The Strange Gift of Healing Souls
If “Doctor Zhivago” were a drug, its label would read: WARNING – side effects may include repeat viewings and a warm sense of affirmation. How else could a movie without spectacular performances or captivating special effects become No. 8 at the All-Time North American box office?
“Doctor Zhivago” is a timeless movie. It is as enjoyable today as when first released in 1965, almost 50 years ago. In our quest to understand great movies, we ask why?
It is easy to appreciate the craft of “Zhivago.” Competent acting, exotic locations, speeding trains, intense battles, crowds in motion, beautiful costumes, striking music, relentless story progression: “Zhivago” has it all. Film buff or not, you will instinctively appreciate that you are in the hands of artists reaching for the stars and who, magically, did not exceed their grasp.
Still, craft and spectacle alone is rarely enough to motivate people for the repeat viewings that tend to mark great movies. Something else is going on here.
“Zhivago’s” secret ingredient seems the underlying story construction. This movie contains an exquisite combination of comedy and tragedy, a combination that Socrates and Aristophanes once agreed would be the best of all drama.
Comedy tends toward unification. This is usually symbolized by the hero or heroine finally becoming paired with the most attractive girl or youth, presumably to begin a family and strengthen their community: essentially an act of birth. In tragedy, the right people never get together or they lack the necessary power to overcome their circumstance, everything continually comes apart: essentially an act of death. But how does anyone combine such different story arcs without creating mush?
Outwardly, “Zhivago” is a love story. Surprisingly, the title character does not drive the action. Instead, Lara, the central female figure, drives the action; as others have noted, symbolically, Lara represents the transcendent female spirit Mother Russia. We only learn about the characters around her, that is the men or spirits that would possess her, through their interaction with Dr. Zhivago.
The movie invites us, then, to understand the underlying comedy by watching Lara: to see who “gets the girl.” And, it invites us to understand the underlying tragedy by following the many children continuously denied their fathers and mothers.
Lara and Zhivago each come from fatherless homes. Lara’s mother trades her affections for support from a man who desires few family responsibilities; indeed, he soon casts aside the mother for her daughter.
Zhivago is completely orphaned but fate puts him in a nurturing environment with his mother’s rich, aristocratic friends. These friends have a daughter with whom Zhivago will grow up and eventually start a family. But this is like marrying one’s sister. The audience knows instantly that this will not work out.
For Lara, three suitors emerge. The first is a fellow student, an intellectual passionate about social justice. The second is her mother’s lover, a seasoned man of the world with an appetite for indulging life’s pleasures – ethical or otherwise. And the third is Zhivago who can offer her the material comfort afforded by a doctor and the sacred passion of an unworldly poet.
After a tumultuous relationship with her mother’s lover, who is named Victor, Lara at first goes off to a country village with the social justice intellectual. Her husband, however, soon does not find this satisfying. He volunteers for a war to improve the future. When he becomes lost, Lara goes to find the husband and father of her child….and finds Dr. Zhivago.
“Zhivago” works its magic partly because each of the central characters is flawed yet none is simply evil. Each of Lara’s suitors also is painted definitively as dominated by either appetite, intellect or emotion, the three main drivers of human action.
Each of us is subject to the same forces. This makes identification easy. Moreover, we all know, intuitively at least, that finding the right balance between these forces is the secret to a good life. By balancing the story between all three suitors, the movie elevates the struggle of ordinary people. Ordinary people make decisions as best they can and still make mistakes. Or suffer terrible things.
The story’s other masterstroke is a stunning dual climax. We expect the underlying comedy to end by Zhivago somehow pairing with Lara. Yet, in the end, Zhivago refuses Victor’s help to find safety and he abandons Lara to him. Lara then goes off with Victor, who becomes a surrogate father to Zhivago and Lara’s love child. He was, of course, named Victor for a reason.
Now, we all know that, in life, some combination of the romantic and the practical is the best combination for the sake of our children. The necessity of this compromise is an otherwise unpalatable lesson to which we might not be open. When Zhivago dies alone, however, we accept this tragic end as evidence that there is justice in the world: he deserved to die alone because he should not have abandoned both his families; and especially not Lara, his true love. When we see fate tending to confirm that there is justice or order in the world, it confirms to us that life has meaning and is worth living.
The resolution of the underlying tragedy proves just as surprising. Zhivago and Lara’s lost love child, the search for whom begins and ends the movie, turns out as the woman we should have been watching to see the comedy resolved. She rejects her uncle, the counterpart of Victor within the powerful communist apparatus, and, instead, goes off with a young man who controls great natural power. Not only that, she can play music as a natural gift. This proves that beauty or harmony need not require any other community nurture; they transcend the merely human. People who deserve better sometimes are rewarded. Here, the community strengthened by this resolution is not the state or any man-made political artifice, it is the larger community of all decent people struggling honestly with the human condition: people like us. Again there is a sense of order and justice in the world.
The result of all this is that, after finishing “Zhivago,” many people feel rejuvenated by a subconscious affirmation of life. Our lives have purpose; justice and order will prevail in the end. This teaching appeals to virtually anyone and can motivate viewers to appreciate the order and beauty in their own lives.
Art is the craft of healing souls. “Doctor Zhivago” is more than just a movie. There is a doctor in the house and he has left you a gift of good medicine. DIRECTIONS: view once, twice…or as many times as needed.
Length: 3 hr 19 min
Budget: $11 million
Domestic Gross: $111,721,910
Domestic Gross (adjusted): $965, 773,800
Oscars: 5 wins from 10 nominations.
All Time Domestic Box Office (adjusted for 2013):
1. Gone with the Wind
2. Star Wars
3. The Sound of Music
6. The Ten Commandments
8. Doctor Zhivago
9. The Exorcist
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs