Dir. by David Lean - 3 hrs. 17 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
There's a quote by Dr. Cornel West, from his memoir "Living and Loving Out Loud," where he explains his affinity for Russian novelists (and I don't have it in front of me). To paraphrase, he says that no one knows misery like the Russians. "Doctor Zhivago" is proof of this; it's a tale of personal troubles told on an epic scale, in an epic movie, against a backdrop of being told repeatedly and by various sources that personal concerns are meaningless. Do the troubles of these people amount to a hill of beans? Who knows, but it's an engaging, engrossing ride to find out.
The train - a metaphor for the film's run time.
The story of this film is extraordinarily complicated, centering around a handful of characters and how they keep bumping into one another over time. The story essentially centers them all in Moscow, where they are all pulled in different directions. There is Yuri (Omar Sharif), a talented young doctor and poet, and his wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Lara (Julie Christie) is pulled between two men; Victor (Rod Steiger) is older, connected, and aggressive, Pasha (Tom Courtenay) is a young idealist with little clue as to what's happening beneath his nose. The story is told during a period of great instability in Russia, which forces all of the characters into situations they would never willingly put themselves into. But we know from the initial framing device that two of the characters have had a child, who was lost (as in misplaced, not as in she died), and who was the product of a grand romance, as evidenced by a slim volume of poetry authored by Yuri.
There are a lot of things to commend "Doctor Zhivago" for, and one thing that you're just going to have to deal with if you want to watch it. That thing is that this is a very, very long movie. That's a valid reason to avoid this film; I've certainly passed on watching films that cross the three hour mark, and I wouldn't judge you for doing the same. I'd argue that there are plenty of reasons that you might want to watch this, but in terms of movie experiences, there is a difference between going for a jog around your neighborhood and running a marathon. But if you're in, this is the last I'm going to hear about the length of the film being a detriment, because it's not as if "Doctor Zhivago" meanders, or wastes that time.
This is a really big, story. It's an epic, with all that that implies. We follow characters from childhood to death, through both sides of marriages, through wars (as in multiples). We change settings over and over again, as life demands it of these characters. Yuri has the misfortune of having skills that are in demand (his medical ones), that get him essentially kidnapped and forced into military service more than once. He also has skills that aren't (his poetry), which is personal, emotive, and earns him repeated admonishment from others that the time for the personal is over, replaced entirely by the value of one's service to whomever is in charge. This means that when the military wants a doctor, they just grab the nearest one and force him into service. As you might imagine, this takes its toll on Yuri's marriage, which ends up being of less concern to him as to the danger his existence puts his mistress in.
Omar and Julie, bed-stressing.
Ultimately, everything about this movie is absolutely beautiful. The scenery, from the cities to the endless snow, to the countryside, is the sort of thing that makes one want to book a vacation there in haste. I'm not sure that it would have been possible to cast three more beautiful people to center a film around than Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, and Geraldine Chaplin. The story itself is full of emotion; one angle of which is Yuri's attempt to carve out a life of personal meaning alongside what is expected of him. Even as things happen that would sour even the most positive of us, Yuri shows that life is meaningless without poetry (which you can take literally, or figuratively), the simple act of survival doesn't matter if it's not in service to something else, and Dr. Zhivago makes a persuasive argument that one's personal feelings and expression are paramount, even above Communist ideals.
It's kind of pointless to rate a film like this; "Doctor Zhivago" is justifiably on the list when people start talking about the all-time greats. Where it lands kind of depends on your personal tastes, but it's a real accomplishment in cinema. This is a film where everyone involved went big without any hesitation, and then completely knocked it out of the park. The fact that I could go see this movie fifty years later with a decently-sized audience in an actual movie theatre says everything that needs to be said about this film's enduring appeal.
5 / 5 - Theatre