Seeing Cinema in a New Light: Criticism, Essays and Observations about Classic Cinema

1960s Movies, Classic Movies, Film Criticism and Analysis, Historical Drama, Overrated, Rants

The Problem with Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Doctor Zhivago, a Romantic Sweeping Epic? Hmm…

On the surface, Doctor Zhivago seems to be this: set sometime after the Russian Revolution, the movie is about a young woman in Stalinist Russia (“The Girl”, played by Rita Tushingham) who is suddenly approached at work by a mysterious stranger, Yevgraf Zhivago (played by Alec Guinness). The man is adamant about finding her because he suspects that she is his half-brother’s long-lost daughter and wants to question her about it. She at first refuses to entertain him, but then he convinces her to let him tell her this sweeping, romantic story about his brother, Yuri Zhivago.

Rita Tushingham and Alec Guinness in Dr. Zhivago
Rita Tushingham and Alec Guinness in Dr. Zhivago

As the story goes, Yuri Zhivago was a sensitive, romantic doctor and poet who was swept up in the chaos of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Along the way, he settled down with his childhood sweetheart and had children; however, he also wound up having a torrid love affair with a beautiful blonde woman named Lara Antipova, who he’d crossed paths with just as the revolution was getting underway. After their sexual tryst, Zhivago lost track of Lara and became so despondent that he died of a broken heart. Lara herself vanished completely, never to be seen by anyone, not even Yuri’s brother. During this time, their love child was also somehow lost, who General Zhivago suspects is The Girl.

When you read the synopsis of the movie, it all does sound very romantic. Also, upon first viewing, there’s something about Lean’s lush cinematography and the movie’s exotic, romantic score that would have you think that the story is a lot deeper than it actually is. Something about it has shades of romantic historical epics such as Gone with the Wind (1939), Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or–better yet, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

However, as they say, looks can be deceiving, and I don’t think there’s ever been a more misleading film than Doctor Zhivago. If the movie is to be believed, we’re supposed to be misty-eyed over a love story in which two soulmates–who were torn apart by circumstances beyond their control–finally reunite. However, peel back the gloss of what appears to be a sweeping historical and romantic epic and you’ll find that the movie is not only shallow, but its hero nowhere near as gallant as it would have you believe.


  1. I had a similar reaction to Zhivago when I saw it as a teenager. I could never have explored it in such lucid detail or examined so many facets of it, but I had the distinct sense that the “love story” was offensive nonsense — selfish, adulterous, and based on virtually nothing. I was unaware of the sexist exploitation that you articulate so well, and I couldn’t contextualize all of it historically, but my raw impression was that the plot was pretentious and preposterous.

  2. George Campbell

    You have purloined to yourself the intention of the producer and director.
    Dr Zhivago (68) still works for millions including me. That was their intention. It seems close to the intention of Louise Pasternak. And even if not, so what? Contrivance is not the opposite of truth. More so when historical drama is being portrayed. Whether in revolutions or wars or at an Elvis concert love is malleable. Think not that you know the best course it should have taken. I have 5 Academy Awards in my suit. What do you hold? Stop intellectualizing yourself out of enjoyment.

    • Comment by post author

      I didn’t think you read a word of this essay.

      When you tell me to “stop intellectualizing,” what you’re telling me is to leave my brain at the door, so I can accept the movie’s subtext without question.

      The Academy Awards have been meaningless for a very long time, so I’m not sure what bragging about having won five is supposed to mean. Assuming you’re an “insider,” you know very well that the entire thing has always been driven by politics, quid pro quo, campaigning and pandering. You have five under your suit, but Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock received none for their work.

      • Christine

        I saw Zhivago for the 1st time a few months back. I thought what a cheater and a selfless fool. Slow moving and pretty but no real depth there.

  3. George Campbell

    Yes! I did read as far as the relevant trope. It threw me to the point that I even renamed Boris🤣. However, I certainly respect disagreement. But before I do go back and read the full article answer my perplexity. Will it invalidate my comment?

  4. RM

    thank goodness!!! i thought i was losing my mind!!! i just watched this for the 1st time a week ago expecting a ‘Gone With The Wind’ epic romantic movie and was sorely disappointed. so….i agree 100%!!! 🙂

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