David Lean’s epic anti-Communist romance Doctor Zhivago (1965) is a great and serious work of art. Doctor Zhivago was initially panned by the critics — probably not because it is a bad film, but because it was very bad for Communism. Nevertheless, it was immensely popular. It is still one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, adjusted for inflation. It also won five Oscars — for Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Bolt), Best Original Score (Maurice Jarre), Best Cinematography (Freddie Young), Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. (It was nominated for five other Oscars, but The Sound of Music won four of them, including Best Picture and Best Director.) Over the years, critics have also warmed to Doctor Zhivago, routinely including it in their “best” lists.
If Doctor Zhivago had been the work of most directors, it would have been hailed as their greatest film. But Doctor Zhivago was directed by David Lean, who had just completed one of the greatest films of all time, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), so Doctor Zhivago was bound to suffer somewhat from the comparison. But what’s really remarkable about Doctor Zhivago is how little it disappoints.
The greatness of Lean’s film comes into even sharper focus when you read Boris Pasternak’s original novel. Pasternak was born in Imperial Russia in 1890 to a cultivated, upper-class Jewish family. His father was a painter, his mother a pianist. He achieved fame as a poet but fell out of favor with the Soviet Communist Party, found publication blocked, and ended up supporting himself as a translator, writing during his off hours “for the drawer.”
Pasternak started Doctor Zhivago in the 1920s and finished it in 1956. It was smuggled out of the USSR by a dissident Italian Communist and published in 1957 in Italian translation. The first Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago was published in 1958 by the US Central Intelligence Agency, which sought to embarrass the Soviets by painting them as repressive cultural philistines who refused to publish one of those great Russian novels that few people manage to finish. Pasternak and Zhivago became a liberal cause célèbre. In 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he refused under duress from the Soviet government. He died in 1960.
As a lover of the film, I expected to like the novel. I wanted to like the novel. But I found it surprisingly boring: a sprawling, flaccid story cluttered with useless and forgettable characters and digressions. Everything goes on much too long. It also seems unstructured. Good stories are unified from end to end. They have spines. But Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is a spineless blob, held together with a tissue of increasingly unlikely accidents, as the main characters — in a Moscow of millions, in an empire of tens of millions — keep bumping into one another.
As a critique of Communism, Pasternak’s novel is unfocused and superficial. We gather that Communism created chaos and unleashed ugliness and nihilism. But we don’t really get a sense of why. Pasternak renders surfaces in a wordy, impressionistic blur. But when he tries to go deep, he comes out with lines like this: “Art is always, ceaselessly, occupied with two things. It constantly reflects on death and thereby constantly creates life.” It sounds profound, but it is verbose, woolly-minded, and just isn’t true.
Finally, the main character of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, is not particularly likeable. Thus it comes as a shock when one learns that Zhivago was Pasternak himself in thin disguise. The man must have loathed himself.
But I can’t justly review Pasternak’s novel, because like many readers, I tapped out before the end. On second thought, that is my review.
A great deal of the credit for turning Pasternak’s mediocre novel into a great movie goes to screenwriter Robert Bolt, who also wrote the screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia, as well as the stage play and screen adaptation of A Man for All Seasons. Bolt removes needless characters and digressions, giving the story more of a spine. He also renders the horrors of Communism more crisply, giving greater insight into why they happened –and what the alternative is.
I will sketch out the film’s basic plot, but I will skip over most of the details, leaving much to first-time viewers to discover. Yuri Zhivago is an orphan raised in Moscow by his wealthy godparents, the Gromekos. He is a gifted poet who has chosen medicine as a career. Just before the First World War, Yuri marries Tonya, the Gromekos’ daughter, with whom he grew up. When the war begins, Yuri becomes a doctor at the front. After the Revolution, Yuri returns home to find the Gromekos living in one room of their mansion, the rest of which has been given over to seedy proletarians. Moscow is in the grip of the Red terror. Typhus and starvation are rampant.
Worse yet, Yuri is “not liked.” His attitudes “have been noticed.” His poetry has been deemed too “private” and “bourgeois.” He does not conform to the party line, which increasingly consists of managing Communism’s failures through lies, excuses, and scapegoating. Yuri’s half-brother, Yevgraf, is a Bolshevik secret policeman. He knows Yuri and his family will not survive what is coming (we are now around the winter of 1919) and arranges for them to leave Moscow for the Urals, where they live in a cottage on the Gromekos’ former estate.
While in the Urals, Tonya becomes pregnant with their second child, while Yuri begins an affair with Larissa (“Lara”) Antipova, a young woman he met in Moscow and again at the front. Yuri is then torn away from both women by a band of Red partisans, who need a doctor and simply kidnap him. Two years later, Yuri manages to return to find the Gromekos have left Russia. He is reunited with Lara briefly but separated again. Lara, it turns out, is carrying his child. Both die some years later without ever being reunited, just two of the many millions of lives blighted and destroyed by a monstrous ideological enthusiasm.
The cast of Doctor Zhivago is uniformly strong. Casting an Egyptian Arab, Omar Sharif, as a Russian poet seemed odd to some. He doesn’t look like Hollywood’s idea of a typical Russian. (Originally, the role was offered to Peter O’Toole.) But the character of Zhivago was based on Pasternak, who didn’t look typically Russian, either.
The main problem bringing the character of Zhivago to the screen is conveying that he is a poet without actually including any of his poetry. Lean solved this problem brilliantly, perhaps by borrowing a bit from Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, where composer Julian Craster suddenly goes blank while we hear the music in his head. Lean asked Sharif to look as detached and absent-minded as possible — a pure spectator — while Maurice Jarre’s brilliant music (his greatest score) communicates Yuri’s flights of poetic imagination.
Julie Christie as Lara is so beautiful I don’t think that the cast had to pretend to be in love with her, and her performance is excellent. Alec Guinness as Yevgraf, Tom Courtenay as Pasha, Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as Tonya Gromeko, Ralph Richardson as her father Alexander, and Siobhán McKenna as her mother Anna all turn in strong performances. Klaus Kinsky has a memorable bit part as an anarchist turned into a slave laborer. But the most compelling performance is Rod Steiger as V. I. Komarovksy. He has many of the film’s best lines. I wouldn’t exactly call him a villain, although he’s far from pure. Let’s just say that he’s very much alive.
Even though Doctor Zhivago portrays ugliness and horror, it is still a David Lean film, which means that it is a feast for the eyes. Some images are simply unforgettable: a vast throng of workers emerging from a tunnel under a red star; a vase of sunflowers weeping; the Goyaesque horrors of the civil war; the ice palace of Varykino.
But what sets Doctor Zhivago apart from most cinema is its fusion of powerful images and emotions with a philosophically insightful critique of Communism.
Before the revolution, Doctor Zhivago is constructed out of brilliant contrasts: between the grand boulevards and dirty side streets of Moscow; between the glittering world of high society and the drabness and desperation of the common people; between the healthy, neatly-uniformed men heading toward the front and the starved and ragged deserters fleeing it.
But once the Revolution happens, these contrasts are leveled — downwards, of course — until everyone is cold, starving, dirty, and terrified. The Communist slogans promising freedom, bread, and brotherhood all turn out to be lies. Communism delivered famine, not food — slavery and terror, not freedom. Communism did not ennoble mankind. It empowered cynicism, envy, and pettiness.
But many things didn’t change. Russia was still governed by autocrats whom the masses feared. There were still haves and have-nots. Both before and after the Revolution, one had to ask people, “Can you read?” As the civil war ground on, those caught in the middle could no longer tell Red from White.
But the Soviets recreated the old autocracy on a much lower level, in part due to the sheer chaos and cost of the Revolution, in part because the Bolsheviks being materialists were blind to the essence of the civilization they seized, so they were capable of recapitulating it only as a brute farce. It was the old despotism stripped of all aristocratic magnanimity and refinement and infinitely more violent and cruel.
Four main issues separate the Bolsheviks from the old order.
First, they reject private life. “The private life is dead in Russia. History has killed it,” says the Red commander Strelnikov. Private life is disdained as “bourgeois,” as if men had never sought their own homes, their own families, and their own happiness before capitalism came along.
The problem with killing private life is that most of life happens in private, which brings us to the second contrast between the Bolsheviks and their enemies: theory versus practice, idealism versus life.
The Bolsheviks are idealists. They are theorists. So is Yuri, for that matter. Although he does choose general practice over medical research, he is by inclination a spectator, always gazing at the world, always trying to clear away the frost and fog to see more clearly.
Perhaps true theories never conflict with practice. But we mere mortals have to make do with half-baked theories, which inevitably clash with the mess of life. Fastidious idealists and dogmatic ideologues think they have the truth, however, which puts them on a collision course with practical life, which has lessons of its own to teach.
The conflict between theory and practice throws light on the climax of the movie, in which Yuri chooses to abandon Lara to Komarovsky. It is a perverse and self-defeating choice, but it is not inexplicable. Yuri is theory. Komarovsky is the mess of life. Yuri is so repulsed by Komarovsky that he is willing to abandon the woman he loves rather than go with him. He may even be condemning himself to death.
What does Yuri do when he decides not to follow Lara? He retreats indoors to watch her through a window. Then he smashes out the window to see her more clearly.
When private life is suppressed, so are freedom of speech and truth-telling, which is the third gulf between Communism and the old order. Who are you to contradict the Party, which is the avatar of universal truth? And since truth is relative to history, and the party is the historical vanguard, truth becomes identical to whatever lie the party declares expedient. When the Party denies starvation and typhus are in Moscow, but Yuri sees them with his own eyes, he believes his eyes. That makes him a thought criminal. But it is truth-tellers, not liars, who pave the upward path for humanity.
(Robert Bolt clearly admired men who were willing to speak their minds and stand by their convictions, even at the risk of their own lives. Hence his depictions not just of Yuri Zhivago but of T. E. Lawrence and Sir Thomas More. Today, people would place all three heroes on the autism spectrum.)
The real center of the story is not Zhivago but Lara, who is loved by the three principal male characters: Zhivago, Pasha Antipov, and V. I. Komarovsky. But the affair between Zhivago and Lara only happens in the last half of the movie. To give the audience an idea of where the whole story was going, Bolt invented a frame for the story, set sometime in the 1940s, after the Second World War.
Yevgraf has come to a construction site. He is looking for his niece, Yuri and Lara’s daughter, who had been lost some time in the 1920s. He is convinced that one of the workers, Tanya Komarova, is the girl he seeks. Then he narrates the whole film to her. At the end, Tanya denies she is his niece. “Don’t you want to believe it?” he asks. This is the voice of the Party speaking, the party that set up wishful thinking as truth and coerced millions to go along with it. Tonya’s reply is: “Not if it isn’t true.” Yevgraf’s only comment is: “That’s inherited.”
This brings us to a fourth divide between Communism and the old order: hereditary gifts versus blank-slate egalitarianism. At the beginning of Doctor Zhivago, we learn that Yuri’s dead mother had the “gift” of playing the balalaika. The Gromekos wonder if young Yuri has special gifts as well. At the end of the film, as Tanya walks away, Yevgraf learns she has a talent for the balalaika. “Who taught her?” he asks. “No one taught her,” comes the reply. “It’s a gift, then,” says Yevgraf. These are the last words of the movie. In a way, they are the last words on Communism too. Empowering the gifted, not the mediocre, is the upward path for humanity.
Much of the best anti-Communist literature is actually Left-wing: Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, for example. But a critique of Communism that spotlights hereditary inequality belongs objectively to the Right. I have to credit this to David Lean, whose instincts and convictions were Rightist, since there are only the barest traces of this theme in the novel, and Bolt was a card-carrying Communist.
I find the end of Doctor Zhivago deeply moving because it offers a ray of hope. Even though Communism can shatter families and whole civilizations, blood has won out in the end.
The Unz Review, September 25, 2021
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