Movies To See Before You Die: “Doctor Zhivago”
I cannot tell you why, but it was decided that one day when I was in seventh grade that we would all watch Doctor Zhivago. It was not tied into any kind of unit on the U.S.S.R., though of course in 1990 historic events unfolded in that part of the world and certainly would have justified the movie. It was also the film’s 35th anniversary so perhaps it simply came to someone’s attention that way. I cannot say, and it does not particularly matter why the film was shown to a bunch of seventh graders.
Until that day, I had only ever been exposed to movies intended for youthful viewers. Doctor Zhivago clocks in at 200 minutes. We switched classes throughout the school day as normal, the video paused while we migrated and then resumed. It went on like this for 50 minute intervals, watching each segment in a different room on a small TV (in pan and scan, no less!). To be polite, the viewing conditions were less than ideal. I can imagine Roger Ebert reading this (thanks, by the way, Roger) and his head exploding (sorry, by the way, Roger).
Most of my classmates ignored the movie entirely, seizing on the opportunity to get caught up on homework and pass notes in the dark and to have whispering conversations among themselves. I was, however, attentive as I could be. I was certain there would be some kind of quiz about the movie (why else forfeit all of our classes in one day to watch it?).
Then it happened.
Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger, in a performance to turn stomachs) harasses young Lara (Julie Christie, gorgeous and sad). “There are two kinds of women and you, as we well know, are not the first kind. You, my dear, are a slut.” Komarovsky forces himself on Lara, who initially resists but eventually acquiesces. The sex itself takes place off screen, but we know what has happened.
“And don’t delude yourself that this was rape. That would flatter us both,” he says when we return to them.
Oh. My. God. Are you kidding me? Did that just happen?! DID YOU SEE WHAT JUST HAPPENED?! I tried to grab the attention of whichever classmate was sitting beside me, but failed to engage his or her attention. That I cannot recall anything about the student is not surprising. After that scene, I was entirely oblivious to anything but Doctor Zhivago and his sordid, revolutionary world.
No one batted an eye, though, because no one else was paying any attention whatsoever to the nearly three and a half hour long movie playing on a series of 27” TVs. My classmates would surely have freaked out had they the faintest notion what had just taken place in our classroom. These were, after all, the same students who blushed in sex ed when we were asked to provide whatever terms we knew for anatomical parts.
I was captivated by the Bolshevik Revolution, from the peasants taking over the Zhivago home to the cold cruelty of Streliykov (Tom Courtenay, all the more sinister because he seems detached). I marveled at the marriage of abstract ideology with practical action. To that point in my life, I knew that I was something of a dreamer but I never had a paradigm for understanding how abstract thoughts might manifest themselves. I didn’t necessarily wish to overthrow a government or seize the belongings of the wealthy class, but Doctor Zhivago showed me that the grandest events in life do not originate with practical-minded people. They began with dreamers. Things may go horribly awry, of course – a point also on display throughout Zhivago. But to look at Strelnikov and see that this naïve little geek became the most powerful man in the entire picture instilled me with an unsettling kind of optimism. Perhaps one day I might be the Strelnikov of my class, to become someone powerful while they all toiled away in their own little world. It’s funny how a movie can resonate with you at the right stage of your growth.
Reading this may suggest that I fixated on the abusive rapist and the ruthless, ominous general and fear that Doctor Zhivago taught an impressionable seventh-grader to become an anti-social sadist. This is not at all the case. Komarovsky and Strelnikov were wholly different antagonists than those who had existed in my world before them; villains I knew may have desired intergalactic conquest, but they weren’t particularly nasty about it. They certainly never treated a woman the way Komarovsky treated Lara!
Just as Doctor Zhivago gave me a whole new brand of villainy, it also gave me a whole new brand of heroism. I was conflicted about the titular Zhivago himself (Omar Sharif, sporting one of the finest mustaches of his era). It was the first time I understood how a protagonist could not be particularly heroic. I felt strongly that he should have been faithful to his wife, Tonia (Geraldine Chaplin, suffering nobly). Perhaps as the child of divorce I was particularly sensitive to that aspect of Zhivago. Yet, even though I did not want to endorse his infidelity, I knew he really did love Lara and would have been good for her. Certainly, he was a better mate than Komarovsky or Strelnikov! It became the template for my own fantasies; I could be the nice guy that the beautiful girl would finally realize she should have been with all along after enduring the heartaches of the Komarovskys and Strelnikovs of her life.
Doctor Zhivago blew me away and it entirely redefined my world view. I saw things entirely differently after that day. Women were not just sweet and maternal. They were tragic, mismatched as Tonia and done wrong by the whole world as Lara. Dreamers were not idle fools, but the most dangerous among us. And I came to understand how it could be that a 35 year old movie about events that took place in Russia nearly 50 years before it was made could change a 12 year old boy’s life.
Doctor Zhivago is currently 40 / 1332 (97%) on my Flickchart.