Taking Another Look at “Dr. Zhivago.”

It’s not that I didn’t like “Dr. Zhivago” when it first appeared. I recognized its virtues, but I was indifferent to them. Fifteen-year olds are more in-tune with James Bond and “The Man With No Name” than some doctor-poet and his star-crossed love-life. The film has always been recognized as a film for Romantics–it was the “Titanic” of its day–and my aunt was positively crazy about it. I took note of John Box’s production design–you couldn’t be a fan of Hammer Films and remain totally unaware of the value of production design, but the story left me unmoved. I was too young to appreciate the sadness of a thwarted love. It seemed more pathetic than tragic that the hero suffers a heart-attack chasing after the love-of-his-life who is completely unaware of his pursuit. Now that I am old enough to suffer a heart attack chasing a bus, I see things differently.

The craft of “Zhivago,” the craft of David Lean is not a young man’s craft–no dizzying Richard Lester jump-cuts, no Quentin Tarantino fractured timelines–everything unfolds at its own stately pace and flows along like a river. Lean creates matching shots–a young Zhivago chases down a trolley and flops into a seat directly behind Lara, the woman he will someday die trying to catch up with–but of course he, and we, don’t know that yet. That’s a payoff in futurity.

It’s also a shrewder film, courtesy of Robert Bolt’s script, than I once thought it to be. The character of Komorofsky may be despicable, but he’s usually correct in his reading of events. And a fifteen-year old is never going to notice that the loud-mouth political commissar who makes Zhivago’s life miserable when he’s press-ganged into the Red Partisans never actually goes into combat himself. He’s just a sort of Cheerleader from Hell encouraging everyone else to die while he stands back clutching his precious leather satchel of Party directives. You have to get old to realize that this sort of skunk will always be with us and is never dragged to front lines himself–where he belongs.

The production design is still quite amazing–not just the dacha-turned-ice-palace but things like the Moscow street sets that you just assume were there from the start. (I wonder if any of this marvelous set, built outside of Madrid, still survives?) If the Spaniards had only known to take steps to preserve David Lean’s Moscow, Anthony Mann’s Roman Forum, Sergio Leone’s Flagstaff–what a tourist attraction they would have!

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