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 #4: Movie as Security Blanket/Romantic Bubble for Adulterers

Related to this issue of Hollywood creatives using movies to propagandize their immature, incompetent or bankrupt ideas of love, sexuality and human relationships is their commonplace tactic of creating fantasies that act as security blankets or romantic bubbles for people like themselves.

Let’s take cheating, for example. In the Real World, when partners are caught cheating, things rarely go smoothly for anybody involved. At best, people break up and go their separate ways, but not without someone walking away feeling deeply hurt, betrayed, shamed, embittered or less trusting of people. At worst, families are torn apart, children’s lives disrupted and cheaters either physically assaulted or even murdered in a jealous rage.

A movie that nails how messy affairs can be is Damage (1992), starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche. Yes, I know–it’s not a great movie and it presents the worst-case scenario of what can happen when people cheat. However, the tragic incident that results from the affair is more true-to-life than the bullshit we saw in Doctor Zhivago.

Jeremy Irons in Damage (1992)

How so? In real life, there certainly would’ve been a confrontation between Tonya and Zhivago when their affair was exposed. In the movie, however, Zhivago conveniently gets conscripted when he dumps Lara, so that by the time Tonya and her father find out, there’s no way to confront him or even plead with him to return to his family for the sake of their children. Tonya and the rest of the family vanish into thin air, with nothing to show for Zhivago’s indiscretion but a politely written Dear John letter that doesn’t express the tremendous amount of rage, hurt or betrayal that Tonya would’ve no doubt felt.

Oh–and this gets better–while nothing comes of Zhivago’s two sons by his first marriage, his love child becomes a virtuoso balalaika player. Not only that, his love child totally wants to know who her father was, but his abandoned children never give him a second thought.

As if this all weren’t bad enough, after Zhivago loses this family for good, the Other Woman–the one he had cruelly disposed of almost two years before and left a crying, sobbing mess–just happened to be holding a torch for him the entire time he was under conscription. She didn’t experience the sheer rage and humiliation that any person in that situation would have and curse his name. She, if anything, felt even more devoted to him than ever.

What a cozy romantic bubble for cheaters! If you cheat on your dedicated spouse or partner, no worries, especially if there are children in the picture. They will conveniently disappear and barely raise a peep over your infidelity. Not only that, your love child will take after you and be the true heir to you and your family bloodline. Your lover, who you cruelly tossed aside after abandoning them for your family, will–for no reason that makes sense–dutifully await your return after you yourself disappear for 18 long months.

Besides giving comfort to cheaters, Doctor Zhivago also serves as a security blanket for mistresses, aka Other Women. In real life, if you’re cheating with a married person and he or she eventually dumps you for their family, this tells you two things–this person’s loyalties was always with their family, and you were just a disposable piece of ass. So, for any rational, self-respecting human being, getting dumped like this is always a gigantic slap in the face, and most women foolish enough to entertain the idea of becoming an Other Woman are usually warned against getting involved with a married man for this very reason.

Doctor Zhivago not only glosses over this very harsh reality of what it means to be an Other Woman, it mires them in the cozy fantasy that even after that humiliating moment when a married man dumps her for his wife and kids, she will somehow win him back. Maybe he’ll change his mind and return to her; maybe the stars will magically align and get his family out of the way. Either way, they will somehow be reunited because they were truly meant to be.

Besides this ludicrous fantasy, the movie plays out an even cozier one for Other Women. It presents a scenario in which a woman who willfully cheats with a married man will never, ever have to worry about the impact of being a homewrecker and–if she is married herself–the ire of an enraged husband. Like Zhivago’s family conveniently disappeared for Lara, the wife and kids of a married man will conveniently disappear for an Other Woman in real life. Like Pasha went missing, the Other Woman’s husband will somehow be out of the picture and none the wiser to the affair.

In a nutshell, Doctor Zhivago is a silly, delusional wish fulfillment fantasy for adulterers in real life who want to shield themselves from the harsh realities of cheating. This is why I refer to the movie as a security blanket and romantic bubble. Cheating is a high-risk activity that ordinarily causes anxiety because of the tremendous stakes involved; what better way to alleviate the anxieties of cheating than losing yourself in a film where everything magically clicks into place for your convenience?


  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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