changing as the nation changes from the Revolution. The one constant is suffering and how it shapes the characters and their relationships to one another.
Victor – Victor represents a lot of what is wrong with people, but especially among priveledged men. In the first scene we see him in he is creepily hitting on Lara and later rapes her on the way back. From here their relationship is one of her being afraid to tell her fiance and after a failed suicide attempt in which Yuri saves her life she decides she will use the gone Pavel gave her from a rally to kill Victor. The killing is not successful and we don’t see him for some time. When he returns he is in the Russian Government and offers to give Yuri and Lara a way to escape. They finally take him up on it but at this point Lara is no longer his slave and all attempts he has to act as if he owns her are shot down. Her trying to kill him was freeing herself of his toxic control. I hated this character and wish the gunshot had been successful in murdering him. Rod Steiger does a great job playing this unlikable man who only sees people in how they will benefit him and has no ideals beyond his own desires.
Pavel – Pavel is the idealist who becomes a “Hero” of the revolution after he gets a scar on the front in World War 1. He becomes a cold man and leaves Lara behind since he never forgave her for the affair with Victor (which shows that coldness that always existed from the beginning, she was raped multiple times by Victor). He meets Yuri at one point when Yuri and his wife Tonya are making their escape with their son and Alexander. They talk and he lets them go and we see how paranoid he has become and that his idealism has turned into tyranny. “The Russian cannot afford a private life. That era is over.” He is all about duty and the party and nothing else. The hero has now become the villain.
Alexander -Alexander is Yuri’s adopted father and a good man. He is there for Tonya the most as Yuri is very soon obsessed with the injustice around him and Lara who he served with at the front. He is a good man and has the most difficulty adapting to living poorly as he was once a very rich man before the Revolution. As Yuri becomes more involved with Lara it is really Alexander who is there to take care of Yuri and Tonya’s family and shows that he is a good guardian and Grandfather. Ralph Richardson is wonderful in the grandfather like role.
Tonya – Tonya is a very passive character who has great moments of power. For example, we learn she saved power in the shared apartment by turning it on only when Yuri was home because she knew how much he liked it. We also see it in how she tries reaching out to him, even ifs he gets nothing in turn. She is a good mother and even respects Lara, who she learns was Yuri’s mistress. She never sees Yuri again as her, Alexander and Yuri’s son escape to France. Geraldine Chapline is fantastic.
Lara – Lara is the tragic character for much of this story. Whether it’s her husband leaving her after finding out about the affair and never returning back as he becomes the “Hero” of the revolution and even that coming back to bite her when the Party turns against him and her association with him being dangerous…her rapist still being alive and still having power even until the end, though at that point she had boundaries he could not cross thankfully and of course losing Yuri after he is picked up by some Red Guards to hunt for Whites and rebels in the country. She is able to care for their daughter though and is one of the strongest characters in the film…from living alone, to trying to kill Victor and living in exile raising their daughter. She is extremely well rounded and has a good heart as seen by her devotion to the wounded when her and Yuri were serving at the front as Doctor and Nurse. Julie Christie gives a lot of depth to this role.
Yuri Zhivago – Yuri is the Doctor Zhivago of the title and is a very flawed but overall good person. He was raised by Alexander as he lost his family and saves Lara’s life when she attempts suicide. He isn’t the idealist, he just wants to live and this causes conflict as he still wants to be treated with dignity. This leads to trouble when he returns from the front and the party begins noting his attitude as a problem. His brother Yevgraf convinces him to run away which builds his relationship with Alexander and Tonya as well as their son, but once he reconnects with Lara that stops as his second life takes control until he is kidnapped and conscripted to be a doctor the Reds. He eventually escapes and meets Lara again and after helping her escape decides to stay in Russia. He eventually dies when he thinks he sees her as his heart was weak after all it had been through. He has a legacy though as people turn up from all over to honor him as his poetry had grown famous. Omar Sharif does a wonderful job.
Yevgraf Zhivago – Alec Guinness is a truly amazing actor. In this he plays a Bolshevik who is sent to the front to ferment Revolution. He succeeds and is a Secret Policeman and later a General. In each of these roles he knows he does wrong things that hurt others but his connection to his brother leads to him doing good. We see this when he helps Yuri and his family escape from Moscow and later when he finds Lara and Yuri’s daughter. He is at his core a good man and is uncomfortable about things he’s done and that his brother’s work was outlawed for a time…as he sympathized with the poetry and how personal it was.
The Revolution – We see the hope of revolution and the turning point for some characters. When Pavel is beaten he decides that peaceful revolutions will be no more…Sadly this is taken to the fullest degree as his government becomes so oppressive that in the end he becomes a refugee in them. This captures how the ideals of revolution can get lost when new power structures are formed and how those can be abused by any group.
The Message – There are a few messages in this film. The strongest is that Revolution may not always have a good end. Of course things weren’t great under the Tsar, that is obvious, but things aren’t great under the party either. This film captures the loss and price of it and how selfish powerful men like Victor are the ones most likely to live no matter how things change. In counter to that though, good people can change others…as Yuri changed his brother and made him a better person, and it’s implied his poetry changed the nation in small ways making it more open.
Okay: Length – This film is a bit long at times. I think the length was needed but I still felt the length of the production and story.
What Happens in the Present? – What is going on in the present isn’t fully known. All we know is Yuri’s poetry can now be read by all Russians and that the government is more open than it was before…but we only hear about it. We never see it fully but we know because we see it that the trials of the present are much easier than the trials of the past.
This was a great movie and one I would consider a classic. It gives the Russian Revolution justice because it shows us flawed characters who are fully explored in a nation that goes through radical changes. We see people at their most desperate but also moments of tenderness and love. I really want to read the novel now as I was very impressed by this film. If you are looking for a great drama, romance based in history…take a look at this film. I sincerely doubt you will be disappointed. Just know that it is around 3 1/2 hours long, so be prepared. There is a reason that the film has an intermission during it.
Final Score: 9.7 / 10.