Why 'Doctor Zhivago' Is the Greatest of All Romantic Epics
The romantic epic is a formulaic genre. Stories of a doomed love set against the backdrop of a major historical event have been told through film for almost as long as the medium has existed. If you’ve seen either Gone with the Wind or Titanic, you have a good idea of how they usually end. David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago is the absolute best of the romantic epics, not because its sappy romance is done any better than the others, but because it carries with it an extraordinary sense of place and purpose. The film uses its setting to ask the question, "How can real emotion be conveyed in a society that becomes increasingly intolerant of it?"
The film, based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winning author/poet Boris Pasternak, chronicles the life of Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago. We meet him when he's a young orphaned boy in the late 1800s, attending his mother's funeral. Flash forward to the 1910s, and we see him as a medical student in training who likes to write poetry on the side. He lives with his fiancee, Tonya, and her wealthy family. They are, for the most part, apolitical, but the poet in Yuri likes to romanticize about a possible worker's revolution. This seems more inevitable by the increasing number of peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Moscow.
It is around this time that we meet the other main character in this story, Lara Antipova, who is engaged to Pasha Antipov, a communist largely involved in the peaceful protests. At the same time, Lara is having an affair with Victor Komarovsky, a corrupt politician who judges the nobility of different political parties by whether they are winning or not. We follow everyone's trials and tribulations for a time before the sun sets on history's clock and World War I begins. Pasha enlists to subvert the Imperial Army, and Lara enlists as a nurse to try to find him. Yuri is drafted as a medical officer into the same regiment as Lara. They fall in love as their regiment mutinies, the February Revolution topples the monarchy, and the Russian Civil War begins.
The plot is the stuff of soap operas, but it is functional on a thematic level and brought to life fantastically on an aesthetic one. I'll begin with the latter. This is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen, and a masterpiece of cinematography and production design. There are more than several shots that I would hang as posters in my room; colors and lighting are effective at depicting the transition of a civilization from one of colorful and romantic ideals into one of gray hues and disdain toward those romantic ideals. The sets and environments are designed with such precision and delicacy that you can't help but be sucked into this world. There are few films so immersive and seductive as Doctor Zhivago. I have watched the film with the sound turned off, and it is almost just as transporting even without the music. Of course, I don't mean to disservice the work of Maurice Jarre, whose score for this film is one of the best I have ever heard. His music develops and transitions like the color palette of the film. In the beginning of the film, the theme for Bolsheviks is a stirring choral march that projects might and power. By the end, however, the voices drone and drag, as if the men singing them became tired and disillusioned with the revolution that abandoned the principles that started it.
It is also on the thematic level where I think Doctor Zhivago surpasses other entries in the genre. Even if they're not the most complex ideas, they are compelling when coupled with the film's setting. The romance between Yuri and Lara pretty closely mirror the history of Russia itself; as the two discover their love for one another, the Tsar is overthrown and the workers and soldiers are engulfed in passion. As they realize what they're doing is wrong and try to fight their desires and return to their own personal lives, the Civil War begins. When their ability to be together is threatened by politics and other forces of power that try to keep them apart, they're thrust into the poor living conditions that it seems everyone is forced into now.
The parallels aren't very subtle, but it's acted so powerfully and without cynicism that it's hard not to get swept up in it. Omar Sharif and Julie Christie give soulful and emotional performances that really sell the romance, but it really is the supporting performances that really steal and elevate the show. Rod Steiger is gives a delightfully evil performance as Victor Komarovsky, a selfish elitist whose ambiguous intentions are always intriguing, and Tom Courtenay gives the best performance in the film as Pasha Antipov, perhaps the best character in the film. He starts as an earnest figure who wants only peaceful demonstrations but becomes radicalized after being attacked by a Cossack guard. His transformation is sad as we witness him become as soulless and cold as a machine. Look at the way he raises the central question of the narrative when he challenges Yuri later in the film, betraying his own ideals and his wife's by stating, "The private life is dead, for a man with any manhood." All of these characters are beautifully realized, and all of the actors take what could have been somewhat basic archetypes and make them living beings that you feel you know.
When I sat down to write this review, I thought for a while about why I really had such a strong emotional attachment to Doctor Zhivago. Acclaim for this film is not as unanimous as you might think; even I can admit that this is not a perfect movie when I really look at it. Some motivations are unclear, some lines and individual acting moments cheesy, etc. Yet, whenever I watch this film, I can't help but just not care about any of those things. Sure, there are all of the reasons I explained above, but I think a lot of it also has to do what's in the corners of the frame. Little individual moments, like how ice cracks under the weight of boots, or the way crystal formations look on the window of a moving train. Or a women walking away from the camera, under the image of a looming figure who completed the betrayal of everyone's romanticism in the beginning of the film. Poetic, somber, and intimate, yet also colorful and epic, Doctor Zhivago is a contemplative and exciting look at the transformation of a civilization and a visually and emotionally dazzling film.