Romance and tragedy

When I was a kid, one of my favourite movies was Dr Zhivago. In retrospect, it seems a strange choice for a kid when more often boys that age go for action movies. It’s a sweeping, historical romance, gorgeous to look at and lusciously framed. It also deals with an epoch-making era – the Russian revolution – that is confronting and brutal.

It appealed to me for different reasons, I think. The leading characters, and the actors playing them, were very alluring. Both Zhivago and Lara are great characters, but the actors playing them, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, had their own charisma. Sharif was on a golden run. Before this he had appeared in another David Lean classic, Lawrence of Arabia. He had a beautiful, sensitive face, with the deep brown and expressive eyes of a devoted pet. And around this time I was in love with Julie Christie. I can’t hear the phrase ‘cornflower blue’ without thinking of her eyes.

It’s hard to get into a movie if you don’t get the characters, and that’s particularly true when you’re an impressionable kid. You want to like and identify with the protagonists, even if only at an aspirational level. Lara was someone I could love, and Zhivago was a man worthy of her.

I studied the Russian Revolution at school in year 11. Mr Wolfers was my teacher. I don’t know if I’d watched the movie by the time I went to history class, but I remember being fascinated by the story of the Russian revolution. It was a tale full of drama and vivid characters, it had intrigue worthy of a spy movie and brutality enough to impress a kid learning about the world. It was a tragedy in many ways, combined with realpolitik, and against a backdrop of the First World War.

I was a smart kid, though it didn’t always show. I wouldn’t only accept what I was being told. I’d think about it and wonder – I had a colourful imagination as well as a sensitive nature. One day I had to write an essay about the causes of the Russian Revolution. There were many, and it’s a story rich in incident and drama, but I sheeted home the blame to the Tsar. It’s hard to dispute, but it wasn’t the simplistic answer my teacher was looking for. Without the missteps and misjudgements and general stupidity of the Tsar, the monarchy would have survived a while longer, if not forever. But then without the war, he would have survived too, even with scandals such as Rasputin. But not forever I think, for the times were changing and the seeds of discord had been sown and nurtured by an oblivious regime. Even so, had the Kerensky government been better founded it might never have turned out as it did, and the world today a far different place…

It’s a fascinating era of conjecture and what-ifs without clear precedence. My answer, in the end, said much about me – I disapproved of the Tsar, not just because of his ineptitude and ignorance (he wasn’t an evil person, just very stupid), but because of the system. I doubt I would ever have been a Bolshevik, but having studied the period, I couldn’t abide by a society so lacking fundamental democracy.

The Tsar was near to God, but at the other extreme were the serfs, ‘souls’ effectively owned in a patriarchal society that even when benevolent was fundamentally wrong. Ultimately the lives of the ordinary people were disposable and irrelevant and had been for generations.  Needless and foolish massacres had fomented resentment for decades, and the waste of life in the war against Germany was the culmination of bitter experience. I was 16 when I wrote that essay, and a good part of my outlook was forming.

Dr Zhivago was a thrilling explication of those times. You could watch it as an adventure. As a kid that was probably the temptation, but I saw more than that. It was a terrible adventure. Human life became cheap, and the structures that held society together were destroyed. It was a nihilistic, anarchic period of history in which human individuality was subsumed in the gears of history. This I learnt watching this: that individuality was a precious thing. This is a romantic movie in many ways, but it’s also the tale of human tragedy.

I watched the movie again on the weekend. It’d probably been twenty years since I watched it last. I was curious to see if I would respond in the same way. So often, these days, I find myself disappointed in revisiting old books or movies and discovering that whatever had made them special to me once was no longer special. The difference is me. I’ve moved on. Whether that’s for the better or not, I don’t know, but I feel the loss. Thankfully I found Dr Zhivago just as enjoyable as ever.

What I remembered watching this was what a great film-maker David Lean was. It’s so clean to look at that you could imagine it happening just like that. The vividness of his storytelling reminds you that’s more than just entertainment – this is how things were. If these characters are fictional, then it’s also true that the events depicted were true to type, and characters like these lived and died and were swept under the wheels of time. As an adult, certainly, it hits you. It draws you in, and you find yourself thankful that you didn’t have to live through such a time.

I remember in my early twenties I read the book by Boris Pasternak. It’s an excellent book. I would read the book and relate it back to the movie, which was quite faithful to it. In particular, the young man I was, I was drawn to the relative tranquillity of Yuryatin, where for a while Zhivago the poet lived in a kind of idyll separate from the conflict consuming Russia. It’s beautiful writing. As a young man, maybe half a dozen years after leaving Mr Wolfers class, and full of hope and ideas I was drawn to the poetry of it myself. Amid despair here was the sensitive life lived with hope. Simple, good things, and hope. That’s all you needed in a pristine world. You could believe in that as a romantic, as someone bent on pure ideals. It was but an interlude, though, and the brute world has the last say. There is no pristine world.

Romance and tragedy in a nutshell. That’s this story.

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