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)

Problem #1: Romance, Shmomance

Let us get to my biggest issue with the movie: the so-called “love” between Yuri and Lara is not a romance but a fauxmance. What is a fauxmance, you ask? It’s a relationship between two characters that is either non-existent or couldn’t be considered romantic in any sense of the word, yet is mischaracterized as both highly romantic and star-crossed, like something out of Romeo and Juliet. In other words, the story pulls out every stop to make you think that the male and female lead are in the type of beautiful, amazing romance that we could all want and hope for in life, but upon further scrutiny, doesn’t even resemble an actual romance. In the off chance that there is a relationship, it’s one that is usually exploitative, co-dependent or one-sided.

A textbook example of a fauxmance can be seen in Forrest Gump (1994). In that movie, Jenny Curran and Forrest Gump are depicted as soulmates whose love was thwarted by both her dysfunctional childhood and the cultural, social and political upheavals of the 1960s. In the third act, Jenny reunites with Forrest, not only marrying him but giving him a son. It seems at this point that their reunion is a romantic one. However, the reality is that Jenny had ignored Forrest for most of his and her life, then–after burning every bridge–turned to him as her last resort. Yet the movie played this relationship off as if it was between two star-crossed lovers who couldn’t act on their feelings because of outside forces.

The fauxmance between Yuri Zhivago and Lara is no less different than the one in Forrest Gump. Naturally, the film tries very hard to make it seem as if their love is deeply romantic in both a literal and figurative sense. Zhivago is set up as a gallant, doe-eyed knight in shining armor who comes to the rescue of Lara, a sexually disgraced damsel in distress with an uncertain future because of her scandalous background. The swelling music and constant shots of Sharif looking into the camera or gazing off-screen with the moist eyes of a depressed cocker spaniel who just lost his favorite chew toy also go a long way in making the movie feel sincere in its portrayal of a star-crossed romance thwarted by the fickle fingers of fate.

It’s all so very convincing, until you watch the movie focusing solely on how the Zhivago-Lara romance actually plays out. When you ignore the pageantry, sweeping cinematography and romantic score, the supposed romance becomes something else entirely–a sleazy love affair. To make matters worse, this affair was completely one-sided and co-dependent. Before you sputter with outrage, let’s actually recount how the romance “blooms” between Yuri and Lara, blow by blow, to see how that is the case.

The first time Zhivago encounters Lara, he jumps on board a streetcar, brushes past a few passengers, sits right behind her, then looks at her in admiration. In this scene, Lara is completely oblivious to him.

The second time Zhivago and Lara cross paths, it’s on the night of her mother’s attempted suicide. In this scene, Yuri thirstily gazes at her from a distance through a glass door, and once again, she is completely oblivious to his presence. The third time they cross paths, it’s the night she shoots Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) at a holiday ball. Yet throughout this entire affair, Lara has yet to meet Zhivago or even been alerted to his presence, although her shooting has him not only tending to Komarovsky but passing comment on her.

Keep in mind that this is the entire First Act of the movie. At no time do the two so-called “star-crossed lovers” meet. Zhivago is acutely aware of Lara, but she isn’t aware of him. What the movie is establishing at this point is that Zhivago has become infatuated with Lara since the moment he saw her; meanwhile, Lara doesn’t have the faintest idea that a cocker spaniel-eyed man has now begun gazing at her from a distance in a romantic stupor.

In the Second Act, several years have passed and WWI begins. Lara is married to Pasha and has a child. Zhivago is also married. When the two finally meet, it’s on the battlefield as doctor and nurse. Zhivago has to introduce himself to Lara because…wait for it…she had never met him before then. Six months later, Zhivago decides that he’s in love with Lara and makes his move. However, Lara rejects his advances with a reminder that he’s married. She’s also disinterested in him, because she’s waiting for Pasha to come home. Now, keep in mind–we’re officially two-thirds into the movie. There have been no intense mutual feelings of love or attraction at that point; it’s all been in Zhivago’s head.

Enter the Third Act. WWI ends and the Russian Revolution is in full swing. Several more years have passed. Lara has been living on her own this entire time raising her daughter while still waiting for her husband Pasha (going by the name, Strelnikov) to come home. Zhivago learns from Strelnikov himself that Lara is now living in the next town over from his new home, then goes out of his way to track her at the local library. Remember that the last time they were together, she had completely rejected Zhivago’s advances. But here we are years later, and Zhivago shows up at the doorstep of a woman who still barely knew him outside of six months.

They have sex, and almost nine months later (judging from a heavily pregnant Tonya in one scene), Yuri dumps Lara. Then he gets abducted and goes missing for almost two years. He goes back home to look for his wife Tonya, his father-in-law and two kids but doesn’t find his family. But wouldn’t you know it, Lara–for no reason that can been explained–had been pining for him all these years, when the last we had seen of them both, Zhivago was dumping her like yesterday’s newspaper. The two reunite. Then several weeks later (I’m guessing no more than a month) the two “lovebirds” relocate back to Zhivago’s cottage before they are forced to flee.

Now, let’s be perfectly honest. Was there anything like a “star-crossed romance” here? No. What happened was that Zhivago became infatuated with Lara for years before she was even aware of him; however, he couldn’t sleep with her. The reason is that initially, they were both tied down to other people and years later, she flat out rejected him. Eventually, Zhivago was able to get Lara–not because the two of them were doing everything they could to find each other, but because of a crime of opportunity on his end.

What was the crime of opportunity? Lara was all alone with her young daughter, waiting for her husband to come home. Because he never did, she started feeling lonely and dejected. However, on top of everything else, she had baggage about having been a “kept” woman, meaning that she had insecurities about whether she’d ever find love in the arms of a decent man. Lastly, having a young child and with no man in the picture, she was looking for the perfect father figure to fill the void.

Zhivago, knowing her history, decided to strike while the iron was hot when he learned that Lara’s husband, Strelnikov (aka Pasha), had all but abandoned her. Naturally, Lara, all by herself without a man in the picture–and desperately needing a surrogate parent for her daughter–hooked up with Zhivago, but in a moment of personal weakness.

In short, what passed for a “romance for all ages” was basically a one-sided affair in which a man became obsessed with a woman for years before she was even aware of him and then was able to get her for nine whole months when she was emotionally vulnerable, socially isolated and abandoned. To make matters worse, the way the entire thing plays out is much like how the fauxmance played out in Forrest Gump–i.e., it’s not that the two love interests got together in the end because they were soulmates, but out of convenience. Yuri ends up with Lara because after his family ditches him, she is all that he has left. Lara waits for Yuri, because her husband and the father of her child went missing and he was all that she had left. That’s all there is to it–not a star-crossed romance, but a co-dependent relationship.


  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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