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 #3: Apologia for Hollywood’s Own Damaged Worldviews on Love and Sexuality

Something that I hope to write about soon on this blog is how so much of what passes for love, romance and sexuality in mainstream movies is really an expression of how morally bankrupt, demented or incompetent the average Hollywood creative is in terms of all three. In the case of Doctor Zhivago, you can see this in spades; there is a lot of propaganda showing audiences how to view bankrupt notions of relationships as perfectly normal, excusable, justified and even noble.

Case in point–we are shown that Yuri has a beautiful, intelligent, dutiful wife, Tonya, who stuck by him through thick and thin throughout World War I and the Russian Revolution. Not only did he have someone like that as his mate but two loving children and a doting father-in-law, who had raised him like a son. In spite of having the ideal family, Zhivago decided to ditch this perfectly loyal, loving partner, father-in-law and children for a blonde woman he barely knew for six months. Worst yet, this woman had flatly rejected him several years before when he’d first tried making his moves on her.

Geraldine Chaplin and Omar Shariff in Doctor Zhivago (1965)

When all is said and done, Yuri’s behavior is deplorable. However, what the movie does is put a glossy patina on his actions, implying that it’s all good that he ditched his family for Lara because it was for a noble purpose. In what sense was it noble? Zhivago’s wife–Tonya–is portrayed as a strong woman with a good head on her shoulders. Not only that, her kids have her father, who could act as both grandfather and father figure to her kids. On the other hand, Lara is emotionally damaged and a single mother, so it’s okay–according to the movie’s logic–if Zhivago dumped Tonya and his kids for Lara, since Lara needed him more.

There’s another thing the movie implies to further add to this lie that Zhivago abandoning his family for Lara was noble. As it turned out, Lara became Yuri’s muse, inspiring him to write poetry for the first time since before WWI and the Russian Revolution. It’s very easy to write off Lara-as-muse as a mere plot point. (If she had never inspired Zhivago’s poetry, he would never have left behind the poem that inspires his half-brother to track his lovechild). However, there is another reason behind Lara-as-muse: according to the movie, it’s just one more reason why the audiences shouldn’t come down too hard on Zhivago abandoning his family. The subtext is that without Lara in his life, this would compromise his ability to make great poetry, and in the great scheme of things, it would be incredibly shortsighted to demand a guy like that stifle his creativity for the sake of oh, so disgusting and “conventional” ideas such as fidelity and family.

True to the movie’s evil genius, Doctor Zhivago does a very good job of selling this idea that abandoning your family for someone you barely met is justified because either the other person needed you more or inspired you to creative greatness. But consider the time Doctor Zhivago was made. Even though the movie is set in the early 1900s during the Russian Revolution, it’s very much a product of its time; it was made by a generation who had grown up admiring famous 20th century avant-garde artists and writers who not only made no secret of their love affairs but had no problems using their mistresses as creative inspiration and downplaying them as “muses.” (See: Pablo Picasso.)

Not only that, Doctor Zhivago pandered to the then burgeoning 1960s counterculture and its exaggerated notions of freedom and creativity. The prevailing mood at the time was that traditional values “cramped your style,” so the best way to spur creativity was to defy convention. The wilder your lifestyle was, the more creative your output, so do as much drugs and booze as possible, have as much sex as you wanted, even abandon your family–anything to boost your creativity. That Doctor Zhivago pandered to the 1960s counterculture is precisely why it did so well among audiences but received a lukewarm reception from critics. Critics saw the movie for what it was; people saw the movie embodying the spirit of the age.

Bottom line, what passes for “true love” in Doctor Zhivago isn’t an accurate reflection of what true love is; it’s–I repeat–more a reflection of the creatives who made that movie, especially those who either saw themselves as members of the 1960s counterculture or were sympathetic towards its views on love, freedom and sexuality.


  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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