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When Yuri Zhivago was orphaned still young,
The friendly Gromekos arrived and agreed
To take him in, care for, and raise him among
The wealthy of Moscow, a life guaranteed.
Becoming a poet and doctor, he grew
To love his stepsister, dear Tonya by name.
Meanwhile, a young woman out of his view
Is drawn from her innocence into deep shame.
Victor Komarovsky takes Lara to bed,
Which causes the girl to attempt execution.
Escaping from Moscow, she chooses to wed
Her loyal friend Pasha, who craves revolution.
The first great World War comes to ravage the land,
And doctoring Yuri meets Lara by fate.
The Bolsheviks see their best chances, as planned,
And war soon gives way to a Communist State.
His life back in Moscow has changed for the worse,
And scarcity reigns as starvation takes hold.
His half-brother Yevgraf suggests they traverse
The far western Urals, which are less controlled.
He meets Lara’s husband while on his way there,
A violent guerrilla now called Strelnikov.
His family soon settles, until an affair
With Lara splits Yuri’s attention and love.
He’s captured to serve with the army for years,
Before he returns home, his wife and son gone.
He hides out with Lara till Victor appears,
To take Lara for her own safety at dawn.
He wanders henceforth, without lover or wife,
And leaves this pained world in a pitiful way,
And yet his poems live on beyond his short life,
As does daughter Tonya and her gift to play.

I’m not much of a fan of David Lean’s epics; as critically lauded as they are, Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai simply don’t appeal to me. I find both overblown and often boring but for a few impressive action sequences.  Though both of them won Best Picture, I prefer his adaptation that was only nominated, Doctor Zhivago. Based on Boris Pasternak’s long novel set before, during, and after the Russian Revolution, Lean’s film bridges the gap between sweeping storytelling and intimate romance, allowing for credible human drama amid the epic coursing of history.

Omar Sharif is at his very best playing the title character, and my VC has mentioned (many times) how she finds him utterly attractive with his trademark mustache. Though he is a flawed protagonist and some of his sorrows are due to his own moral decline, his naïve desire to live and love without the weight of politics and war is entirely sympathetic. By the heartbreaking end, his life has become a definitive tragedy of how lives are swallowed by mankind’s most degrading ideologies. The same goes for his secret lover Lara, played with resilient beauty by Julie Christie; her desire for a simple life is undermined by her husband’s dedication to supposedly justified violence, and she is ultimately lost to everyone who loved or knew her. Supporting players are consistently masterful: the slimy allure of Rod Steiger’s Komarovsky, the stoic interest of Alec Guinness’s Yevgraf, the gentle faithfulness of Geraldine Chaplin’s Tonya (that’s Charlie Chaplin’s daughter), the wide-eyed apprehension of Rita Tushingham’s Tonya, the allegiance-turned-zealotry of Tom Courtenay’s Pasha/Strelnikov.

I haven’t read Pasternak’s novel, but my VC has and considers the film an improvement, better plotted and more restrained in objectionable content. The film doesn’t carry quite as many plot points as the book, such as Komarovsky’s involvement in Yuri’s father’s death, but it’s complex and extensive enough and manages to still focus on smaller details, such as a skeletal branch tapping on Yuri’s window after his mother’s funeral.

The lilting violins of Maurice Jarre’s effervescent score make Doctor Zhivago memorable to the ear, just as the scopious mountain cinematography does to the eye. (The 2002 miniseries has its good points as well, including closer adherence to the book in certain instances, but, as good as he and Keira Knightley are, Hans Matheson can’t compare with Sharif.) Though some critics accused it of glossing over history, the story is meant to be from the perspectives of Yuri and Lara. Their firsthand experiences of war, destitution, and desperation are vividly portrayed, even if the ambitions and nuances creating them are not spelled out in documentary fashion, though there’s some of that too. Despite (or due to) its length, Dr. Zhivago is a pillar of Russian literature, and its film version a tribute to what is personal and an exemplar of tragic, epic filmmaking.

Best line: (Yuri) “It seems you’ve burnt the wrong village.”  (Strelnikov) “They always say that, and what does it matter? A village betrays us, a village is burned. The point’s made.”  (Yuri) “Your point—their village.”

Rank: 58 out of 60

© 2014 S. G. Liput

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