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January 22, 2008 |

By John Williams | Film | January 22, 2008 |

Doctor Zhivago is not legendary director David Lean’s most critically revered work. That would be Lawrence of Arabia. Zhivago is a distillation of Boris Pasternak’s sprawling novel that features a wooden love story and all the political subtlety of an Ayn Rand tract. So why am I writing about it for Classics Week instead of Arabia? For one, I (shamefully) haven’t seen the latter. Additionally, Zhivago has towering strengths, but its reputation seems to have a lot in common with worldwide stocks these days. I think that reputation deserves some bolstering.

Omar Sharif plays Zhivago, a poet-turned-doctor who lives through the great Russian upheavals of the early 20th century — revolution (1905), world war, revolution (1917), and civil war. Along the way, he’s orphaned, eventually marries Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of the couple that adopts him, falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie), and struggles to maintain his individuality as the Soviet era dawns. There’s more. Lots more. Lara has an affair with her mother’s lover, Viktor (Rod Steiger). Her mother, upon learning this, tries to commit suicide. Lara eventually marries Pasha (Tom Courtenay), an idealistic Bolshevik who will — surprise, surprise — transform from a young utopian to a merciless ruler. Fortitude is tested, politicians and lovers are betrayed, and snow falls by the metric ton.

In 1998, when the American Film Institute first announced its list of the top 100 movies, Doctor Zhivago came in at No. 39. When an updated list was released in 2007, it was nowhere to be found, the highest-ranking movie to have fallen from the rankings. Unless socialism enjoyed a surge in reputation during that time, I’m not sure why a movie criticizing it, made in 1965, would suffer such a sudden loss of affection.

To get the film’s weaknesses out of the way, we can turn to Time Out London’s 55-word dismissal:

“Visually impressive in a picture postcard sort of way. Otherwise an interminable emasculation of Pasternak’s novel, seemingly trying to emulate Gone With the Wind in romantic vacuity as Russia is torn by revolution and Sharif’s Zhivago moons on about the elusive love of his life. Steiger and Courtenay excepted, all the performances are very uncomfortable.”

The qualification in the first sentence stings. There may be something soft-focus about some of it, but the film’s visual style is stunning. It’s what keeps you riveted through its 200 minutes, even when the story and characters aren’t pulling their weight. In fact, it’s that tendency to overreach that defines the film. It might be truest to say of Doctor Zhivago that it doesn’t know to leave well enough alone. It can’t just be beautiful; it has to be saturated with beauty that’s often at odds with its grim subject matter. It can’t just flavor the soundtrack with Maurice Jarre’s famous “Lara’s Theme”; it has to play the damn thing every 30 seconds. Its characters can’t just experience something; they have to talk us through that experience in often dreadful ways, as when Lara, while ironing clothes, says, “I feel sad. Sad. Really sad.”

There are three reasons why Zhivago still deserves a spot on the all-time lists: One is its visual breadth, which I’ve already mentioned and can be summed up in the name David Lean. Another is its scope — epics like this aren’t made anymore unless they’re directed by James Cameron, in which case they have a fatal flaw. Lastly, there’s Alec Guinness. He plays Zhivago’s brother, a stern loyalist to the party, though the doctor, due to his adoption, doesn’t know of their familial connection. I’ve complained — on this site and on street corners — about voice-overs, which have ruined more movies than I can count. I think of them as poison, but meet the exception that proves the rule: Guinness’ best work comes in a couple of extended voice-overs, during which he provides connective tissue for the story and dispenses wisdom like, “Happy men don’t volunteer.” The rest of the movie is admittedly cheesy, but grand and worth loving; Guinness, though, is just perfect.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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