During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
I heard of “Doctor Zhivago” once before. It was coming up next on Turner Classic Movies one time I was flipping channels. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is a) not a sappy romance movie and b) about Russia during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. My post-Cold War education largely skipped over Russia beyond its involvement in World War II and our rivalry during the Space Race. Most of my knowledge comes from movies and other pop culture, and, by that, I mean only the 1997 animated classic “Anastasia”, any Russian levels in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor games, and Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange”. 1965’s “Doctor Zhivago” helped fill in even more gaps!
The story of “Doctor Zhivago” is told by Yevgraf Zhivago (played by Alec Guinness or Obi-Wan) who is the half-brother of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Yevgraf has been looking for his lost niece and the late Yuri’s daughter. When he finds her, he tells her parent’s life stories, largely centering on Yuri, but also involving Lara Antipova (Julie Christie).
Like the book “A Clockwork Orange”, I have a hard time following any Russian words and names. To make matters worse, everyone in “Doctor Zhivago” has a nickname that may or may not sound like their actual name, and we almost always are treated to mixed use of each character’s full name, just their surname, or just their first name. It is a real headache!
Despite being filmed in Spain, “Doctor Zhivago” feels like Russia in the 1900s. The level of detail adds a lot to reel you in, especially the Russian text used throughout the film or the occasional Russian word used in dialogue. It doesn’t always look as cold as I imagine Moscow or the rest of Russia, and the British accents are not at all appropriate, but it’s the kind of immersion I have come to expect from a really good movie.
And, for the most part, “Doctor Zhivago” is really good. Like so many films we’ve seen on this list, it is overly long and likes to meander. It also straddles the line between having an unlikable protagonist (Yuri is a cheater and Lara seems to totally abandon her first child throughout the film) without much motivation and trying to force the audience to like him because of circumstances. It is a bit wishy-washy and lost in translation, but all of the characterization issues are offset by the solid acting, gorgeous cinematography, a beautiful score, and a setting that is sadly underexplored by Western media (and in our classrooms).
In many respects, this is a Russian “Gone with the Wind”. Unfortunately, that means in addition to a sweeping view of a significant historical period from a particular group’s perspective, too much time is spent on the less interesting romantic plot. I do wish more of the film had explored the history, psychology, or the philosophy of the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War. There is some mention of the “death of the personal life” and Yuri’s family, who were affluent prior to the revolution, are forced to give up their status, possessions, and wealth to the newly-formed state. But since Yuri is so often forced to serve the Red Army as a doctor or he is otherwise abandoning his family to see Lara, their struggle is poorly reflected by the overall plot.
We both agreed that “Doctor Zhivago” would’ve been better if it were a series or mini-series. It’s an interesting enough story and a great bit of history to explore. After reading how the book compares to the film and ruminating on the plot some more, I am not sure if it is a story I would personally revisit. More about the Russian Revolution though please!
For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.