After watching Doctor Zhivago, I found it easy to imagine why people were freaked out about communism. The movie, adapted from the Russian novel by Boris Pasternak, details the life of a poet and doctor while the Bolshevik Revolution and subsequent civil war erupts all around him. Things weren’t great under the czars for a lot of people, but the suffering only seemed to intensify once the Bolsheviks rose to power. The story centers on the tension between the individual’s right to pursue their own happiness and the needs of society. Czarist and Bolshevik Russia swing from one extreme to the other and goes from bad to worse in the meantime.
Yuri Zhivago was adopted into a bourgeois family after he loses his mother. He cultivates two careers: one as a poet, and one as a doctor. What’s interesting is that these two professions come to symbolize the eternal struggle of a man as social animal — what enriches him personally, and the way he can be of best use to those around him. He’s recognized for his talents in both professions, but circumstances call for the use of the practical over the fulfilling more and more.
He falls in love with two women through an incredibly turbulent period. First, World War I demands his expertise as a doctor behind the front, and then he’s driven to leave Moscow when the Bolsheviks take over. His doubts about “the needs of the many” doesn’t endear him to the new regime, and his poetry is seen as far too personal and indulgent to agree with the political sensibilities taking hold at the time. Even his practice as a doctor isn’t enough for him to stick around; his family’s home and possessions are repossessed by the state and given to others as some measure of equality. Eventually, there simply isn’t enough to go around and the lack of goodwill forces him out of the city.
What follows is an arduous, harrowing and eerie train ride through the Russian countryside. It’s a very impressive sequence; the landscape is stark and beautiful, and a small community forms out of the strangers packed into a single train car. We also see how the building conflict between the Communist Party and the White separatists has ravaged the land. Small towns suspected of harboring the rebels are attacked by the state, and some are burned to the ground as part of a (literal) scorched earth policy. Yuri himself is even picked up and interrogated by the Communist military operation travelling in parallel with the civilian train. The sense of helplessness in the face of totalitarian power is palpable during these scenes; if Yuri gives an answer that the commander doesn’t like, then he could disappear immediately without his wife and son ever knowing what’s happened to him.
At some point, that actually DOES happen. Yuri, who’s been having an affair with a woman he served with during the war, goes to a neighboring town to end their dalliance once he learns his wife is pregnant. On his way back home, he’s conscripted into service by the Communists and spends several months trekking through the Russian wilderness to hunt down rebels. During this time, he finds out the state is essentially killing children and young men. Disillusioned with the new regime, he deserts his post and returns home, only to find his family has left. His mistress remains, however.
The movie is actually a romantic drama framed against the backdrop of societal turbulence. The civil unrest serves as the force driving Yuri and his loves apart, so that we understand how the rise of communism affected people on a personal level. It works well in that regard, but I actually find the tension between individual desire and societal need the most interesting. The melodrama regarding Yuri, his wife and his lover is interesting, but not quite the strongest part. Where the movie works best is as a historical record of what Russia was like during the rise of the Bolsheviks, and how the new regime took its reaction against the decadence of the bourgeois and Czarist classes to the extreme. Everyone, no matter who or what they were, were reduced to the same rough life. There was no room for individual pursuits or even a moment’s happiness in this new state. All that was left was what it was decided had to be done. Society above all, was the thinking.
Still, Doctor Zhivago works well as an epic romantic drama as well. Lara, this mistress that Yuri falls in love with, has her own intriguing story that also serves up the movie’s great villain — Komarovsky, an opportunist who forces himself on her and has a knack for not only surviving through the worst of times, but flourishing. I think he’s the movie’s best character. While Yuri, Lara and Yuri’s wife Tonya are interesting on an intellectual level, Komarovsky is the only person who connects emotionally. You hate him in a way that reaffirms your morality, and he’s incredibly effective as a loathsome individual. He serves as a useful critique of communism, actually. The Bolsheviks were hoping to stamp out people just like him, but he ends up succeeding in the new regime just as well as the old one.
Director David Lean does a great job of tightening the story and focusing on the most important parts, thanks to Robert Bolt’s efficient screenplay. Pasternak’s novel is sprawling, filled with characters that represent all walks of Russian life. We get a good sense of its expansiveness while still keeping focused on our viewpoint characters. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and everyone involved hits it quite well.
It’s not that often that I recommend a movie on the grounds of its historical interest, but that’s precisely why I’d recommend Doctor Zhivago. It’s a fascinating look at a crazy time in Russia’s history, and a fairly good romantic melodrama besides. The soundtrack is wonderfully distinctive, the sets are awesome, and the cinematography top-notch. All of it serves the mood of the story, as tragic and poetic as the Russian wilderness.