Some time back, my father had forwarded me a mail, from one of his friends. It was a slide show, containing some wonderful pictures of Russia, the beautiful snow bound landscapes, the onion domed cathedrals, the lovely Russian women. But more than the lovely pictures, was the music, coming in the background, soft, slow, languorous, it was Maurice Jarre’s Lara’s Theme that punctuates every moment, every frame of David Lean’s epic Dr. Zhivago. Moving away from the harsh desert, the undulating sand dunes and the Arab revolt that characterized Lawrence of Arabia, Lean this time takes us to the towering snow filled mountains, the harsh, wintry steppes of Russia, and setting it against a historical backdrop of the Russian Revolution.
The opening credits of the movie itself is a work of art, literally speaking. Maurice Jarre’s lush, operatic score, unfolds over an enchanting gallery of paintings, that showcase the change of seasons, and then the opening credits flash over on the screen. It seems odd that for a movie, that is about the Russian Revolution, and that is set against a nation with one of the harshest winters in the world, the opening credits, give us a mood of a lazy afternoon in a country mansion, lounging around, appreciating the paintings. David Lean loves the epic grandeur of the 70mm canvas, the wide screen, he loves the open landscapes, the great outdoors. But much before Lawrence of Arabia & Bridge on the River Kwai, there were movies like Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Summertime, Hobson’s Choice movies that were small, intimate and personal. Movies that dealt with inter personal relationships, bonding, human nature.
Lean did not just make epics, he filled with them some intense personal drama, while he could take your breath away with the background, he ensured that the human element did not become subservient to the backdrops. Lawrence of Arabia
was not just about the desert or the Arab rebellion, it was also about Lawrence’s attempts to unite the feuding Arab tribes, it was about how Lawrence attempts to bond with the Arabs, as it was about the ego tussles between the Arabs themselves. The Bridge on the River Kwai
was about Colonel Nicholson’s sense of honor and duty, coming into conflict with his other officers. In Dr. Zhivago, Lean attempts to look at a more wider and ambitious canvas, pre Tsarist Russia, the Russian Revolution and it’s aftermath, through the eyes of it’s titular character.
The movie starts off in the year 1956, with General Yevgraf Zhivago( Sir Alec Guiness)
, seeking a young woman Tonya, who he believes could be the illegitimate daughter of his half brother Dr. Yuri Zhivago( Omar Sharif),
and his lover Lara Antipova( Julie Christie)
. He meets Tonya, now working at a dam project, and begins to narrate the story to her. Also we are first introduced to both Yuri and Lara, through their images in the book, which Yevgraf uses to narrate throughout. And then on cue the flashback cuts to a magnificent shot of the towering Ural mountains in the background, snow covered, while in the foreground, a line of mourners is making their way across for a funeral procession. Now here, two shots are quite interesting, the first being one, where the workers on the project, walk inside the dam tunnel, entirely dark, except for a huge red star, and then the mourners being dwarfed by the mountains. In both cases, i feel it was establishing, a central theme of Russian life, the submission of the individual to a higher being, society, the Government, the Communist party or just Mother Nature. I believe this also highlights the major dichotomy between the American and Russian way, the former believing in the supremacy of individual, the one who tames the skies, the winds, the water, nature, while the latter believes that the individual is just another unit, who must submit to a higher force or authority.
Yuri is the individual, who is an odd man out, the odd ball, he is not a rebel, nor a maverick. Raised by his mother’s kindly neighbours the Gromekos- Alexander(Ralph Richardson) and Anna(Siobhan Mc Kenna), along with their daughter Tonya( Geraldine Chaplin), he is a person who feels the need to listgen to his own heart. It is established straight at the beginning, when during the funeral, he stands to one side, his thoughts are on the music, the trees around him. As a young boy he is fascinated by the howling of the wind, the snow, the rustling of leaves during the winter. He takes happiness in the simple things of life, the moon light, the woods, the nature around him. Being a doctor, he is a member of the bourgeois, the privileged upper class, yet his very nature transcends the class differences. Yet at the same time, he understands the harsh realities of life, becoming a doctor, inspite of his love for poetry, as he feels that would not help him to make a living. And of course his natural gift for playing the balalaika.
The contrast between the characters of Yuri and the working class girl, Lara, are established wonderfully by some excellent camera work. Yuri running along, taking the same tram in which Lara is travelling, both of them looking out from the windows at the crowds passing by. And then when Lara gets down from the tram, the camera pans along, using a long shot, as she enters into a slum area. And then intercut to Yuri now entering his more comfortable home, before switching back to the shot of Lara entering the slum where she is staying. The shot giving a hint of the 2 characters from different worlds, one bourgeois, comfortable, the other the poorer masses, whose lives will be intertwined.
And that’s when we are introduced to Lara’s fiance, Pasha Antipov( Tom Courtenay)
, the idealistic youngster, who believes deeply in the Revolution, organizing the working class against the system. Pasha is not exactly a Bolshevik, he is more of a moderate, believing in peaceful revolution. Lara however does not share Pasha’s ideals, she is more interested in surviving day to day. Her mother Amelia, is a dress maker, and she is being “advised”
by Viktor Komarovsky( Rod Steiger)
, a well to do Russian attorney. Advised as in being taken advantage of by people like Komarovsky, who prey upon the misery of people like Amelia.
One of the best shot scenes in the movie is that of a procession being attacked by the Tsarist police. Starting off with the protestors marching in dim lit, led by Pasha, carrying placards proclaiming Brotherhood, Freedom, we see Yuri and Anna, looking with fascination, while Alexander, is not too enthused by it. Alexander, is the typical bourgeois, believing in law and order, not wanting to disturb the system, preferring the status quo. And then Yuri watching a troop of the Tsarist police, riding down the street, creating the apprehension of what is likely to follow. And then the shot of the Tsarist police bearing down on the hapless protestors, terrifying especially the shot of a child fleeing through another’s legs. The horror is conveyed by the expressions on Yuri’s face, as he sees the carnage being perpetrated out there, the screams, the cries, and the blood on the pavement. At the same time, the shots of the procession are inter cut with the scenes of Komarovsky forcibly seducing Lara.
In a way it’s a chilling reminder of the reality, Lara is representative of the Russian masses who are exploited by the brute power, people like Komarovsky posseses. While people like Yuri are sensitive to the plight, they are held back by people like Alexander, who do not want to take a chance. The good and well meaning are helpless and ineffective, and the masses are fair game for the system and it’s exploiters. The brutal assault, had transformed Pasha, he has lost faith in the peaceful revolution. As he tells Lara
There were women and children, Lara! And they rode them down! Starving woman asking for bread!.. And on Tamskaya Avenue, the pigs were eating, dancing and drinking.
Lara on the other hand is sucked further into a never ending abyss of misery. Komarovsky’s exploits her daily, to fulfill his base desires. For Viktor, she is nothing more than a slut, to be used and exploited. He has nothing but contempt for Lara’s fiance Pasha. When Pasha announces his commitment to the Revolution, and his intentions to marry Lara, Komarovsky is shocked. He hates Pasha not just for his ideology, but also the fact, that he would be wedding the woman, he has been abusing day in and day out. He tries to dissuade Lara, explaining that people like Pasha, don’t satisfy women
Lara i am determined to save you from a dreadful error. There are two kinds of men. That young man is one kind, he is High Minded, he is pure. He is the kind of man, the world pretends to look up to, and in fact despises. What is more he is the kind of man, who breeds unhapiness.
He rapes Lara in anger, and then adds insult to the injury stating “And don’t delude yourself this was rape. That would flatter us both”. What was comming out from Komarovsky’s attitude here was a kind of class feeling, Lara being from the lower classes, was some one to be exploited, not a human being to be respected.One of the most ironical moments comes later on when Yuri is treating Komarovsky, after he was shot at, by Lara. He asks him, what would happen to Lara after he has finished with her, and then he replies “I give her to you”. It is something that would come true later on, when Lara and Yuri find themselves in a passionate romance.
Pasha for all his idealism, his revolutionary attitude, his hatred of the society and system, however can’t seem to accept the truth about Lara, the fact that she was seduced by Komarovsky, and then later abused by him. In another brilliant scene, the camera pans in to the shot of a candle near a frosted window. No dialogues spoken here, just the flickering candle, Pasha’s trembling hands and Lara’s expression of fear. The tension in the air is thick, Pasha has come to know the truth, he is shocked, he is confused. We see him trying to strike Lara, yet he can’t and then he slowly comes around. But now, it is Lara who is comforting him, like a mother to a child. She is the one trying to reassure Pasha. Cinema is often called a visual medium, and this scene just reaffirms why, with minimal use of dialogue, David Lean conveys so much, just using camera work, and expressions.
Another scene where David Lean speaks through the camera, are the shots of the War. The scenes on the Russian front, the dead soldiers lying on the wires, and a close up shot of the ice covered face of another soldier. Yevgraf’s VO explaining to Tonya about the War, how it was a fiasco for the Tsarist regime. The regime felt that victory in WW1, would help it, and deflect people’s attention from the Revolution. The shots of the soldiers corpses, the close up shots of the men in the trenches, glum, serious, and then shots of the actual battle, realistic, breath taking. David Lean taking the audience straight into the horrors of the war, and watching this on big screen, just makes the experience something else. The battlefield is where Yuri and Lara meet, he a doctor serving for the Red Cross, and she a trained volunteer, and add to it, her husband Pasha is now fighting in the war. Yuri on the other hand has been married to his childhood friend Tonya.
The Revolution has broken out, the Tsar has been arrested, and the Bolsheviks have taken over Russia. And the love story between Yuri and Lara begins. Yuri is impressed by Lara’s gentle nature, the way she has been handling the patients, the wounded, the sick and the refugees. It is not yet love, but a feeling has begun to develop between them, yet Lara does not want to cause further trouble, sad as she is about leaving, she wants to.
Dr. Zhivago is a classic, it is epic in it’s sweep and scope. Taking one of the most important period in Russian history, the Russian Revolution and it’s aftermath, as the backdrop, and then juxtaposing the story of Zhivago against it, David Lean comes up with a masterpiece. At least for me, this movie is a masterpiece. It has some of the most outstanding camera work, the shots of the Russian Urals, the countryside, the battle scenes are breath taking. And yet the grandeur does not overwhelm the characters, even while emphasizing that the characters are just players in the overall scheme of things. It is not just the scenes of the Revolution or the War that overwhelm you, it is also in the relationships between Yuri and Lara, Lara and Pasha, Komarovsky, that capture the attention. It is storytelling at it’s best, and proves that one does not need to stuff a movie with layers and layers of CGI, to tell a story. Trust me, not all the CGI addled scenes, come anywhere close to the visual splendor that David Lean captures in the movie.
The movie is also helped by some excellent performances. Rod Steiger, though quite over the top at times, does well as the scum bag Komarovsky. Tom Courtenay is good as the idealistic Pasha. But the best performances belong to the lead pair. Julie Christie as Lara is stunningly beautiful, radiant, and exudes charm in every frame. Her Lara is tragic, playful, passionate and you feel for her at every moment. Omar Sharif, who had earlier given a great performance in Lawrence of Arabia, is brilliant here as Dr. Yuri Zhivago. Especially the scene, where he watches the massacre of the protestors by the Tsarist troops, his expressions are brilliant.