Though set against a deeply political backdrop, Doctor Zhivago’s story itself is more like a beautiful, and slightly cheesy, melodrama. The film is based on Boris Pasternak’s novel, which was banned by the Soviet Union, and published independently in Italy in 1957.
It is perhaps a little poignant that the filming rights for Doctor Zhivago were won only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Carlo Ponti in 1963.
It was released in the West in 1965, and director David Lean was taken aback by the mixed reception. Bosley Crowther complained that the screenplay “reduced the vast upheaval of the Russian Revolution to the banalities of a doomed romance”.
Indeed, civilians being attacked by Cossacks during a peaceful demonstration, or entire villages being burned by Bolshevik forces, fade into the background as Zhivago tries to decide which lady to go for in his love triangle.
Crowther admits, however, that the physical production of the film was phenomenal, and most viewers and critics agreed. Doctor Zhivago won five Oscars and five Golden Globe awards, and is the eighth highest-grossing film of all time in the USA, as of 2016.
The reason behind such reverence for a flawed movie is the quality of the scenery. Even though the movie was mostly filmed in Spain — with actors struggling in their furs in the Spanish heat — Lynn managed to portray the vastness of sights such as the winter steps so well that even Russian audiences were awed.
As a viewer with a Russian background (I emigrated to the UK during my childhood), I couldn’t help but feel bothered by what critics deem ignorant portrayals of Russia. I see now where all the stereotypes come from.
An American director with no access to the USSR couldn’t help his lack of knowledge, of course. Still, I feel bitter when I watch Western adaptations of Russian classics, and I know some Russians feel the same way. Should we, as critic Richard Roud suggests, in response to Doctor Zhivago, collectively decide not to adapt foreign classics?
Nonetheless, Doctor Zhivago is a great movie. I sat down to watch it and found myself absorbed by the stunning camera work and charming details (such as a pony chasing a carriage, or an obnoxious army officer falling into a barrel), even if the history was less accurate and emotional gravity somewhat lacking.
Maybe there is some pleasure to be found in seeing your country through a foreigner’s eyes after all.