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 #2: A Film Romanticizing Adultery as “Free Love” for Members of the Sexual Revolution

When it comes to sex and relationships, it doesn’t get any sleazier or more disreputable than promiscuity, especially when it involves adultery. Because cheating is considered so cheap, it has always been frowned upon in every society throughout history, even ones that have prided themselves on being sexually liberated. At worst, adulterers are often looked down on by most everyone as homewrecking douchebags who deserve a fate worse than death. At best, they’re just seen as what they are–two sleaze buckets having a relationship based on cheap, soulless sex and at the expense of everyone around them.

Up until fairly recently, adulterers in America and the UK really had it bad; having an affair was the most scandalous thing anyone could’ve done outside of political and financial corruption. Just to show how much adultery was reviled, when news came out that actress Ingrid Bergman was having an affair with director Roberto Rossellini, she was so soundly condemned across the nation that she had to go on an apology tour to save her movie career. Adultery was also enough to get a member of clergy defrocked or completely tank a politician’s election hopes, even if he was a clear favorite (see Gary Hart and the Monkey Business scandal).

Enter The Sexual Revolution, a period when Americans and the UK (by way of Swinging London) were pushing the envelope in terms of sexual mores. Besides publications like Playboy Magazine pushing no-strings-attached sex, countless movies during this era came out to advocate what later became known as The Free Love Movement, in which sexual behavior that would’ve been condemned in a previous era was either celebrated or romanticized. On top of premarital sex (sex before marriage), the free love movement also included swinging (wife swapping), one-night stands and above all else, adultery.

Doctor Zhivago, on the surface, appears to be another sweeping, romantic epic in the vein of War and Peace or Gone with the Wind, of two lovers meant for each other constantly being thwarted by a horrible war. There is also one of the oldest tropes of romantic fiction, the knight in shining armor rescuing a fair maiden from a mustache-twirling villain. As convincing as this all seems, do not be fooled. It’s all smoke and mirrors, an attempt to romanticize adultery for members of the Sexual Revolution by having it play out exactly like an ill-fated romance between two soulmates in a healthy, monogamous relationship.

To understand why the movie pandered, let me reiterate–in the 1960s, stuff like premarital sex, swinging and adultery was scorned by the general public. Because of this, somehow, the members of the burgeoning Sexual Revolution had to convince the Establishment that there was nothing wrong with free love. Initially, they tried getting away with it by making the convincing case that anyone who disapproved were old-fashioned, out of touch or–worst yet–typical American Puritanical prudes who had yet to catch up to the oh, so sophisticated Europeans.

However, there was never getting past the reality that infidelity and no-strings-attached sex is devoid of true romantic feeling, self-fulfillment or spiritual connection. To put it another way, sure–it was very easy to just dismiss or condescendingly laugh off someone disapproving of free love as “vanilla”, “boring”, “a square”, “conventional” or “religious.” But what of the fact that, when you get down to it, no-strings-attached sex and infidelity winds up leaving one or both parties feeling cheap, dirty and unfulfilled most of the time?

Stuff like Doctor Zhivago tried to gloss over this thorny issue with a form of gaslighting, by presenting sexual promiscuity and infidelity in the exact same vein as a storybook or old school Hollywood romance between two soulmates. In other words, free love apologists said, “We get it. You’re saying that promiscuity and infidelity are cheap and tawdry. But you’ve got it wrong! Relationships based on sex can be every bit as romantic, spiritual and based in kismet as a monogamous couple in a committed relationship!”

The gaslighting worked–initially. After the Summer of Love in 1967 (the year the 1960s counterculture exploded and became mainstream), people started to engage in free love. However, the apologists for free love could only get away with it for so long before enough people experienced the lows of the Sexual Revolution to see the truth. Once they did, they began to express disillusionment.

Even as early as 1969–three years after the Summer of Love–there were cracks in the facade of the free love movement. A movie that hinted at it was Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). In this film, a traditional couple (played by Dianne Cannon and Elliott Gould) are encouraged to become part of another couple’s “swinging” lifestyle (Natalie Wood and Robert Culp). In the last act, both couples finally get into bed together after deciding to engage in a night of wife swapping.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Just as things get seriously hot and heavy between the couples, there’s suddenly a horrible moment of awkwardness, where all the characters look disgusted with themselves–even the “hip” couple (played by Wood and Culp). Why? Because they learned what so many other people of the Swinging Sixties eventually did–free love, particularly involving infidelity– is cheap. You can try to glamorize it, talk it up as a thing that cool kids do, make fun of people who disapprove of it, but relationships based on sex are about as tawdry and sleazy an experience that a person can have. But most importantly, they can never be as emotionally fulfilling or rewarding as a relationship between two people in a deeply committed relationship who are in it for more than just the sex.

Going back to Doctor Zhivago, the movie’s biggest conceit is that cheap, sleazy affairs can be just as romantic, mature and spiritually rewarding as a love affair between two “soulmates” who spend the rest of their lives together. But, as the saying goes, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” and no amount of the movie’s beautiful score, sweeping panoramas and gorgeous costumes can hide the nature of what amounted to a cheap, sexual fling.


  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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