Book & Movie Review: Dr. Zhivago

by Steve Lancaster4/5/17
One of the great novels of the twentieth century. Boris Pasternak was censored by the Soviet State and became a non-person for many years. His novel of the revolution and the subsequent horrific Stalin years was made into movies and even a Russian TV mini-series.  However, I am just going to deal with the book and the classic 1965 movie by David Lean staring, Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, and Rod Steiger.

Most people are only familiar with the movie, but the history of the novel is almost a novel all by itself. Originally published in the West in 1958 by an Italian publisher, financially supported by CIA and the master spy Allen Dulles as propaganda to cause discomfort in the Kremlin and certain directorates of state security. Remember, this was the real Cold War, Khrushchev was General Secretary of the Communist Party and “we will bury you” was his motto.  Less than a year before Dr. Zhivago was published the same clod hopping Russians put Sputnik I in orbit. I purchased my first copy in 1964 at a JBS bookstore, as full service bookstores did not stock it. Occasionally, the Birchers got things right.

The publication and the world renown leading up to the Nobel Prize for literature served to protect Pasternak from extreme retribution from those same elements of state security that routinely sent dissents to the gulag for life. Pasternak, when told his novel would be published in the West, assumed it would be a death sentence, or at best years in some very cold places.

Like most Russian novels, Dr. Zhivago is not about simple themes, nor are the characters one-sided, and the major characters are symbols for things central to Pasternak’s understanding the Russian soul. Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) is the classic Russian of Tolstoy so pure and honest that Anna Karenina would think her almost a goddess, and in the novel, she is just as untainted.  On the other hand, we have Lara (Julie Christie) a character that Dostoyevsky could have written, not pure, not chaste, driven by love, lust and guilt. The women are the radical sides of the Russian psyche acting and reacting on the men in their lives.

Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) is 80% Dostoyevsky and 20% Tolstoy. He is driven by his darker nature and in the same moment loves and hates Lara. He hates himself for his love for Lara and in the end, gives her up to Stalin’s gulag. “A faceless name on a list that was later lost”. Komarovsky is a friend of dubious nature to Zhivago’s father and by chance executor of the estate, there was not much left and by chance what there was belonged to Komarovsky.

Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) the exact opposite of Komarovsky 80% Tolstoy and 20% Dostoyevsky and, I believe, in Pasternak’s writing the quintessence of Russia, and Russians. If you desire to understand Vladimir Putin, then you need to understand Zhivago. Zhivago’s love for two vastly different women in the turmoil of revolution and counter-revolution. This love is counterbalanced by is passionate love of Russia. He runs from one to the other, but never considers running from Russia, even when Tonya and Lara leave with his children, he stays.

Komarovsky and Zhivago play to each other’s passions and weakness through Lara, who is simultaneity in love and guilt ridden by her love for both men. This is the stuff of real Russian drama. Despite the efforts of Lean to turn the book into a western romance. It is still a tragic drama. Our old friend Sophocles would recognize the elements right away.  The drama plays itself out against some of the most magnificent cinematography of the 1960s, and one of the most romantic movie themes of an age when movie music was still important to the story.

Americans, as a group, are not driven by the kinds of passions that can be found in every Russian. Even those who emigrate here seem not to fully become American until the 2nd or 3rd generation. It is often difficult to understand the motives, desires, and passions of Russian novels, or for that matter Russians, but one line from the book sets up an opportunity for understanding, “Russia and Russians have an almost unlimited capacity for suffering”

If you have read Dr. Zhivago then the more intense relationships of the characters should be familiar to you. If you have only watched the movie those elements are there, but you may have to stop and watch again to catch the nuance. Don’t give up, the story is eloquent and book or movie you will be rewarded with a deeper empathetic view of Russia. As my old boss, James Angleton was fond of saying, “we cannot defeat an enemy we do not know” I suspect that was also on Dulles mind when he paid expenses for the first publication.

BTW, “we cannot defeat an enemy we do not know”, is the theme of an excellent book and movie by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game. • (2480 views)

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38 Responses to Book & Movie Review: Dr. Zhivago

  1. Timothy Lane says:

    Bill Mauldin did a cartoon once of Pasternak pounding on rocks with a sledgehammer in a gulag (though the term wasn’t in use at the time). He tells his fellow prisoners, “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What did you do?”

    This reluctance of stores to carry politically controversial (which always turns out to be politically conservative) items can also apply to games. In the early 1980s, a small Maryland game company produced two anti-liberal games, Public Assistance and Capital Punishment. Large stores didn’t carry them because of pressure from government bureaucrats (or perhaps anti-poverty warriors). I picked them up at a small local games store.

  2. Anniel says:

    I remember reading the book first, and when the movie came out being absolutely entranced by the cinematography. Living in Alaska I can only say that the train scenes in the snow as Zhivago and Lara escape to Verichino and enter the hoarfrost glazed interior of that place takes me to abandoned places I have entered in ghost towns here.

    I’m trying to decide whether to reread the book or arrange to see the movie. Maybe both. Omar Sharif was a heartthrob to women everywhere for a reason.

    And the music. Oh, my. Made me want to buy a balalaika.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Most of the outdoor scenes were filmed in Spain even some of the winter shots, many of which were done in summer, fake snow. Everything Pasternak put in the book is in the movie, but truncated for time. If I recall the Russian mini-series was 12 hours.

      This is a movie that lends itself to the big screen, like Gone With The Wind. I saw it on the big screen in the 60s. That one shot with Gable looking up the staircase, every woman in the house moaned!

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I don’t believe I’ve seen but small bits and pieces of this movie. I’m going to watch this at my earliest convenience.

        And not that it’s the rarest song in the world, but an interesting coincidence that I heard a string version of “Somewhere My Love” on the local classical music station tonight. Always makes me think of Sherif Ali.

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Thoughts on my first ever all-the-way-through viewing of Dr. Zhivago as I work my way through it (not all in one sitting). I’ll keep appending this report as I go. I’ve likely only ever seen bits and pieces of this movie in passing, so it’s all very new to me:

    At the 38 minute mark (including the overture):

    + I had forgotten that Alec Guinness is in this.

    + I had forgotten the doctor really is a doctor.

    + This is an ambitious movie, not just including

    + You can tell from the get-go that the cinematography will be outstanding

    + Not sure if this movie is pro or anti-Communist in its outlook. Time will tell.

    + They sure knew how to clear the streets of protesters back than. Something to consider when Occupy Wall Street strikes again.

    + A rare and good match between Omar Sherif and the child who plays him. They look plausibly alike.

    + This could get bogged down in runtime. It’s a long movie. We’ll see. Nothing bad to report, but it’s not ultra-gripping thus far, but neither am I bored.

    At the 1:15 mark:

    + I wouldn’t call the plot particularly riveting up to this point, but it does finally pick up when Blondie gives Veektor a bullet.

    + One of my favorite portrayals of god since George Burns is Ralph Richardson in Time Bandits. He is typecast like that for me, even when looking back into earlier movies such as this one where he plays Alexander. A marvelous actor and personality.

    + I’m wondering how much more misery and death Blondie will cause before this movie is over.

    + Love the Lenin beard on Sharif’s protege…the older doctor. He looks good in it whereas it typically just makes men either look evil or pseudo-intellectual. Could he pull of the Hitler mustache? Probably not.

    At about the 1:45 mark:

    + This movie was a hit with the public and generally disliked by the critics when it first came out. I guess I’m a critic. I find myself not caring about any of the characters. The blond, while gorgeous, is not a fine actress. And although Omar Sharif is a fine actor (his best role was in Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,”) I’m not finding he can carry this movie.

    + It’s a strange movie in that it’s obvious that it’s aiming for Big Iconic Moments. But the way it’s shot and edited sets you at a distance to it. It’s more like watching a newsreel than a movie. It just seems piecemeal. I’m bored and I’m not sure I’m going to go the distance.

    + Lean’s directorial style was excellent in “Bridge Over the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” But I find that “Doctor Zhivago” has more of the ponderousness of his “A Passage to India.” It’s a type of movie that just bores me.

    + Obviously this is leaning anti-Communist. We’re at the point where the Reds have won, or at least are in control of the area where the Doctor lives. He creepily adapts to the new reality with apologetic ease. But everyone tends to want to save their own skin. No one wants to stick his neck out, especially when a zealous mob is in control. This is where America finds herself now, a “nice” mob is in control. People won’t stick their necks out. In order to avoid the wrath of the zealous mob, they’ll adapt. They find that, by golly, two plus two does indeed equal five. Suddenly gay marriage make sense. Suddenly the Church of Global warming is not a pseudo-science based on a weird, cultish, materialist, anti-human dogma, it’s “settled science.”

    I finally finished this tonight. Final observations:

    + The cinematic element (a good story, told well) picked up between the moment Yuri departed with his family on the train and the moment that they set up shop in the cabin.

    + A bit too many coincidences in this movie. Russia’s a big place. Funny how two people can bump into each other.

    + The love story is mediocre. The tale of storm-tossed lives in the midst of the Russian revulsion is the best part.

    + Oh, if only Yuri could have worked out the wife/mistress thing better and sooner. If you can get the two ladies to get along, you’ve got it made.

    + Lukewarm storytelling. It should have been more of a moral jolt that here you have this married man fooling around with Blondie in the midst of turmoil. It’s all just given a soft focus. It doesn’t feel right.

    + If I hear “Lara’s Theme” one more time, I’m going to stick an ice pick in my ears. Grand vistas in regards to cinematography but the soundtrack was not particularly varied.

    + Rod Steiger is by far the best actor in this.

    + The little bastard child of Yuri and Lara didn’t seem to inherent the looks of either.

    + Stumbling suddenly upon a train in a quiet forest was the deus ex machina of this movie.

    + I like Alec Guinness, but his character seemed bored by it all and hardly the one to bookend such a movie.

    + Note that the Left, particularly on college campuses, is teaching people that they have no personal life. That was the recurring thing in the height of the revolution. The private man was to be extinguished. Everything was for The State and everything was political and had political implications. We’ve let this culture drift directly toward Communism and not lifted a finger.

    + Okay. That’s done. Onto the next movie, whatever that may be.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Considering what happened to Pasternak, I would suspect that the book is anti-communist, and in that era this probably wouldn’t have been removed for the movie. But I’ve never read the book or seen the movie, so I can’t say personally.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Well, I’ll let you know about the pro- or anti-Communist angle, if any. And we’re fast reaching the madness of Communist mind-control rule. This article I found on NRO is both funny and scary. When authority becomes so ungrounded in any predictive principle other than power and grievance, we are doomed.

        Ironically, the only present active force countering this stuff is Islam. I’m not sure I could ever make that enemy of my enemy my friend. But it’s sobering to consider.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          So much for the rights of Englishmen (which is what our founding fathers wanted).

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          I find it very telling that there are constant complaints from women about “objectifying” the female form. I don’t believe I have ever heard a male complain about the toned bodies of male actors or models as being unrealistic. Is this because males are less worried about admitting that they are slobs?

          I believe it is a case of many women being unhappy with themselves, but unwilling to either change what they don’t like about themselves or grow up and learn to live with one’s faults. They want to live in a land of make-believe. Fantasy is easier to deal with than fact.

          I think this is proof that females are a major motivating force in restricting our free-speech rights.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Further watching the movie in question (Dr. Zhivago) and having also in mind Women for Whom Nothing is Ever Good Enough, it occurs to me:

            The Great Ideological Fervor. The mad men and women who make war with others because that cannot find peace with themselves.

            Dr. Zhivago has men of great ideological fervor. They are crazed to make all things right. The modern Communists of the UK (for they are nothing less in mindset) also would make all things right.

            But we see they can never because they cannot make peace with themselves. If you feature petite women in your ads, you are sexist. If you feature more rotund women, you are sexist. What we can gather from this is not that the Communists in the West have no specific ideology. What we can gather is that their ideology is secondary to their anger and hatred, of themselves and others. The Party and ideology is just a dark-sided way to channel this destructive impulse. Immediate principles are fungible so that they may channel their hate.

            You can never, ever make these Communists happy. This is certainly the major reason they are so destructive although obviously they hold to economic and other theories that ramp up the ruin.

            And what a victory the evil Left has gained when we cannot name them for what they are. (I do, but we are the exception here.)

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      The child that plays the young Zhivago is Sherif’s son

  4. Lucia says:

    I read the book several years ago and was struck by how insane the communist movement was and how pitiful their followers were for their delusion that utopia can overcome the nature of mankind. Their passion puzzled me because they seemed to put their hearts above their heads, no matter that they committed adultery, no matter that innocents were slaughtered and starved, the power grabs were too important for all that virtue stuff except when it came to love. Love trumped all. I grew impatient with the love story, but was impressed with how the author portrayed the sad history of the Russian people, and the futility of the communist movement. Trying to keep the names straight was a distraction too since Russians seem to have 3 names for every person. But all in all, I think the book is worth reading more than once.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I’ve summed up my thoughts on this movie in that one post above.

    But what struck me about this movie was the lack of believability and motivation underlying the love story. Yeah, she’s a good-looking blond, but the Dr. had a very good wife and child. Yes, affairs will erupt in society for little more reason than desire and opportunity. But they don’t make movies of them typically. And when they do, there should be some “oomph” to them.

    This one lacked “oomph.” And I don’t mean that they had to show more graphic bedroom scenes. Again, this movie just struck me as being more like a newsreel at times, jumping from one time and event with little connection other than the timeline itself.

    We never see a dissatisfied Dr. Zhivago. Yes, his life is hard. And there is every reason for him to lash out at the Reds. But he never does. His wife is kind. His child loves him. They stay together through thick and thin. If only his wife would have stopped loving him or cooking his meals or whatever. But the relationship with Lara is bland, made all the more stilted by that horrid theme that just won’t stop.

    The movie is a bit of a soft-focus puffball. Not only should their been more motivation for the love affair, and then consummated with more flair and passion, but the war between the Reds and the Whites should have been given more time under a hard-focus lens.

    But we kind of just drift through it all, supposing that what we are seeing is as grand as the (sometimes) grand soundtrack and the usually great cinematography. There are only two people who seem to be real character in this. One is Veektor and the other is the Communist zealot, erstwhile wife of Lara and her theme.

    Although Steve found great passion in this movie, I was not particularly moved. Cast Eva Marie Saint in the role of Lara and Richard Burton in the role of Yuri and I think you’ve got something.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Ah, Brad the passion in the movie and the book is not the love story between Zhivago and Tonya/Lara but between Zhivago and Russia. Everyone else abandons either for other countries, philosophies/Marxism, but Zhivago is always and only faithful to Russia. In general in the west we refer to the countries our forefathers came from as the fatherland, but Russians refer to “mother” Russia. The difference is essential, we leave our fathers and make our own lives, but our mothers have a special place; they can abuse and degrade us and still be mom.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Well, I can see that the good doctor was not a particularly zealous fellow. He was kind enough and certainly faithful at least to his profession (if not to his wife) as a healer.

        But I just didn’t find this main character all that compelling. He seemed a little milquetoast. If he had a grand love for Mother Russia, he had a reserved way of showing it. It seemed to be that that nutbag Commie husband of Lara showed more love for Russian, misplaced though it may have been.

        Anyway, I’m glad I finally watch this. It’s not the first time I’ve been underwhelmed by a classic. It won’t be the last.

  6. Lucia says:

    I was struck also by the long suffering wife’s lack of moral outrage over the good doctor’s cheating but I think there is a basic difference between the Russian psyche and us Americans. We are at the core a freedom loving moral people and will fight for our God given rights, but Russians have mostly been serfs (slaves) for centuries, and endure hardships that we would not. I’m currently reading Tolstoy’s Cassocks and learned for the first time that serfs were usually included in the sale of property and could be bought and sold at the landowners will. Don’t forget that women at that time were dependent on their husbands for support and could not just give ultimatums to their husbands. Then again, perhaps such philandering was expected in their society.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Check out Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. The first get-rich scheme of the main character, Chichikov, is to buy up the ownership of dead serfs (they still counted, and property taxes had to be paid on them, until the next census). He would then use the serfs as collateral for loans (and not bother to pay them back).

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Try Gogol’s, Taras Bulba to better understand the Cassocks and the Ukraine.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      but I think there is a basic difference between the Russian psyche and us Americans.

      Perhaps, but then it is the job of the film makers to show that. Did we get much of a display of that serf-like mindset? I don’t think we did. We really didn’t get much motivation either for the revolution. I think this movie could have come down from the clouds a bit and been on more of a human scale. Yes, we get that massacre in the streets, but I think this movie tried to be too “iconic” instead of better relating to the audience with more personal events.

      Perhaps that’s why the scenes with Rod Steiger (Veektor) were so engaging. We understood his motivation. He was sort of a slimeball, and yet through his character we perhaps do get a glimpse of the cheapness of human life. Even so, Lara is hardly of the subservient serf-like mindset acting like property.

      I found the Doctor’s philandering to be bizarre from a cinematic standpoint. It’s not as if he got swept up in the moment. After all, he spent a good six months or so working with Lara and didn’t touch her. The Doctor just seemed (for the movie, perhaps not for the book) to be fulfilling the needs of a love story. But it didn’t seem particularly passionate or real.

  7. Lucia says:

    Such is the peril of making a movie out of a book. I’d rather read the book. All I remember of the movie is the snow scenes and the abortion scene. Oh wait, was that a scene from Alfie?

    I might read the other books on Cassocks. The prelude too Tolstoy’s book notes that he omitted any reference to the 300,00 Jews they slaughtered. Cossacks didn’t get their reputation for being humanitarians.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Hey…I admit to being in the minority on this. Most people like the movie. I thought it was lukewarm, at best. But I calls ’em like I see ’em.

      I don’t know if the book was better, although they usually are. Again, I thought the movie was hitting on all cylinders from the moment when they entered the train to when they were setting up their household in the cottage (the main house having been annexed by “the people”). But otherwise the movie seemed a bit too stand-offish. And the editing style was in-your-face and annoying. A real great edit you shouldn’t really notice.

  8. Anniel says:

    By trying to reread the book I am again reminded of how hard it is to keep track of Russian names, I swear there are at least 15 names for each character. When I studied Russian I wanted to read “Crime and Punishment” in the original, but it was difficult to remember who was who and how they interacted with each other. I’m not even certain I want to see this movie again now. Probably not.

    Omar Sharif was broke when he died. He’d had an affair with Barbra Streisand and was a gambler to boot. Bad karma all around.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Wow. That’s too bad. So many times we figure these stars are set for life. But I guess it’s easy to blow it all. Many seem to. And I’m sure the affair with Barbra Streisand contributed to his bad fortune. Yikes. No thanks. Bad karma indeed.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        Never forget that Sharif was a Christian, I believe a Maronite from Lebanon, who converted to Islam.

        Did he do it out of belief or for commercial purposes?

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          I didn’t now that, Mr. Kung. But I suspect that 99.9% of Western blacks who convert to Islam, for example, do so as a counter-cultural movement…grievance, if you will. Part of black separatism.

          I thought Omar Sharif was truly outstanding in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Not just good. Not just a good supporting actor. He helped to give that movie the “oomph” that it did. And Alec Guinness is extraordinary in his part as well. Lean almost had these guys as a troupe of actors.

          For what it’s worth, I think most religions are gained via osmosis. It’s no coincidence that most Muslims become Muslims by living in and around other Muslims, the same with Christians. It’s not because they sat down and consciously chose it. That said, for me Islam is the Nazism of religions. If you know that religion, no good man could ever be a part of it.

          Still, some do make better choices. Whether Christianity is the right choice is debatable. But it certainly is the opposite of Nazism.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            This is how Muslim terrorists should be handled.


            At least Bangladesh is trying. Forget Pakistan.

          • Lucia says:

            I think some convert to Islam for the same reason some join cult religions: both have stringent rules. There’s a kind of peace when one knows what to expect. Life is simpler when one obeys instead having to wrestle with decisions. Unfortunately, neither gives assurance of salvation.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Perhaps, Lucia. One could also find stringent rules inside Christianity or any other religion. The foreign and exotic hold a special fascination for those propagandized in Cultural Marxism (and its other names…Leftism, Progressivism, liberalism). People have been told that their own culture (including Christian culture) is guilty of the most heinous crimes.

              But if none of the religions are actually real, if they don’t represent some deeper reality, than religion can be explained by mere habit, sociology, psychology, preference, etc. If Islam does indeed represent a deeper reality then we all should be worried. A supremacist totalitarian death cult we hope is not God’s calling card.

              If there is good and evil in this world with roots deeper than mere behavior, I think Islam is clearly the representative of evil. Inherent to the religion is an evil doctrine. It turns, or keeps, people violent, ignorant, primitive, and highly tribal. And for some people (militant blacks) this can be a lovely combination. You get your grievance with the legitimizing magic dust of God thrown on top.

              I posit that life is easy when you give into your baser impulses, when lying, cheating, stealing, hate, murder, rape, etc., are legitimized by some religion. What’s not to like? You can think of yourself as an angel just as you are without having to lift much more than a finger than (in the case of Islam) kneeling in the direction of your idol several times a day.

              The hard life is the Christian life. Granted, 95% of Christians these days have simply made it a form of entertainment or melded it with the political cause of Cultural Marxism (“diversity,” social justice, etc.) But for the genuine it is a hard life. The Christian must be patient, kind, long-suffering, honest, humble, generous, charitable, brave, and just. The life of the animal may be coarse, in practice, but it is an easy life in terms of expectations and behavior. But the fruits are not much more than devouring.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I’ve read that the more religious a Christian is, the less violent the person is. By contrast, the more religious a Muslim is, the more that person is inclined toward violence.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                That makes sense. The more faithful one is to the tenets of Islam, the worse of a person one will be. And the reverse for the Christian tenets.

                What you want in Islam is the so-called “Cafeteria Catholic” who picks and choose what tenets to obey (hopefully none of the ones about murdering others). In Christianity you’d rather have them eat the whole meal.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                Lots of diners, particularly the infantile, prefer to eat only dessert.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I haven’t read Crime and Punishment, though we did have The Brothers Karamazov in high school (along with various other books, including Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, a rare Russian book that’s easy to read and understand). I think you slightly exaggerate the number of names. There would typically be the given name, the patronymic, the surname, and a nickname (probably based on the given name). Of course, one may not always know all of them. For example, was Grigory Efimovich Rasputin’s last name his actual surname, or just a nickname?

      Alternate spellings (and especially transliterations from the Cyrillic alphabet) can make it more interesting. One of the original documents in The Road to Terror (a volume in Yale’s series on Communist history) shows a name going “XY*EB” (I use the asterisk for an irreproducible Cyrillic letter more or less corresponding to the sequence “shch”, which I realized was a very familiar name.

      Many entertainers burn themselves out (e.g., Karen Carpenter, unfortunately). There are interesting exceptions, such as Petula Clark. Dame Petula was still at least somewhat active at age 80, and maybe older.

  9. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Getting my train fix: HD Moods: Trains

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