By Peggy Nelson
Dr. Zhivago – 1965 – dir. David Lean
There are many characters in David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (1965), the sprawling, epic portrayal of people caught up in the Russian Revolution, the least of which is, surprisingly, Dr. Zhivago himself. In addition to Zhivago, Lara, Komorovsky, Pasha, and a host of others, there is the land, the weather, the first World War, the mountains, the interminable train ride, the tide of political events, the Five-Year Plans, even the giant posters of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, all playing their parts and threatening to upstage the action. Beside all these a small story about love and betrayal should pale; as Strelnikov claims in the film, “the personal life is dead in Russia.” But it is Lean’s achievement that it is not: it more than holds its own, and forms the core around which the rest crash and swirl.
Dr. Zhivago is taken from the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, although Pasternak was not allowed to claim the prize and wrote a letter recanting it (it was kept for him in Sweden and later awarded posthumously to his son in 1989). The loosely autobiographical novel is a picaresque following the exploits of poet and doctor Yuri Zhivago as he lives through the major events of his time: WWI, the October Revolution, the Civil War, the establishment of the Soviet Union, the purges and Stalin’s consolidation of power – in short, all of Soviet history, except its eventual end. However, ‘exploits’ is too strong a term; Zhivago is not the most active protagonist. Despite encountering all the major events of his time, he is an observer, and would be in danger of being reduced to a narrative device except that Pasternak imbued him with enough of his own thoughts and feelings to round him out a bit.
The episodic nature of the story emphasizes forces of nature, and tides of history, things that can be interacted with but not fully controlled by the individual, or even, it is suggested, by the collective. The fierce Russian winters not only factor in the grueling eastern front of WWI, but in Zhivago’s personal life and the decisions he makes. And of course the great mass movements of history (WWI, the Revolution) factor in as well.
Given a big enough camera and a skilled cinematographer, it is not that difficult to film beautiful landscapes, or show impressive masses of people. Size and numbers are visually compelling, although slightly cold. We sympathize with the personal, we look for something human-scale, whether it’s a story, or a decision, or a mystery, or a beautiful face. The trick is to give the personal story enough weight that it can hold its own against these backdrops, and it is Lean’s accomplishment that he is able to do just that.
In this he may succeed better than Pasternak. In the novel, Lara is certainly singled out for her beauty; in fact, it seems to be almost her only attribute. But if she is the main relationship in the book, she is merely one of the passing parade – after his wife, and after Lara, Zhivago goes on to meet another girl in another town and integrate himself into yet another life, going so far as to have several children! In this respect, Lean’s streamlined interpretation elevates, elaborates, and ennobles, perhaps even creates, the ‘true romance’ that is at the heart of the film. Perhaps this is because being ‘swept away’ by emotion so neatly echoes being ‘caught up’ in a movie?
In any event, the romance is not only with Yuri and Lara, but with Russia itself: its nature and its history. And in that respect the film and the book are very close.
The film has generated its own outsized stories. Lean filmed the snow-covered dacha, Varykino, in Spain, where he had his crew spray everything with beeswax: house, furniture, lamps, trees, grass – until it looked like it was covered with several feet of snow. He cast Egyptian actor Omar Sharif in the title role of Zhivago (after Sharif, a fan of the book, had requested the supporting role of Pasha), and pinned back his cheeks to give him a more Slavic appearance, resulting in permanent scars. Carlo Ponti, the producer, wanted to cast his wife, Sophia Loren, as Lara (he was eventually convinced otherwise; Lean was said to have thought that Loren would not be convincing as a virgin!). The film won five Oscars including one for Sound; even those who haven’t seen the movie will likely recognize Maurice Jarre’s haunting “Lara’s Theme.”
Was there a real Lara in Pasternak’s life? Oh yes. And let’s just say, casting Julie Christie to play her was a bit of ‘artistic license.’ But that just highlights a paradoxical truth about love: it’s not how someone looks, or even who they are that matters. It’s how you see them: when you’re in love, you see the best that they could be. Lean highlights this in a scene toward the end of the film where Lara discovers the first of Zhivago’s “Lara” poems, the work that will form the basis of his enduring reputation. “It’s you,” he explains. “No Yuri,” she replies, “it’s you.”