The Russian Revelation

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DOCTOR ZHIVAGO always seemed boring on TV when I was a kid, and once it had started it never seemed to stop. But that’s because (a) it was pan-and-scanned into visual incoherence, losing the very qualities which redeem it and (b) it really is nearly three hours long. And never dull, actually, if you see it in the right shape. But not too involving, either, though my friend Morag is always terribly moved by the hero’s death scene. Watched it with Marvelous Mary, Nicola, Donald and Stuart, and we were all dry-eyed yet impressed.

Stuart and I won a prize for a short film we made in 1990, and ZHIVAGO’s esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Young presented it. Stuart even had a brief conversation with the great man in the BAFTA men’s room, but alas can no longer recall the gist of it. He thinks it may have been a general reflection on the quality of the BAFTA men’s room.

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Whatever his merits as a conversationalist, Young was an outstanding cameraman and, after Nic Roeg was fired by a nervous David Lean (he had previously kicked Robert Krasker off GREAT EXPECTATIONS), he excelled himself here, aided by John Box’s meticulous and lavish reconstruction of Russia in Spain. Still, I think this is the beginning of Lean’s true decline — I find no fault with LAWRENCE, but I think Lean should probably have stopped working with Robert Bolt and Maurice Jarre immediately afterwards. Still, Jarre contributes that main theme, and Bolt does a decent job of shrinking down an unwieldy novel. What he can’t do is find a consistent and believable idiom for his characters to speak in (“The war’s over, daddy!” is the line that always forces an embarrassed guffaw from my lungs). He’s not helped by Lean’s wild casting, which asks us to accept Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif as half-brothers, and Rita Tushingham as the offspring of Sharif and Julie Christie. The styles of performance are also madly varied, with the Actors’ Studio jostling with the Rank Charm School, Royal Shakespeare Company with kitchen sink realists. Theoretically, this could all still gel, but it definitely doesn’t.

Everything Lean does well in this film, he also does badly. Spielberg rhapsodizes over the musical edits, such as when a doctor tosses aside a slide, and the “ting!” it makes chimes with the bell of a tram in the next scene, but Lean also cuts from Rod Steiger pawing Julie Christie in a landau, to a dragoon captain shouting “Mount!” as a backside settles into a saddle. He jump-cuts with the aid of a zip-pan in the restaurant, as if he were directing The Man from UNCLE. Increasingly nervous about the thrilling experiments with film form going on in Europe, Lean would sway back and forth between unfelt, unwise attempts at experimentation, and ever-grander, more solemn and self-serious epic filmmaking. The latter style suits him better and he’s genuinely, uniquely good at it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but Lean had a feel for it.

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Kind of a flat composition, which is not an obvious choice if you’re aiming for epic scope. But the cross in the foreground gives it a huge and dramatic sense of depth. The funeral of Zhivago’s mother freaked me out as a kid — Lean fades up the sound of weeping women as the coffin lid is nailed shut, giving the scene the aspect of a premature burial. The shot of Mrs. Z. lying in her coffin, buried, seemingly the imaginative vision of her young son, is gorgeous and very scary.

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I think Steiger’s quite good in this. He excels at being loathsome. It helps that his character’s right about nearly everything.

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I’m pretty sure Lean is making a point about the objectification of women here. At any rate, Julie Christie’s dress is one of Fiona’s two favourite movie costumes, the other being Fenella Fielding’s velvet vamp outfit in CARRY ON SCREAMING.

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I do think it’s a problem when Klaus Kinski shows up, his brow a throbbing tracery (SCANNERS could have saved a fortune in effects by hiring him) — firstly, we have another accent to add to the already strange mix (though the IMDb claims the inescapable Robert Rietty revoiced the mellifluous Klaus), but also he’s so damned INTERESTING. I wanted the film to abandon poor Omar and Geraldine and just follow Klaus on his wacky adventures. Maybe he could get a dog and solve mysteries, or maybe he could set up business as a fake medium and fleece silly widows. Anything, really.

Other people who are good in this ~

Omar, even though he’s playing an almost entirely passive character, mainly defined by things he doesn’t do — doesn’t become a GP, doesn’t become a teacher, doesn’t leave his wife, doesn’t get on a landau with Julie and Rod…

Julie, though she’s been better in other things. Sometimes Lean seems to be stifling her spontaneity.

Rita Tushingham. Her tears at her childhood memory of abandonment were the one bit that moved me, though I wasn’t sure the character should cry. Robert DeNiro, in an early interview, pointed out that people recounting traumatic memories most usually do it with no emotion at all, with a denial of the emotion.

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Tarek Sharif. The one good bit of family casting — Omar’s real son plays the young Omar. He seems to have been dubbed by a young Englishwoman, giving him a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED quality, but I can live with it if he can.

Tom Courtenay. Typically a callow, likable actor, he plays shrill extremists here and in KING RAT. He’s quite good at it.

People who are wasted ~

Ralph Richardson. Always nice to have him around, of course, but he has simply nothing to play.

Geraldine Chaplin. Potentially a more interesting actor than Julie Christie — look at her career — here, she’s purely boring in her nice pink hat, because her character is terribly, terribly dull. By avoiding being jealous she does defy the cliché, but she defies it in a way that lets the drama escape like leaking helium. Just wait for NASHVILLE, the rematch, though.

Jack MacGowran. It’s not a proper MacGowran performance if you can understand more than one word in ten. Lean seems to have insisted on enunciation, an alien custom to the Great Garbler.

Watching this with friends at home rather than on the big screen (I did have the pleasure once), you can’t escape the ridiculous plotting that has this rather small cast of characters forever bumping into one another by chance across the length and breadth of Russia. It seems like the book has even more of this. Nothing to be done. Looks like Bolt and Lean invented the scene which moved my friend Morag so much — one last chance encounter, and one last tram reference, isn’t going to do any harm, is it? Trams and trains haunt the narrative, perhaps because the human characters all seem to be gliding about on fixed rails too.

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21 Responses to “The Russian Revelation”

  1. still glad I finally watched it – yes good moments the workers marching out of the hydro electric scheme… but doesn’t quite add up

  2. I think it adds up on its own strange terms, possibly, it’s just uneven in execution. The theme of love and poetry versus history and politics is clear enough. Does it matter that we never hear a single line of Zhivago’s poetry? I think Lean wanted to supply the poetry with his visuals, but daffodils seem not quite sufficient.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    I agree that ZHIVAGO has problems (even though I love it) but don’t agree that lean and his production team should have called it quite. They went on to make RYAN’S DAUGHTER, which is a masterpiece on every conceivable level!

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Sorry, ‘quits’!

  5. The snowy mountain in the shot is the Moncayo, in Soria. I used to spend many holidays there, and I think that, as far as Spanish goes, it’s a very apt equivalent for Russian Steppes: a scarcely populated place, with harsh winters.

    The mountain itself, a lone giant over the otherwise flat Castilian meseta, is somewhat treacherous: if you go to the summit, there are always wee reminders or plane accidents, and it has its share or scary legends, some of them told by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer in his volume “Rhymes and Legends” (and sure as hell to be nightmare fodder)

  6. Ooh, must try to get a copy!

    The music in Ryan’s Daughter strikes me as extremely sub-par, as is the case in A Passage to India. Jarre did some good and some bad stuff early on, but he has few good moments after the sixties.

    I like what Lean *said* about his casting process, that he liked to make “slightly wild choices.” But he nearly cast Charles Laughton in Bridge on the River Kwai, which wouldn’t have worked at all. He thought maybe Laughton could go on a diet. Guinness in A Passage to India attracts most of the criticism, but asides from him it’s a well-cast movie. I couldn’t say the same for Ryan’s Daughter — Mitchum is a wild choice who really works, but Christopher Jones simply isn’t up to it. Once again, a movie that needed Jon Finch.

  7. Don’t watch, Nanni, it’s pan-and-scan!

  8. Oh watch it anyway. It’s a great scene. The film is about the collapse of the Italian Communist party, whose newly elected leader (Nanni) is team captain at a water polo match. The match is fast and furious but everyone stops when the climactic scene of Dr. Z pops up in the TV over the pool’s bar.

  9. I wonder what it would take to get our politicians to down tools? The finale of The Apprentice, perhaps.

  10. Naw . The finale of “The Sopranos”

  11. henryholland666 Says:

    I love Lean’s run of movies that comprises This Happy Breed > Blithe Spirit > Brief Encounter > Great Expectations (one of my very favorite movies, despite John Mills being way too old to play the adult Pip) > Oliver Twist.

    I like “Bridge on the River Kwai” but it’s a pointer to why I cool on his movies: it’s way too long I think, it could easily lose 30-40 minutes. As much as I love a shirtless William Holden and Alec Guinness’ great work, it just feels padded out in places, trying way too hard to be “epic”. I don’t like “Lawrence of Arabia” much at all and find “Doctor Zhivago” and especially “Ryan’s Daughter” to be deadly dull, full of some great moviemaking, but again padded out.

    I really like “A Passage to India” but a lot of that has to do with E.M. Forster’s source novel, it’s a worthy addition to the canon of Forster adaptations.

  12. Zhivago is colossally pared down compared to the source book — it’s hard to see what else they could remove while maintaining coherence. As it is, Chaplin and Richardson and Adrienne Corri simply disappear from the story.

  13. Randy Cook Says:

    The musical score from LAWRENCE is arguably the finest bearing Maurice Jarre’s name. The way the lush, floridly romantic music playing in the head of “desert loving Englishman” cartographer T.E.Lawrence is supplanted by dissonant barbarity when his idealistic dreams (“No, Dryden: It’s going to be FUN”) meet nightmarish reality is something which, to my mind, Jarre never equalled.

    I had heard, in 1989, through a good friend who knew the film’s orchestrator Gerard Schurmann, that Mr. Schurmann felt he’d been screwed, by Lean and Spiegel, out of an agreed-upon “co-composer” credit with Jarre. Somebody being screwed by I. L. Eagle? Unthinkable!

    But a big contribution by a gifted collaborator seemed to go a long way in explaining the superiority of the LAWRENCE score over the balance of Jarre’s rather formulaic (in my opinion) output.

    Schurmann never discussed this messy incident publicly until 2009. His side of the story is fascinating and has the ring of truth.

    Here it is.

    http://www.mvdaily.com/articles/2009/01/lawrence.htm

  14. Randy Cook Says:

    Oh. GS actually wrote this piece in 1990. I’m a slow researcher.

  15. The pity of it is, having sat by while S.P. Eagle screwed Schurmann (if that’s true), Lean then only had half the musical talent on tap for his next three films.

    Jarre’s stuff for Franju is interesting, and the opposite of epic. And The Man Who Would Be King is splendid, but it was one of Huston’s sons who suggested the pre-existing tune.

  16. The late , great and much-missed Raymond Durgnat said Jarre’s score for Dr. Zhivago was “deliciously evocative of Italy and Pizza pie.”

  17. I actually like Ryan’s Daughter (Lean’s penultimate film) a great deal. I think it’s a masterpiece so I don’t know if Zhivago marked a decline. Actually Lean’s final five films (River Kwai, Lawrence, Zhivago, Ryan, Passage to India), I’d say Lawrence and Ryan are the only great movies.

  18. I know what Lawrence is about, and it’s some quite complex stuff, and it seems to succeed in evoking it. Zhivago and Ryan’s strike me as mushier material, and I don’t find them terribly touching, so though I’m blown away by much of the craftwork, and even artistry, I don’t quite get what they’re FOR.

  19. After the success of A Passage to India lean planned to made a film of Nostromo. “Leave it to David to pick Conrad’s most impossible book,” Michael Powell told me.

  20. When he was writing Passage, he bumped into Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who was busy on A Room with a View. She said she had no doubt who was adapting the better book — the hidden implication being she had the one that was more filmable.

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