I’m General Yevgraf Andreavich Zhivago, I’m looking for someone.
One of the biggest clichés in art is that of the police state. When dealing with Soviets, this cliché is usually in full force. Doctor Zhivago (1965), directed by David Lean, does not really spare us the cliché, but it does spare us its weight. Sure, “The personal life is dead,” but really it’s only dead for those who see it so. What I sense to be the truest expression of what life was like in the early days of the revolution was “Your attitude is noticed!” The horrific police state started later and its casualties were legion–somewhere around a million were killed within two years in the late 1930’s during Stalin’s “Great Purge.” A statistic, I believe he called it. “People will be different after the revolution,” says one of our characters who will become a cruel and vicious murderer during the civil war between Reds and Whites.
After watching Reds (1981), it’s refreshing to see a perspective of the revolution from someone other than Lenin or the crowds in factories, which has always strained credulity for me. Here it’s soldiers and relatively ordinary folks–the kind of folks who’ve never heard of Lenin and probably never considered themselves to be “workers” rather than people. Yet, these people get swept up in the movement as I suspect many did in Germany in the mid-1930’s. Then things turn ugly, as they always will. An officious cretin comes in and tells everyone what is fair and what the party requires.
It’s Hobbes’s Leviathan taken to a place that so many of us dread. A place that tries to control not just our bodies and physical autonomy, but our minds and our voices–and they’ll take the bodies too. We fear it like we fear death itself because if we can not think for ourselves, then there is no self. There are some, like Pasha (Tom Courtenay), who do this willingly even eagerly because they believe in something greater than themselves. There’s a cliché I recommend you come to answer with bowel-shuddering horror: “You have to believe in something greater than yourself.” It is a short step from believing something is greater than yourself to thinking you are something wholly insignificant.
“You’ll find that pretty creatures do ugly things to people,” says the professor. I would add that pretty ideas do the same.
Because Boris Pasternak and I share a birthday, I thought it was about time I saw Doctor Zhivago. I’ve always felt like there needed to be a mood to watch it since it was a historical epic. The cover of the DVD always struck me as 19th century, but as you can probably tell, it is entirely 20th century. Finished in 1956, Doctor Zhivago would not be published in Russia for the same reasons Zhivago the character’s work was not tolerated. It was individualistic and critical of the Lenin/Stalin regimes. Pasternak’s book was smuggled out of Russia, published in Italy, and (with the aid of the Union of Soviet Writer’s attempt to block publication) became very popular. It won the Nobel, being submitted by the CIA and MI6 to undermine the Soviet Union, but was not accepted by Pasternak in 1958 due to a preference for the safety of those near him. He died two years later.
Doctor Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) was an orphan raised by a family friend. He becomes a medical doctor and comes across Lara (Julie Christie) who is currently having an affair with her mother’s beau–eww–Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), an influential politico type. War ensues. Zhivago goes off to tend to the war injured where he meets up with Lara where they keep things platonic. Revolution ensues. Things get a little hairy for the poet doctor. The doctor and his family escape to Xanadu, I mean Tara, I mean Varykino. Civil war ensues. He meets Lara again and things get a little less platonic. Civil war causes some more disturbances. Sometimes things look like they might be alright, other times they look dreadful, but really everything really is delicate. Underneath it all is the story of Yuri’s half brother Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) as a young Bolshevik, medium aged Cheka agent, and getting-on in age “General” who helps to track down the love child of Zhivago and Lara.
The film is directed marvelously. How do I know? It was three hours and seventeen minutes and I enjoyed it–that’s directing. It’s also acting. Everyone is marvelous in this movie. That neither Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, nor Rod Steiger was even nominated for an Oscar is a surprise. Courtenay was and I find that ridiculous. He was good, but Steiger was absolutely brilliant as the consummate survivor. Sharif plays Zhivago much like Beatty played Jack Reed, or really, the other way around. Guinness, I only wanted to see more of–I wanted to know his story, what happened to him during the war, during the Lenin years, and how he survived as a human through the Stalin regime. Let’s not leave out the writer! Robert Bolt comes up with some terrific lines (or transposes them, I couldn’t say since I haven’t read the book) and keeps the story central. Lean, as the biggest fish in the epic-directing pond, has a tendency to dwell on the landscape to the detriment to the pace of the story in movies like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but he doesn’t do so (too much) here. He keeps the plot central while building an even pace.
If there is one complaint I have, it is that the film’s balance of the intellectual suffocation and the action of World War I with human drama is not matched with much scrutiny of the Red/White civil war. The subject is vast, I imagine, especially if one is to capture it fairly in film, but it is only the Reds who commit the atrocities we see. Yes, there is an oblique reference to the Whites burning a city, but the Reds burn it twice. I suspect a cynical reason, and that just annoys me since we can hate the Reds and Whites equally without somehow justifying the Reds. But, as I say, that is another movie in itself–though I am unaware of its being made at all.