If you haven't noticed already, I'm a bit of an oddball in comparison to my fellow movie writers. I didn't study film in college -- I studied European history, mixed with uneven doses of journalism and English literature. But life leads you into very strange places, and because I loved movies as much as I loved history, I'm here instead of lecturing about the Black Death. Why waste all those years, though? Why not mash all of that up and publish it? Well, that's exactly what I'll be doing with Motion History.
Every week, I'm going to take a film and discuss what is fact and what is fiction. However, I feel an approach like that can be awfully negative. Everyone knows historical accuracy has never been Hollywood's strong suit (my professors spent hours complaining about Spartacus and Gladiator). But I refuse to dismiss a film just because it's inaccurate. Films have a mythological power and value, and movies like Braveheart or 300 have an effect on people and culture. There's intent behind their creation and their inaccuracies, and it's not always as simple as ticket sales. I hope to explore that angle a lot more over the course of this feature.
But enough with the introduction. Let's kick off this fledgling feature with a film that's a personal favorite, and one that's newly out on Blu-ray: Doctor Zhivago. This is a film that was responsible for my decision to abandon the Middle Ages, and spend a few semesters studying Russia. I'm not embarrassed by that. It was a fascinating foray, and exposed me to a culture I had no knowledge of beyond Rocky IV. My studies also had the added benefit of deepening my love for the film. Hopefully, today's feature will have a similar effect on you.
Based on Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago is the story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a poet and physician, and his love for the beautiful and tragic Lara (Julie Christie). Their great misfortune is to not only meet when they're both married, but to fall for each other in the midst of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. As one character coldly puts it, the personal life is dead in Russia, and Yuri and Lara both suffer for their determination to love and live.
The Historical Background
It comes as a surprise to a lot of people, but there were actually two Russian Revolutions in 1917. Russia had been in turmoil for years (there had been a revolution in 1905), but World War I injected enough patriotism to smooth things over. You actually see this represented in Doctor Zhivago. Revolution is brewing. People are marching in the streets, and are cut down by Cossacks. But war breaks out in 1914, and the world turns bright and shiny again -- though unrest remains in the form of the black-clad Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), who enlists purely to ferment dissent among the soldiers.
Three years later, World War I was in a stalemate. A million Russian soldiers had been killed. Russian citizens were cold and starving. Revolution began when a group of anonymous women rose up on February 28, 1917* to march for bread and coal. Tsar Nicholas II abdicated four days later, and a Provisional Government was formed. Nine months of turmoil followed. The government chose to continue the war, power struggles erupted between political factions, and small committees called soviets sprung up across the country. The largest soviet was in Petrograd, and it's there that a loud political minority called the Bolsheviks set up camp. On the night of October 25, the Bolshevik Revolution took place. It was more of a coup than a revolution; there's little bloodshed, and few Russians realized it was even happening. They went to bed under the Provisional Government, woke up under the Bolsheviks, and erupted into civil war.
Is The Movie Accurate?
Well, yes and no. Like Pasternak's novel, the movie compresses the revolution into one tumultuous event that occurs off-screen. The aftershocks of violence and chaos reach out and sweep up Yuri and Lara, who are on the warfront and have no idea what's going on. When Yuri comes home to a stripped and sullen Moscow, it's a world he no longer recognizes. His home is gone. The politics are uncertain. Starvation and disease are rampant. This was a homecoming experienced by a lot of soldiers. The fear and confusion all the characters share is emblematic of how many Russians must have felt.
And things only got worse! As if a war and two revolutions weren't bad enough, the country erupted into a civil war that would last until 1921. Doctor Zhivago doesn't skimp on the horror of the time. The romance may be fictional; the hollow-eyed refugees who can only whisper "Soldiers!" aren't.
But where Doctor Zhivago goes "wrong" is in its emphasis on spies, secret police, censored poetry, and The Party. As if you couldn't guess from the history above, the Bolsheviks were far too busy in 1917 to hunt dreamy dissidents like Yuri Zhivago. They were fanatics, but they actually allowed enough freedom that a poet like Zhivago (or his real-life counterpart, Pasternak) could publish their work without fear of persecution. Lev Trotsky – no choirboy pacifist -- even maintained that "art cannot live and cannot develop without a flexible atmosphere of sympathy." Zhivago isn't a story about the Russian Revolution; it's a thinly disguised portrayal of the Stalin Revolution, when you could be shot, tortured, or imprisoned for having the wrong attitude. Pasternak wrote it as a reaction to the purges. It's about the political terror he experienced (including personal phone calls from Stalin himself) and the loss of his friends to firing squads and gulags. "The novel is absolutely essential for me as a way of expressing my feelings," Pasternak said. "One cannot sit with folded arms." The troubled poet died five years before the film was made, a death hastened by the trauma of being harassed for Zhivago and the Nobel Prize it was awarded.
Lean's film is as much about Pasternak as it is an adaptation of the man's work. The philosophical and religious musings of the novel are gone. Instead, the movie is a cry against censorship, oppression, cruelty, and martial law. The wolves are howling at the door, and there's spies around every corner. The Soviet imagery is a lot more vivid and evil. Yet for all that, it's a more hopeful story than Pasternak's book. The novel ends on a bloody note of World War II, with characters continuing to drift into the great, grim unknown. Lean allows for hope, reunion, and survival. His film even ventures into an unspecified point of glasnost, when the Soviet Union would openly appreciate a poet like Zhivago again. There's even a wavering, misty rainbow stretching out over that stolid Soviet dam.
These are surprisingly confident gestures considering Pasternak's novel was still unpublished in his native land, and wouldn't be until 1988. There, I suspect Lean's Doctor Zhivago is more about post-war Europe than the formation of the Soviet Union. It reminds us that what is beautiful, gentle, and personal in the world – poetry, art, a balalaika, romantic love – is only temporarily crushed by the boot heel, and that even the fragile things can rise again.
*The dates given are from the Julian calendar Russia was still using at that time. It gets confusing to talk about the February and October revolutions, and then give our Gregorian dates of March 8 and November 9, respectively.