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Doctor Zhivago

By August 29, 2015 One Comment

For this fourth in a series on the five films I could watch forever, I get to talk about David Lean’s 1965 epic about Russia, revolution, and romance, Doctor Zhivago. I don’t remember where I first viewed it—I think in one of the grand old theaters in downtown Grand Rapids. Don’t remember when, either. It may have been early in 1966, because the first movie I ever watched in a theater was The Sound of Music, also released in 1965. (In fact, it beat out Zhivago for best film and best director at the Academy Awards the next spring.) I know for sure when and where I viewed The Sound of Music; it was at Cinerama in downtown Chicago, autumn of 1965. This was a standard Christian Reformed ploy to get around the denomination’s still extant but doddering ban on movie attendance. You didn’t go to movies in your home town, plus the big screen of Cinerama made Sound of Music ‘art’ instead of ‘Hollywood.’

As I hinted, we were not the only family to bust the movie ban with The Sound of Music; it probably constituted “the first time” for more CRC families than any other film in history. And notice that it was the whole Bratt family that took in the show. Alas, for Mom the moral tension might have been too much—she left the theater with a migraine. So this is how things broke down for the CRC in the ‘Sixties.’ Not civil rights and Vietnam and your other big famous traumas. No, Julie Andrews busted our movie virginity, and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, with his all-afternoon Sunday football telecasts, broke up the Sunday afternoon nap. With that went the heart and soul of CRC church growth—procreation.

Back to Zhivago, although still on its context; content in a minute. As a high-school junior in 1965 I was starting to develop an independent mind on current events, and there Russia still stood center stage. The year before, Nikita Khrushchev had been ousted as premier, yet was not executed as  conventional wisdom had predicted to be his sure fate. In the summer of 1965 the USSR and the USA maneuvered through another little dust-up in, around, and above Berlin. The real auguries that season were being cast in Vietnam, where American troops were starting to arrive in number and getting into some pretty bloody action. That step, we were assured, was necessary to thwart the expansive intentions of world Communism, behind which stood the evil genius of the Soviet Union. I wasn’t so sure. I thought that Russians might be real people (and, no, I didn’t realize that the USSR and Russia were not the same). In any case they were intriguing people, and so I started dipping into Russian poetry and fiction. Then came Doctor Zhivago.

The movie hit my supreme trifecta: sweeping history, grand but ill-fated romance, and production values that didn’t quit. One of Zhivago’s five Oscars was for cinematography, and every time I watch the movie again, the magic is still there. The sweeping snows of the Urals, the dingy Moscow streets, the field of brilliant yellow daffodils, the blue of Julie Christie’s eyes. The film was not as well received initially as Lean’s two previous epics, Bridge over the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, but viewing the three in succession now, I find Zhivago to be the most stirring and satisfying, and not only because of the romantic interest. (Have I mentioned Julie Christie?) The interlocking of great events with personal passion works best here. We watch Russia’s bold, heartbreaking saga sweep from czarist oppression to Bolshevik Revolution to civil war in wide-screen technicolor set to an Oscar-winning musical score. Meanwhile, the personal dramas are just as affecting. Some feature set-pieces of good vs. evil , but more involve decent people fixing their desires on a great passion, be it radical politics or a socially proper mate who they think will answer their yearning. Too often it doesn’t so that when real love arrives, tragedy must ensue. It was all so sad, so tumultuous, so grand, so fit for the teen-aged guy feeling his way toward being a historian. And wondering whether such a one as Julie Christie might ever be his.

In college I would go on to read the Boris Pasternak Nobel Prize-winning novel behind the movie. I would drag a long-suffering young lady to the six-hour version of War and Peace that Russian producers put out for $100 million in 1969. But it was hard to stay interested in Russian matters across the 1970s as the USSR descended into the drab and grotesque. Whatever hope to change the world might have animated the revolutionaries in Doctor Zhivago had come to nothing under Leonid Brezhnev, and whatever hopes attended the ending of the Cold War in 1989 have come to the world derangement engineered by George W. Bush and his good buddy Pootie-Poot. Great tragedy and epic romance require big hopes and artistic grandeur, and Doctor Zhivago delivers. Julie Christie? No, I married a classy brunette instead. Now there’s a happy ending.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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