Doctor Zhivago (1965, David Lean)

Compared to either the staid machismo of Lawrence of Arabia or the grit and irony of The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, another of his trademarked SuperMovies, seems like an especially well-mounted, fluffy old soap opera; concerned primarily with its sheer scope and size, it simultaneously returns to the emotive battlegrounds of films like Brief Encounter, the only problem being that Lean still can’t quite get a handle on human feelings. This is a film with everything going against it (except the presence of Julie Christie and Alec Guinness): it’s over three hours, it’s a straightforward and, you know, epic romance picture, it’s an adaptation of a flowery Pasternak bestseller, and it’s Lean’s followup to Lawrence, three years in the making. But watching Lean occasionally let the cracks of pandering melodrama show is vastly preferable to the showboating of his prior film, with the result that while it isn’t any major artistic groundbreaker, it’s often fun to watch and is unrelentingly absorbing.

The film covers about twenty years in the life of Lara (that would be Christie) and Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Lara is a girl in Russia just before the Revolution forced into a torrid sexual relationship with an older man (a typically blustery Rod Steiger); various encounters with the local doctor Z eventually wind up in an extended friendship and, ultimately, less wholesome pursuits. It sounds as if nothing happens, but the film has a genuine epic sweep it could not if it were a Lawrence-style series of photographs of pretty scenery. It may be hot air, calculated, bloated, etc., but it is relentlessly engaging pop entertainment. Pretty pictures go along with it, too. And while it is not a great movie, it is a lot of fun, and admirably schlocky. The visuals are intricately artful but kitschy, like an ambitious postcard. Movies are dreams, and this is just a simple one, which is fine.

The movie’s prime utility is as a visual knockout, with both the impressively artificial scenery and Lean’s recurring use of smoke livening it up to become a real feast for the senses. Nevertheless, they are used to serve the story rather than distract from it. Zhivago retains better thrust for the duration than you would tend to expect for its reputation. The pacing is surprisingly lively, and that alone is praiseworthy in a film this long. This kind of populist bravado — think Titanic — may be a pure commercial commodity, but it reflects a stunning level of craftsmanship on the part of a director when he manages to retain interest for so long. And a couple of sequences are extraordinary within or without their context: the discovery of Zhivago’s iced-over guest house is breathtaking, and so is the early scene in which carnage is played in close-ups of band instruments.

It’s also a film that only really works the first time you see it — thereafter, its dramatic turns and general air of misplaced importance make it a slog to revisit; Lean’s films generally carry such a law of diminishing returns, even the better ones. The gorgeous pictures being framed hold up as well as you’d expect, but watching him pretend to care about characters, romance, politics is like watching your best friend pretend not to be grossed out by the weirdo buying her/him a drink. It’s actually amazing how thin these people are given the length of the picture. Omar Sharif is adrift, and this is Julie Christie’s weirdest and most unfeeling performance; both are upstaged by Tom Courtenay as the erstwhile, dead-inside idealist and later fearsome commander Strelnikov, who’s terrific but has by far the least screen time of these. And while the stunt casting of Steiger is interesting, he isn’t given much to do.

It should be said, then, that this story really isn’t as fleshed out as it should be, especially in the luxurious space allowed for it. The entire plot hinges on a series of poems. And do we ever even hear much of them? Nope, and that may be the biggest failing of Zhivago to live up to its own promise. It cheats the audience out of getting a look at the payoff. And the romantic aspects are, of course, extremely clichéd (though never charmless), and there’s a bit of a problem in the Zhivago character himself. Representing god knows what from the novel, this responsible family man once in a while has “episodes” wherein he spaces out amid visions of flowers, the moon, broken glass, whatnot. It’s not particuarly well-staged and seems to suggest that he’s losing his mind rather than that he’s a hopeless romantic or whatever the hell it’s supposed to mean. But case in point about the appeal: when he has his heart attack at the end as she walks out of his line of sight, it is the dumbest, most obvious and maudlin possible way to end a love story and the responsible parties deserve to be hassled to no end for it. But I surrendered anyway. All immediate criticism was leveled by involvement, attachment, the sheer overwhelming experience of watching the film. That’s Lean.

The flashback element — quite a popular tool in films of this stripe, later used in Titanic — adds to the inevitable detachment we find ourselves to feel (after the movie’s over, of course) from the characters. It does increase the poignance, but it also adds to the manipulation. In this case, that may be a good thing, because in a perverse way, this is the kind of film that is really all about manipulation. You don’t fill in the blanks here, they’re already done. So relax.

Warren Beatty’s plodding, hysterical Reds took considerable inspiration from Doctor Zhivago — or, to be more precise, nearly everything in it is copped from Zhivago, except Reds gets mired in the politics of Bolshevism while Lean sees them as just an obstacle to the rather simple-minded tale he wants to spin. So choose your poison: a politically conscious but deadly dull film that’s a chore to watch, or one that has the political fortitude of a candy commercial but goes down nice and easy and has lots more kissin’. This is, in the end, simply a director who knows when to fill story gaps with bleary-eyed Deep Feelings. As much as your critical half may hate yourself for getting major kicks out of this sappy and overwrought gargantuan film, you do anyway, and the involvement stays there without flagging. That’s what’s known as defying criticism. Movies like this have the ability to end your reign, however briefly, as seasoned viewer of American films and suddenly restore you to the wide-eyed child whose sense of separation between the movies and reality is only tentative. This is a Movie.

[Originally posted in 2006, with some additions.]

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