MovieMonday: Dr. Zhivago

In a moment when hundreds of millions of us are quarantining ourselves for the greater good, this isn’t the worst movie to give a look.

Its title character is an honorable person who does his best, but whose fate is determined more by a world war and national strife on either end of that war.  It perhaps will help us put our current sacrifices into perspective.

The setting is Russia, where Yuri Zhivago is adopted by his uncle after his mother’s death.  Yuri (Omar Shariff) grows up and trains to be a doctor, marries a good woman, meets another good woman who works as a nurse when he ministers to Russian soldiers in World War I, loses his wife and then is caught between the White and Red armies after the 1917 Revolution replaces the Czarist government with a new and less predictable reign of chaos.

The story comes from a novel by Boris Pasternak, who survived the same history, no mean achievement.  His book was published in 1958 in Italy, then other countries and, finally, in the still-USSR in 1987.

David Lean, the maker of two Best Picture Oscar-winning films — The Bridge on the River Kwai(1957) and Lawrence of Arabia(1962) — released Dr. Zhivago in 1965.

There are many things to like about this film.  Its cinematography shows us the violent attacks on unarmed marchers in the first Russian Revolution of 1905, the honest anger of Russian soldiers at the end of World War I and the desperation of starving Russians fleeing for the provinces after 1917.

In addition, it gives us more complex characters, among them Pasha (Tom Courtney,) a sincere Marxist who turns into a Red Army enforcer and Komarovsky (Rod Steiger,) a callous and opportunist lawyer who seems to survive all.

I have read much Russian literature and will not read Dr. Zhivago until I have finished The Brothers Karamazov.  But what little I know of Pasternak’s magnum opus suggests this movie does not — cannot — do it justice, even at its length of three hours and 20 minutes.

Besides the necessary plot compression, there are other weak links:  Julie Christie, playing beautiful heroine Lara, is unbelievable as a 17-year-old in the film’s early scenes; the syrupy “Lara’s Theme” song punctuating the whole film isn’t supported by what remains of the plot’s trajectory; the loopy ending that aims to link the whole story together is weak, etc.

A multi-part television series of Zhivago was released about 15 years ago in Russia.  I will not be surprised if the producers of our current binge-watch favorites (Tiger King, anyone?) rediscover this story and try to come up with a substantial project.


The visual content available when streaming old movies frustrates those who favor actual film over video.  This is because streaming is rendered in a digital format, typically HD.  The Idiosyncratist was particularly disappointed with the less subtle but more jarring literal translation of North by Northwest several weeks ago.

To convert 35mm film to digital and display all the nuance of 35mm requires more resolution than is generally available on HD today, which typically tops out, alas, at 1080p.  Films that are converted to digital at 4K look substantially better.

If your home screen cannot accommodate 4K, you can improve what you see by switching the viewing mode from Vivid (which highlights brightness and contrast) to Cinema (which reduces those things and creates a more tonal mood).  This capability is available on almost all current HD television screens.

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