Dr Zhivago (1965): David Lean’s Masterpiece Of Love And Tragedy

by Paul Batters

1 Doctor Zhivago aa

Unlike other forms of art, cinema is an art-form, which relies on an incredible diversity of talent and skills, both behind and in front of the camera and before, during and after any shooting occurs. Yet the cinematic vision on the big screen, which is experienced by the audience, is ultimately that of the director. Cinema has seen incredible directors work their craft and perhaps one of the most gifted was David Lean. His sense of cinematography and the human story within an historical context has seen him at the wheel of some of cinema’s greatest masterpieces including The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). Yet he brought Dickens to the screen with incredible sensitivity to the textual integrity of both Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).

Yet Lean is also responsible for some of cinema’s most heart-breaking and forever memorable romantic films, with Brief Encounter (1945) ranking as one of the finest films depicting love unrealised. However, the film, which beautifully depicts this powerful theme, struggling against the historical realities of war and revolution, is 1965’s Dr. Zhivago and the focus of this review.

Drawn from Boris Pasternak’s novel, Dr Zhivago is a story told during the tragedy, turmoil and tumult of one of Russia’s (and perhaps the world’s) most significant turning points in modern history – the lead up to, events and aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Lean frames the narrative by telling the story through retrospect, with the voice of the storyteller belonging to KGB General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness), the half-brother of the title character. As he tells the story, the audience follows the life of one Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), from his orphaned boyhood to his becoming a doctor and marrying his childhood sweetheart Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). But beneath Yuri’s medical coat lies the heart of a poet, which brings him fame and literary respect. Despite an ideal career in front of him with a solid bourgeois family life in place, Zhivago becomes entranced by Lara (Julie Christie), whom he discovers whilst assisting his mentor in treating her mother who has attempted suicide. He also crosses paths for the first time with Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a political opportunist to whom Lara’s mother (and eventually Lara) will play the role of mistress.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Despite these personal intrigues, Russia is on a path to revolution and the climate of discontent and proletariat zeal is personified by Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtney), Lara’s fiancé. His own political consciousness will take a turn to radicalism when a peaceful protest is brutally dealt with by Tsarist guards. By chance, Zhivago witnesses the protest and its’ aftermath and he even attempts to treat some of the victims, when warned off by the same guards who have committed the atrocity.

But Russia will face greater challenges when it is plunged into World War One and Zhivago goes to the frontline as a doctor to treat the wounded. Fate sees that Lara (now married to Pasha) joins his medical corps and as a nurse works closely with Zhivago. Meanwhile her now-husband Pasha goes missing in action during a battle, although she will initially not be aware of this. Love blooms for them but they remain true to their respective marriages and the circumstances of the war changes when the October Revolution occurs and the Bolsheviks seize power. With Russia no longer involved in the ‘imperialist war’, the two potential lovers must part and return home. Shariff channels the pain of separation as he watches Lara leave and his eyes well with tears.

Zhivago returns to his family and a much-changed Moscow. Despite the Bolsheviks being in power, civil war has broken out and will continue for the next three to four years. The situation is tenuous and the family struggle, to the point where Zhivago has to sneak out at night and break off fence palings for firewood. But he fortuitously meets his half-brother Yevgraf, who warns him that he needs to get out of Moscow, particularly because his poetry is seen as an affront to the Revolution. Zhivago is deeply hurt by this, his poet’s heart racked that the beauty of poetry should be seen in such a way. Along with his father-in-law Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and his family, they decide to go to their familial Gromeko estate in the Urals.

Yevgraf arranges their papers and a long train journey to the estate. The train ride is difficult and Zhivago sees the effects of the civil war on the countryside, witnessing burnt out villages and desperate people. They also hear of a general named Strelnikov, who is spoken of in near mythical tones, who has been routing ‘counter-revolutionaries’ with incredible success and extreme measures. The audience then discovers that Strelnikov is actually Pasha and during the journey, Zhivago will make the same discovery during a tense moment on the journey.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But the family will make it to Gromeko and for a time, they live a safe, happy and quiet life, although the news of the Tsar’s execution shocks the family. But fate will take a crucial turn when Zhivago visits nearby Yuriaten and discovers that Lara is living there with her daughter. The reluctance, which held them back during the war, is forgone and their affair begins.

trailer-doctor_zhivago-yuri_zhivago_and_larajpg

At this point, this review will leave the reader to discover what follows, in consideration of those who have never experienced Dr Zhivago. And it is certainly a film that is an experience!

Lean shapes, as Kate Muir declared in The UK Times an ‘epic (that) seems too small a word for the sweeping ambition and romance of Dr Zhivago’. The historical context of the story has been criticised, particularly by Bosley Crowther for sentimentalising the Revolution yet the scenes in Moscow afterwards of the over-crowded apartments, people dying of starvation and typhus and the pathetic act of stealing firewood cancels out that criticism for me. With respect, the historical accuracy of the Revolution is not foremost in Lean’s mind (not that there are many glaring inaccuracies) but reflects on the impacts that history has on the individual. More importantly, being a film of romance, it declares that love is founded in all and any circumstances, even during terror and turmoil. The romance between Lara and Zhivago tries to withstand all the obstacles that stand in their way – firstly, propriety and responsibility and afterwards far greater dangers, which will threaten not only their relationship but their lives as well.

Omar Sharif brings the soul of the poet alive in his performance and Julie Christie was never more breathtaking as Lara. The emotion and desperation of their love is beautifully transcribed to the screen. But the other performances are particularly riveting as well. The likes of Alec Guinness as Yevgraf and Ralph Richardson as Alexander in part represent the ‘old guard’ of British stage and screen with their usual finesse. However, Tom Courtney is particularly solid as Pasha/Strelnikov and watching the seismic shift from idealistic revolutionary to a cold, ruthless general is interesting and one asks if more of this character development could have been forthcoming.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

However, Rod Steiger almost steals every scene he is in. Not only is Komarovsky political opportunist but a manipulator of the highest order. Steiger brings to the fore an incredible sense of the character, and whilst it is easy to despise his character, it is impossible not only to admire Steiger’s performance. Komarovsky is a fascinating character, whose sense of realism and understanding of life, cannot be refuted.

b096f50c0930f459ae9b13b06a7c9169

One scene that never fails to arouse my admiration is when the family first board the train. They are confronted with a prisoner (Klaus Kinksi) who declares himself ‘forced labour’. There are almost no words to suggest the power of Kinksi in this moment when he declares himself the ‘only free man’. Kinksi declares ‘long live anarchy’ evoking the pre-revolutionary group of intellectuals and thinkers that were socialist in their hearts but did not support the direction the Bolsheviks took. If ever a cameo appearance dominated a moment in film, then Kinksi achieved it here:

What makes Dr Zhivago an intoxicating film is not only the beautiful photography and grand, sweeping scenarios but the attention to detail to reveal character and unfold the story is also touching – the tree branch tapping at a cold, frosted window during a winter storm, Zhivago watching the silent interchange between Lara and Pasha during a pivotal moment or Zhivago writing his poetry. But the big moments stand strong as well – the mass of deserters leaving the front, the peaceful march that becomes bloody and the vast expanses of the countryside.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Certainly the film score by Maurice Jarre has almost taken on a life of its’ own. The film’s signature piece ‘Lara’s Theme’ is recognised almost anywhere, even if people have never seen the film. It has become a much-loved piece of music but has received criticism for its’ sentimentality, interestingly enough by Omar Sharif himself. Sharif has gone on record stating that he believed the music to be terribly sentimental and he has not been alone in this criticism.

Interestingly enough, Dr Zhivago received mixed reviews upon its’ initial release but would become a huge earner and a major competitor at the Academy Awards. Legendary critics such as Pauline Kael are not fans of the film describing Lean’s direction as ‘primitive’ and Roger Ebert called it ‘soppy’ whilst still noting Lean’s ‘elaborate sets, his infinite patience with nature and climates, and his meticulous art direction…’ Yet of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick have noted the huge influence Lean has had on their own work. Spike Lee felt himself channeling Lean when shaping 1992’s Malcolm X, thinking of the very characteristics that Ebert saw as worthy of note.

James Powers in The Hollywood Reporter goes much further: ‘despite the grim and brooding background, Zhivago has a surging buoyant spirit that is unquenchable. Doctor Zhivago is more than a masterful motion picture; it is a life experience’. If I may re-use from an earlier mention I made regarding the film, Dr Zhivago highlights the tragedy of history and how it impacts on people and their lives. But it also reflects the tragedy and beauty of love, where the worst times in history throw people together, allows them to taste the joy of love and then cruelly rips it from them. Lean reaches into our hearts and while the charges of sentimentality may ring true to some degree, it is impossible not to be wholly taken by the experience.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 David Lean Movie Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – The 2018 David Lean Blogathon

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Romance In Classic Film – Where Tragedy Speaks Greater Than Forever After

MSDGOWI EC001

Film is an incredible visual and aural expression, which an audience forms relationship with at a range of levels. Horror will draw out our fears, terrifying us and perhaps even haunting our dreams and nightmares. But we will not be terrorised by vampires and werewolves. Sci-fi astounds us with incredible worlds, strange beings and technology beyond our imagination. Yet the chances of travelling at light-speed or being trained by an old and elfish master on a distant planet are very slim indeed. Westerns still take us to a frontier, which is long gone and we ache to be the hero we see on screen. Yet the truth remains that we are not necessarily heroic nor will we face the bad guy with a six-shooter when the sun is high. We will not meet a pharaoh nor dine with a king.

But there is something that all of us will experience to varying degrees – no matter how old one is. Of all the stories that have been told on film, the love story is one that can reach everyone.

One of the great ironies of romance on film is that there is an incredible vastness to how it is portrayed. Often relegated as ‘chick flicks’ or ‘women’s pictures’, love stories have a habit of spanning a number of possibilities – beautifully produced and enduring, warm, fuzzy and perhaps a little too saccharine and even corny and then the absolutely nauseating. The love story on film is often in the eye of the beholder – one person may see romance on film as touching and sweet whereas another reaches for the bucket.

Romance on film needs to be looked at in context of the genre and an audience needs to remember that the love story can be dealt with in a variety of ways. For example, comedy can be light-hearted or even ruthless in its’ dealing with a love story. Screwball comedy is particularly adept at handling romance, with break-neck speed and examining the love story at a very different angle.

Of all the love stories ever told on film, the most beautiful, touching and enduring stories are those that are tragic. Words often become redundant when trying to encapsulate the incredible emotion when watching the film end – and two lovers part forever.

I will briefly look at five films which audiences will be more than familiar with that I believe prove my point.

Be prepared for spoilers!

Gone With The Wind (1939)

GWTW is perhaps one of the best examples of the classic Hollywood studio film – few films can boast neither such grandeur nor such an incredible cast. Yes, there is incredible controversy in how slavery, the South and the Civil War were portrayed. But that is not what we’re focusing on here, tempting as it may be.

GWTW is many stories but I would argue it is ultimately a love story – one of unrequited love. The story’s heroine Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) is surrounded by men who want her and declare their undying love for her. Yet her heart aches for a man she cannot have, one Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) who is engaged to be married to Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland). Though Ashley will later admit during a mad moment of weakness that he does love Scarlett, he also states that it is Melanie whom he ultimately loves and understands. Scarlett seems to pine for something that she cannot ultimately understand, which Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) points out to her. However, this very truth will allude Scarlett to the very end and when she realises it will be late.

GWTW-splash

On the flipside, Rhett Butler is ‘no gentleman’ but he is real and full of life and experience. He knows the world and understands it better than most. Despite everything, he cannot help but also fall for Scarlett, not in the foppish manner of her many other suitors but with a passion and aggression that is all consuming.

Scarlett will marry twice (not for love) but firstly for petty, immature reasons and secondly for survival. Her third marriage to Rhett will also fail, for a complexity of reasons. But ultimately it fails due to her blindness and failure to see happiness. Rhett final leaves, delivering what is probably the greatest line in cinema history. What makes it tragic is Scarlett’s epiphany that she does love Rhett. She declares she will find a way to get him back but we as audience will never know if she does. The camera pulls back, revealing a solitary Scarlett standing at Tara – and the audience cannot help but sense the tragedy of a love unrealised.

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca is perhaps one of cinema’s most loved and enduring films. It often lists higher on greatest film lists than films which are certainly much better. Some critics have declared it to be one of the best worst films ever made and Pauline Kael has even described it as ‘schlocky’. There are holes in the plot, which an ocean liner could comfortably sail through and by all reports there was daily confusion on the direction of the plot whilst filming. So why does this film endure?

Poster-Casablanca_13

Well Bogart sure helps, as does the ethereal beauty of Bergman. And it has one of film’s most memorable and beautiful songs. But I would argue it endures because it is a tragic love story.

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) seems self-assured and blasé to the events going on that have set the world ablaze. Running his club and illegal casino in Vichy French controlled Morocco during World War Two, Rick makes his money and occasionally helps some of the continental refugees to escape (betraying his supposed neutrality and disinterest). However, his world is turned upside down when the lost love of his life Elsa (Ingrid Bergman) turns up at his club with her husband escaped Resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried). Rick’s face contorts for a moment though he composes himself in time, saving his pain for later.

After the club has closed, Rick drinks in the dark alone, tortured by her arrival after trying hard to forget her. He utters one of the most famous lines in film history; adlibbed by Bogart himself:

We are brought up to speed when Rick relives their romance in Paris before the chaos of war will wedge between them. Experiencing their happiness, it is impossible not to recall our own moments of the joy and happiness of love. But the memories are bittersweet and the audience’s transference onto Rick and Elsa heightens that emotion. We see the reason for their parting, as Rick waiting at the train station in the pouring rain, receives a letter from Elsa stating they can never see each other again. Rick’s pain becomes ours and it is difficult not to be moved by the beautiful cinematic moment of the ink melting into the rain, as the train pulls out.

His pain is undeniable and flames when she comes to him alone. Trying to explain herself, Rick’s responds with bitter-soaked cynicism, insulting her. She turns away and leaves, realising that it is pointless to continue. As she walks out the door, Rick collapses at the table, torn with inner pain, knowing his responses achieved nothing and walking the line between love and hateful despair.

As the story progresses, Elsa’s desperation to get out of Casablanca with Victor becomes intertwined with her revived love for Rick – it even appears that Rick and Elsa will leave together. The ending is one of the greatest scenes in film and is also the reason why Casablanca endures as a great romance film. Bogart delivers a parting speech that cemented his place in cinema history.

The two are not parted by war, and only in part by the situation that war created for them. Rick and Elsa are parted by the strength of their love. Sacrifices are made but their moment together remains a testimony to the old adage that some can love more in a few days than most do in a lifetime. As both find out, they’ll always have Paris.

Which is why Rick and Elsa as a couple endure – whether they are together or not.

Now Voyager (1942)

At times a little drawn out and occasionally (and unfairly) dismissed as a ‘women’s picture’ or ‘tear-jerker’, Now Voyager is so much more. Bette Davis’ turn as Charlotte Vale, from lonely, mentally abused frump transforming into a stronger, more confident woman, is perhaps her best-known film role.

NowVoyage.Lobby1.TN

Charlotte, suffering from a nervous breakdown after years of her mother’s mental abuse and cruel domination, goes to a sanatorium run by Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains). As part of her therapy, she later goes on a luxurious cruise where she meets Jerry (Paul Henreid), who is travelling with friends. She discovers that Jerry is in an unhappy marriage with two daughters to a woman who didn’t want children, echoing Charlotte’s own mother-daughter relationship.

Charlotte’s nervous caution, highlighted by her fragile self-consciousness, is slowly evaporated by Jerry’s patient kindness and the two form a friendship. However, it will blossom into love, one complicated by his marriage and sense of honour.

Both Charlotte and Jerry return to their respective lives, when they return. Charlotte has gained confidence and strength from Jerry’s love and she moves forward in her life. But the memory haunts her, best expressed when her inner thoughts reveal: ‘And I have only a dried corsage, an empty bottle of perfume and can’t even say his name’.

A chance meeting at a party again finds the two maintaining convention and on the surface acting cordial. Their love affair must be kept secret for propriety but as Sarah Kozloff points out in Overhearing Film Dialogue (2005) their sotto voce revelations underneath the casual banter burst through with deep passion. It is difficult to wave such passion away, particularly when it is aided and abetted by Max Steiner’s musical score.

Charlotte faces a setback with her mother’s death and when seeking solace at Dr Jaquith’s sanatorium meets Jerry’s youngest daughter, Trina who is fraught with problems. Charlotte becomes close to Trina and it also gives her the chance to be close to Jerry. But they cannot be together as they wish to be. Charlotte and Jerry must maintain distance for the sake of Trina and the film ends with one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and memorable scenes:

Whilst not truly parting, never to set eyes on each other again, Charlotte and Jerry must face just the opposite. Whilst the film ends on a ‘high’, the audience cannot help but feel for the love that the two cannot have completely.

Brief Encounter (1945)

David Lean is generally associated with what could be termed big films, offering a big cinematic experience with power and scope. Think Lawrence Of Arabia and The Bridge On The River Kwai. Yet earlier films such as Brief Encounter (1945) cannot be ignored when considering classic film. For the purposes of this article, it can also not be ignored as a perfect example of two lovers parting and a love never fully realised.

brie2
Though Brief Encounter is Lean’s picture, the love story comes from the pen of Noel Coward. As David Thompson accurately pointed out in his 2010 Guardian article, the discretely gay Coward understood middle-class sensibilities at the time and showed great restraint, avoiding any suggestions of impropriety and shaping characters that were decent and ‘nice’. Lean, on the other hand, would have happily taken things a step or two further. However, the power of the film exists in the reality that the two never consummate their love.

Middle class housewife, Laura (Celia Johnson), is married to a fairly dull though respectable man named Fred. Their marriage is one of comfort, safety and fondness yet hardly inspiring of passion or fire. An innocent chance meeting with a doctor named Alec (Trevor Howard) sees a seemingly harmless friendship strike up, with regular meetings for lunch, going to the cinema, drives together and eventually the chance to take things further at a friend’s flat which ends awkwardly.

The story itself would barely hold up in an era of online encounters, Craigslist and cheap comedies depicting quite explicit casual sex. Yet therein lies the quality, depth and beauty of Brief Encounter. There is depth and power in the emotion of what could be. Far from being a melodramatic soap opera, the film’s depiction of a couple torn between loyalty to family and marriage and the possibility and hope of love and passion. One can see the desperation in their eyes as they look at each other and the agony that consumes them.

The final goodbye is perhaps where the tragedy reaches its’ zenith, as the moment is stolen from them by the banality of an acquaintance of Laura bumping into them at the station and prattling on to Laura as Alec’s train arrives. Laura and Alec’s haunting last look at each other betrays the terrible anguish of their final parting. No final goodbyes, no last kiss or last moment of passion. No words could possibly encompass the loss that each feels. Their dream of being in each other’s arms dissipates like the steam from the train engine taking Alec away. Laura returns to her husband and all ends ‘well’ in terms of a return to normality.

But there may not be one amongst us who cannot feel the anguish in their own hearts – of what could have been and what will never be. Laura and Alec are the patron saints of lost love.

Dr Zhivago (1962)

Another masterpiece courtesy of David Lean. Unlike Brief Encounter, the love affair between Yuri Zhivago (Omar Shariff) and Lara (Julie Christie) is realised and consummated, revealing a very different and interesting dynamic. A generation earlier revelled in the shy, cautious and ‘honourable’ couple in Laura and Alec – not so in the early 1960s. Changing values and attitudes in the audience saw acceptance of an extra-marital affair.

Set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and civil war that followed, the poet/doctor Zhivago is married to a childhood sweetheart and also has a son. However, his war service during World War One sees him come into contact with Lara, also married to an idealistic yet ruthless revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtney). Entranced with Lara who also feels something for him, they maintain honour and part when their war service is over, having done nothing a la Brief Encounter.

Yet this time Lean goes further and takes the steps he would have taken had Coward not tempered Lean’s wishes in 1945. As the civil war worsens, Zhivago takes his family further east to safety in Varykino and incredibly discovers that Lara is living with her own daughter in a nearby town named Yuriatin, abandoned by her husband who is now a general calling himself Strelnikov.

trailer-doctor_zhivago-yuri_zhivago_and_larajpg

Meeting again, Lara and Zhivago finally fulfil their desires and begin a passionate love affair. However, Tonya falls pregnant, Zhivago ends the affair and is soon press-ganged into becoming a doctor for a partisan group in the civil war. Two years pass before they are reunited but Zhivago’s family are gone and the situation has worsened for both and he and Lara. As the tragedy unfolds, Zhivago stays behind so that Lara and her daughter can escape. As she leaves, Zhivago watches her and there are no words that could be written to match those within the hearts of the audience.

But perhaps the true tragedy is years later when Zhivago finds himself back in Moscow. Sick and weak and working as a doctor, he is travelling to work on the tram – a touching moment harkening to an earlier moment in the film when a younger Zhivago shares the same tram with Lara. As he sits, Zhivago sees Lara walking along the street and cannot believe his own eyes as he struggles to get off the tram. But his weak heart cannot take the excitement and a massive heart attack takes him on the street, as he reaches out to Lara, who continues on her way oblivious to him. It is a terribly tragic moment, with the chance for them to be finally reunited, stolen from them both.

Dr Zhivago highlights the tragedy of history and how it impacts on people and their lives. But it also reflects the tragedy and beauty of love, where the worst times in history throw people together, allows them to taste the joy of love and then cruelly rips it from them.

There are many films where we celebrate and cheer the couple living happily forever after, especially when overcoming incredible adversity to reach each other. The couple joining hands and walking into the sunset together leaves us warm and cosy, and perhaps even inspired. Yet it is an easy feeling and too simple a finish. We know that life is not so kind to us and certainly not as tidy as film. Perhaps what makes the tragic love story so touching and enduring is that it mirrors life a little more than the happy ending and may even reflect elements of our own lives.

Special Mentions

Wuthering Heights (1939) Directed by William Wyler. With Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon.

Dark Victory (1939) Directed by Edmund Goulding. With Bette Davis and George Brent.

The Heiress (1949) Directed by William Wyler. With Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.