My family has started a movie review club. Members take turns selecting a movie for everyone to watch, then we discuss it on Face Book. Our family has always been crazy about movies because of our Mother’s love for everything Hollywood: This promises to be a fun activity.
The current selection is “Dr. Zhivago,” one of our father’s all-time favorites. While Mom was always talking about movies and movie stars, Dad had a deep fascination with everything Russian. I’ve long suspected that Dad’s interest with Russian history stemmed from his service in the US Army during the hottest portion of the “Cold War.” Somehow his interest rubbed off on me, so when I had an opportunity to take 20th century Russian history as an elective during my studies at North Dakota State, I jumped at the chance.
“Zhivago” was released in 1965, when the US and its allies were at the height of their cold war with the Soviet Union. Communism was trying to spread across the globe thanks to the Warsaw Pact Nations, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) tried to stop them. While shots were fired in distant places like Korea and Vietnam, propaganda was the weapon frequently used closer to home on both sides of the Atlantic. “Zhivago” is an excellent example of such propaganda.
When I took my course in Russian History, the professor opened the subject by telling us the Russian mindset can be best described as: You’re born, you work hard, you suffer greatly, and then you die. The Russian people have suffered much during the 20th century, but they take great pride in their ability to persevere. Happiness is fleeting and usually viewed with skepticism when it does try to enter into a Russian’s life. “Zhivago,” which is a story written by the Russian author Boris Pasternak, represents all these beliefs well.
While the role of Yuri Zhivago, played by Omar Sharif, is considered central to the movie, I feel the role of Lara, played by Julie Christie, is far more interesting and I will devote my thoughts to her. Lara’s life is the true tragedy of “Zhivago.”
Lara is only 17 years old, but her beauty has already caught the attention of her mother’s friend and lover, Victor. Her mother attempts suicide, Victor rapes her, then she is rescued by the brooding revolutionary Pasha, whom she marries. Pasha goes off to war leaving Lara with a daughter. Lara is but a young woman, but has already endured much suffering!
Lara leaves her daughter behind and volunteers as a nurse in an attempt to get closer to the fighting and perhaps hear of her husband. She is told that Pasha is dead but continues on, meeting the young doctor Yuri Zhivago in the process. She and Yuri fall in love, but since Yuri is already married, they resist their passionate urges. It is probably fair to note that Yuri is married to a woman named Tonya. Yuri was orphaned as a boy and taken in by friends of the family, whose daughter was Tonya. While marriages to relatives were common at the time, and Tonya wasn’t even a blood relative, I still feel that Yuri couldn’t have felt any deep passion for a woman raised as his sister.
After the war, Lara takes her daughter to live in the country, and quite by coincidence, Yuri and his family end up nearby. Lara appears to be enjoying her simple life when Yuri finds her and she is perhaps at peace for the first time in the story. Her life is once again turned upside down however, by her sudden desire for Yuri. They begin an affair, but a few months later, when Tonya is close to delivering her and Yuri’s second child, Yuri decides to end it. Lara is devastated but accepting of Yuri’s decision. She is once again the perfect Russian heroine!
Yuri disappears, leaving both Lara and Tonya wondering what happened. Yuri has been conscripted into the Red Army but after serving faithfully for some time, he takes the opportunity to desert, when it arises, and returns home. He is saddened to find Tonya and his two children gone, but when Lara tells him they have escaped to Paris, he decides to remain with Lara. If you were hoping this would make for a happy ending, you have forgotten this was a Russian tale.
It turns out Pasha was alive all this time. His story is complex, and important to “Zhivago, but as far as Lara is concerned, let’s just say he became an enemy of the state. When an enemy of the state was executed in Russia, his entire family was executed along with him (See Czar Nicholas)!
Lara discovers that Pasha had been executed and knows that the communists will eventually find her and execute her as well. Yuri is a deserter from the Red Army and knows that he too will eventually end up in front of a firing squad. They decide to live together in the country until their pasts catch up to them.
Eventually there is the dreaded knock on the door. They cower in fear only to learn that it is Victor, the man that had raped Lara when she was seventeen. He is offering Lara and her daughter a chance to escape, but they are so sickened by the man that they vehemently refuse. Eventually Yuri persuades Lara to leave him but she only agrees because she knows she is carrying his child. Yuri never finds out about Lara’s pregnancy. I can’t imagine what was going through Lara’s mind as she leaves the man she loves only to be saved by one as despicable as Victor.
Lara has Yuri’s daughter, whom she names Tanya, but they somehow become separated when Tanya is a young girl. Yuri does somehow get out of his predicament in the country, and with the help of a friend, eventually returns to work as a doctor.
So, both Lara and Yuri survive the revolution but lose track of each other (again). As the movie nears its end, an elderly Yuri sits on a train, and spots Lara walking on the sidewalk. Is it true? Can this Russian story end somewhat happily? Yuri scrambles off the train, and begins running down the street after Lara. He suddenly grabs his chest and falls dead of a massive heart attack!
“Dr. Zhivago,” like most good Russian tales ends sadly. Lara, my favorite character is the classic Russian in that she perfectly fulfilled the description: You’re born, you work hard, you suffer greatly, and then you die.