Sat 20 Jan 2007
Friday, 19th January
From time to time, when I was a boy, it would be said within my hearing that Mrs So-and-So had been to see Doctor Zhivago. As when someone had been to Lourdes, you felt it wasn’t appropriate to ask whether they had enjoyed it. Nor did you usually hear tell of anyone who had gone to see Doctor Zhivago more than once. To my tender ears, the name Zhivago held a certain unpleasant threat which wasn’t to be matched until the works of Harold Shipman became generally known.
Zhivago was a super-production of 1965, garlanded with three Oscars, despite competing with The Sound of Music, which suggests its brow was trailing dangerously close to the ground. None of the principle actors was even nominated for an award - so it was thought to be a jolly good thing, in general but without the sort of particulars which anyone in the Academy really wished to encourage. I was nine and had an early musical task entrusted to me: extracting the top line of Lara’s Theme for the school recorders to play. It’s one of those tunes that is pretty once but, heard daily in rehearsal, it was about as endearing as school disinfectant. Some notes were impossible on recorders so they were modified by the music master. Having heard the whole score tonight for the first time, I think I may have been over-critical about that three-minute school version.
Let’s not forget that the Bolshevik Revolution was also, no doubt, a horrible thing, impossible to sit through. David Lean took his revenge by directing this cinematic counter-revolution in which a moral victory could be snatched out of the ruins. It would be a monument to the middle-class, middle-brow, and middle-aged. It would celebrate poetry in terms which even the English could understand: a pot of ink, an icy desk and a flock of golden daffodils. Tactfully, it would avoid quoting a single line of the poet’s verses. This, after all is poetry as commodity, flourished like a passport and likely to inspire respect even in one’s sworn enemies. On its own, it won’t impress the groundlings much, so our poet must also be a doctor, glimpsed at regular intervals tying a splint around a broken limb or closing the eyes of a corpse. The doctor as bourgeois individualist has more fun in Altman’s MASH. Come to think of it, Gary Cooper had more fun in A Farewell to Arms. Zhivago must be seen doctoring as much as possible and Lara must dash away with her smoothing iron; you see, these are not decadent bourgeois, but the real workers in a country where the workers did nothing but whinge, protest and act nasty.
This is a film in which about half a dozen characters count and the tides of extras are part of the scenery. Hostile scenery, for much of the time. You can tell it’s an epic from the scene where Zhivago is caught stealing wood on the same day as the Bolsheviks ransack the last room left in the house. A wisp of a scene that should have been handled with irony and intimacy. Instead, the screen fills with grey hordes and the moral lesson is read at great length by Alec Guinness, playing a half-brother whose rôle in the drama is disturbingly surplus. He opens and closes the thing, to be sure, but he feels like an expensive luxury, one that was ordered and needs to be used, even if only as a door-stop.
Julie Christie is pretty but in a sixties way. When Rita Tushingham makes an appearance, it seems a pity that we couldn’t also have had Dora Bryan show up as a Babushka in a shawl to claim her and drag her back to Salford. Omar Sharif is handsome but can do nothing to remedy the emptiness of his part. Rod Steiger has too many lines, in contrast, but his playing is as near human the temperature gets in this waxwork world.
Old VHS copies are not a bad way to catch up on films you feel a duty to view once. This was in OAR & goodish stereo. Yes I know they were meant to be seen in a deluxe theatre in 70mm but this sort of viewing should establish if the picture has anything but spectacle to offer. I endured Lawrence of Arabia last February. I’ll see if I can get a note to excuse me from Ryan’s Daughter.