Balalaika blues: Film Review of Dr. Zhivago

Dr. Zhivago poster



Doctor Zhivago

Directed by David Lean

1965, Deluxe Edition, Warner Bros.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched David Lean’s film adaptation of Russian novelist Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago,” but I’ve easily seen the movie more than five times.  This was the first time that I sat scrunched up in front of a lap top watching a DVD.  I believe that Lean’s epics must be watched on a wide screen in a movie house to get the full effect.  Even so I drew something new from the 1965 epic classic that revolves around a poet-medical doctor Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif).  While the love story between Yuri and Lara (Julie Christie) takes center stage, the various threads of this movie could easily pull a viewer’s attention in new directions.  Even taking one character to study in depth could transform into a thesis.

Rich in symbolism, the English director Lean blend contemporary filmmaking from the 1960s with old school cinema.  Every shot and every edit performed a role with nothing superfluous.  Although the movie runs 3 hours and 17 minutes, the story never drags, and clips along tossing out one surprise after another to viewers.  But every surprise acts as a payoff to information that was delivered earlier in the story.  Lean directed sprawling epics (“Lawrence of Arabia” also comes to mind) with compact scenes which acted as visual shorthand. 

For instance the opening sequences of the film feature Yuri’s half brother (Alec Guinness) questioning a young girl (the daughter of Yuri and Lara) and then as he flashes back to the death of his and Yuri’s mother we see the young Yuri starting at his mother in her coffin.  The edits between the boy’s bewildered face and the nails hammered into the coffin, the coffin lowered into the earth and then covered in soil convey the child’s circumstances and emotions without any dialogue.  The scene that follows has minimum dialogue of the new caretakers tucking Yuri into his bed and the father figure gives Yuri his mother’s balalaika (which is a set up for the final scene of the movie).  This is genius filmmaking by the way.

Later, (and the filmmakers interviewed in the DVD documentary comment on this), Lean plays the lead characters off of each other with edits between various scenes.  We see Lara dancing with the villain (Rob Steiger) at a ball, and her fiancé (Tom Courtney) leading a peaceful protest (Bolsheviks), then we see the czar’s police ride on horses, swords out, attack and trample the protestors while Yuri watches (close ups of his Sharif’s face) in horror.  Meanwhile, we see the villain in a carriage with Lara.  We don’t see the rape scene, but we know he deflowered Lara.  A blood stain in the snow of one of the fallen protestors symbolizes death and the rape of the 17 year old Lara.

Similar to Alfred Hitchcock, Lean shows the horror of war often indirectly, through edits, though he also shows violent scenes of the red army gunning down white guard soldiers later in the film.  However, the war between the Russians and the Germans is portrayed in a compact scene where we believe that Pasha (Lara’s fiancée) has fallen (died) when we see his glasses fall onto the snowy ground.  But then Lean brings us a little surprise at the end of part I, which I won’t give away here.

The second half of the movie feels more intimate with Yuri going back and forth between his wife Tanya (Geraldine Chaplin) and child and his mistress Lara.  Though Tanya is aware of this affair she never mentions it and we see her losing herself in the moment, whether gardening or taking care of her son Sasha.  Most of the emotions play out on the actresses face especially her expressive eyes.  And by the way, there is no shortage of expressive eyes in this movie.  Think of Sharif’s large liquid brown eyes as mirrors of the soul and ditto for Chaplin and Christie.  I can’t even imagine any other performers in these roles because in my mind, Geraldine is Tanya and Julie is Lara.  In fact, I find this movie flawless, almost a miracle with its memorable story, photography, music composed by Maurice Jarre.  Similar to other classics such as Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” or any number of Francois Truffaut films, the images of “Dr. Zhivago” stick with viewers for a lifetime.  Movies possess a Jungian element anyway and when rich symbolism, stylish editing, and vivid photography string stories together, one scene into the next like a perfect string of pearls, I think this is why I love cinema in the first place.

I could watch “Dr. Zhivago” another 10 times even 20 more times and I would still need to go back for more. Not only that, the message about the uselessness of revolutions speaks to current times.  How many times have revolutions just replaced one corrupt leader for another? The elation of a victory of the people is soon replaced by the reality of the corruption of political leadership as one guard brings another form of oppression.  The problem however, isn’t leadership, but the fact that each of us projects our disowned shadows onto others while never acknowledging the evil side of our own hearts. If a revolution is to succeed (the message I received from this movie), it has to come from the heart, it’s a revolution of our souls, not something that happens in the outside world.  Until we embrace the humanity within our hearts, both the dark and the light and find balance, oppression will continue in the world in one form or another.  But just like the ending of “Dr. Zhivago” brings hope, we too can hope of a true new beginning that doesn’t’ repeat the mistakes of the past.

If you haven’t seen this movie in awhile rent it or borrow it from the library.

2 thoughts on “Balalaika blues: Film Review of Dr. Zhivago

  1. You know, I’ve only watched bits and pieces of the movie. Don’t know why either. I need to really sit down and watch it.

    Also, apologies for not keeping up with your blogs. I usually do. Just busy with that A-Z Challenge, which by the way is Kick Arse. I like doing it but will be glad when it’s over.

    And also, I bought a cool meditation tape to balance my chakras. They use synthesizers along with different chants for each one. The really neat thing about it is you can play it while creating something. Very cool!

    Anyway, have a great day!

  2. Hi Shelly, no worries about regular visits to my blog. It’s better that you write and the A-Z Challenge sounds like a wonderful opportunity to do that.

    Since “Dr. Zhivago” is a long movie (3 hours and 17 mins), you can watch it in 2 parts. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever produced and rewards its viewers in so many ways. Plus as a writer, it’s a great excuse to study story structure, etc…

    Thank you for stopping by and I wish you the best with the blog challenge.


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