Comrades, Comes the Revolution: David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago and Warren Beatty’s Reds

“Men love wars. Always have.”

by Daniel Garrett Volume 17, Issue 6-7 / July 2013 16 minutes (3979 words)

Doctor Zhivago, directed by David Lean. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1965
Reds, directed by Warren Beatty. Paramount, 1981

People will be different—after the revolution: the great, self-deceiving lie. Boris Pasternak’s book Doctor Zhivago, a work of love, art, revolution, and the sacrifices made to history, an affirmation of humanity, civil and personal, was published in the west, in Europe and America, in 1958; and in the same year the Russian writer received the Nobel Prize for literature, which his government did not allow him to accept. Pasternak’s vision of decency and desire and what is lost in the name of principle was part of a long line of meditations by thoughtful Russian writers—Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. David Lean’s film of the Pasternak novel is one of the rare works that allows people of a subsequent time to understand a great culture, a powerful nation, and the promises and betrayals of history. In director David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, with a screenplay by Robert Bolt and cinematography by Freddie Young, we see the attempts to bring a different order, logic, and sense of justice to an aristocratic and bourgeois life that had its charm and its brutality. The 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia—intended to liberate workers and peasants—would change the world, though not in the ways hoped for. The revolutionary indifference to personal creativity, passion, and morality are both astounding and recognizable: fundamentalism—belief in narrow fundamental principles in religion or politics—recurs in every age. Labor does create value, but it is not the only thing that does; and the creation of a workers’ state is a respectable idea, but a limited one. That the insistence on simplicity would occur in a country with as rich and complicated a history as Russia is almost a joke. When will social planners understand that all of human nature and history must be accepted as facts?

Russia is a place of myth as well as a place of material wealth—it has an aura of soul and story and struggle that seems to transcend time. Of the east and the west, of Asia and Europe, with beginnings in nomadic tribes and people known as Slavs, Goths, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Khazars, and Vends, often battling tribes, it began to be unified—politically—in the ninth century by a Scandinavian chief named Rurik and—spiritually—in the tenth century by Vladimir the Great’s conversion to Greek Orthodox Christianity. Still, Russia knew fighting princes and Mongol invasions; and Moscow did not become important until the thirteenth century, and the long dynasty of the ruling Romanovs began in the seventeenth—when the disproportionate power and status of nobility and serfs would be both a foundation of society and part of its lasting trouble. Peter the Great became king or czar in 1682 and focused on education and industry, inspired by Europe; and later Catherine the Great (Catherine II) continued his policies, but in the nineteenth century Nicholas I feared revolution and worked against education and intellectuals (Dostoevsky was arrested). Russia, like many countries, knew blistering, bloody, bumbling tensions between tradition and change. Yet, Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861—but his successor Alexander III was a censor of intellectual life and persecuted the Jews. The last czar, as everyone knows, was Nicholas II, known for his hemophiliac son and trust in the monk Rasputin. When troops refused to shoot revolutionary rioters, joining them instead, there began to be great political change: at first, some people wanted a Romanov brother to become leader but he refused, and a republican government was established—and the Bolsheviks overthrew that provisional government and civil war began; finally, a constitution creating the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was created in 1924. It was to be a workers state.

Much of human history has been concerned with survival, with the search for food and water and the preservation of shelter. A great amount of labor went into the simplest efforts; and yet, through the establishments of shared effort, communities were built, and with the marshalling of power—of inequality—civilizations arose, with manners and trade and schools and temples and arts and armies. The desire to control others is common—human and questionable, whether it is the desire of capitalist business owners, religious authorities, crime lords, minority group members, local neighbors, or workers’ committees and councils. Many philosophers justify power while others, such as Marx and Engels, argue for social change, in which more of the people will have the benefits of civilization: the communal ownership of property, including the means of production, communism, was one ideal. Liberty, of course, is the key to creativity, thought, happiness, and prosperity. David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago and Warren Beatty’s Reds are films of beauty, emotion, and thought; and both are dramas of love and the Russian revolution, the attempt to put radical ideas into practice. The first is based on fiction, and the second on fact, but the first is suffused with disappointment and the second with hope.

In the motion picture Doctor Zhivago is a complicated view of power, personal and political: in Russia, an older man, a family friend and a prominent social figure, enters the life of a widowed mother, the owner of a dress shop, and her daughter, and his favors—administrative, sexual—changes their lives, as he has the dream or inclination of seducing and transforming innocence, beginning an affair with the daughter, something that brings the mother pain and sabotages the girl’s relationship with a young man, Pasha, who loves her; and the moral Pasha, who has seen the cruelty of the state, and been betrayed by love, loses faith in the private life and becomes cruel in his own political responses. Doctor Yuri Zhivago is called one night to aid the despondent mother and there sees the daughter, Lara, and intuits her relationship with the older man, one of several inadvertent meetings between Yuri Zhivago and Lara. Zhivago is a scientist and a poet, someone whose mind, passion, and life cannot be fit easily into the existing categories. As played by Omar Sharif he is brisk, handsome, and soulful. His power is that of the individual, of the private life—intellectual, spiritual, sexual. These people, Zhivago and Lara and their families and friends, are all alive in a time of political transformation; and communism attempts to control their destiny. The sharing of property and responsibilities is not a bad idea in itself, but any idea or philosophy, when made exclusive, can become destructive: no philosophy can account for every experience, for every phenomenon. Lara (Julie Christie) and Pasha (Tom Courtenay) marry, despite Pasha’s disillusionment—and he pursues his revolutionary furor, gaining fearsome distinction. Zhivago marries the girl he grew up with, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and they have a son. Zhivago and Lara meet during wartime and she acts as his nurse; and, although tempted, their relation to each other then is honorable. Subsequently, with the passage of time and circumstances, they, Zhivago and Lara, will meet again and begin an affair, choosing passion over duty or propriety.

Lara (Julie Christie)

When we come face to face with emotions and experiences that are not familiar to us, do we assume that we are in the presence of falsity or irrelevance; or that we have reached the limits of our own imagination, intellect, and sympathy? People whose existences or environments are shaped by manners, order, reason, and tradition sometimes find chaos, irrationality, raw sensuality, and linguistic vulgarity very thrilling; and people whose lives have been adrift, ignorant, rough, and wild sometimes find knowledge, morality, polite talk, restraint, and fine taste especially appealing. It is hard to know what a general audience now would make of grand films such as Doctor Zhivago and Reds; and yet Doctor Zhivago is obviously a British interpretation of a Russian novel, often focused on mannered expectation and its violation, and on the transformation of innocence into experience and the accomplishment of private love; and Reds is obviously an American film, drawing attention to the independent spirit, frank talk, and love. It is Omar Sharif, an Egyptian actor, whose mystique, whose foreign quality, conjures the Russian element in Doctor Zhivago, a film with virtuoso moments: such as the scene of czarist soldiers riding down a parading crowd, crushing children and adults and musical instruments; and the tracking of a worried man going from room to room to give a message to a driver for a doctor; and the battle scenes, one in which the fight can be glimpsed through the reflection on the lens of fallen eye glasses. The quiet moments—of a funeral procession, of a field of daffodils, of Lara’s eyes while observing—are as potent. The film’s attention to detail creates a transcendent atmosphere: landscapes and flowers and trees (nature) and great buildings and luxurious interiors and trains and trolleys (civilization). The color red signifies blood, fire, passion, and power; and when Lara (Julie Christie) wears a red dress for her older, corrupt suitor, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), her own spiritual fall is announced. Lara had sought advice in church and been told, “The flesh is not weak, it’s strong, and only marriage can contain its force,” advice she does not follow immediately, continuing to see her seducer. Is conformity to spiritual and social tradition a strategy for serenity, a confirmation of good character? Does religion make ignorance a sacred state; and hostility to experience and fact and science an admirable conviction? Here, with the church’s commemoration of the death of young Yuri’s mother and the surprisingly apt sexual advice to Lara, the church has a respectable place in people’s lives. When a rebellious soldier invokes divinity to curse good men in Lara’s presence, he is a herald of an immoral state. The glorious golden family home Yuri Zhivago left is taken over by a communist committee and, upon Zhivago’s return from war, Zhivago finds the house is dark, dingy, dirty, and there is starvation and typhus in the city. Zhivago is still an individual, still a man who sees and speaks for himself; and he is told, “Your attitude has been noticed.” The dictatorship of workers was to be a state and time of transition before the development of a classless socialist society, but it was in many ways a time of theft and vengeance, leading to a bureaucracy of rules and violence. After the death of Lenin, who was admired for his intellect, there was conflict over government leadership between the intellectual Leon Trotsky, also a military strategist, and Joseph Stalin, a man of ruthlessly practical politics. Does one have to say who won that battle? Stalin would go on to kill millions—enemies, strangers, associates, and friends.

Near the beginning of Doctor Zhivago, Lara tells Pasha that they are not comrades; and at the end of Reds, Louise Bryant and John Reed agree that they are comrades. The challenges of personal, professional, and political associations are at the core of Warren Beatty’s great film Reds, a work that is comic, romantic, and intellectual, its images connected by logic and theme and the testimonies of history’s witnesses. Reds is such an unusual film for an American filmmaker—a film of dissent and rigor—that its mastery is, at first, less impressive than the fact that it exists at all. Beatty’s team consisted of his co-writer Trevor Griffiths, and production designer Richard Sylbert, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, and editors Dede Allen and Craig McKay. In Reds, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), a wife and artist model and writer, is drawn to the traveling and lecturing writer and activist John Reed (Warren Beatty), who is part of the Greenwich Village scene, with gentleman radical Max Eastman (Edward Herrmann), feisty Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton), and brooding Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson). One of the celebrated strengths of the film is its use of real world witnesses—Henry Miller and Rebecca West among them—to recall John Reed and Louise Bryant and the world they lived in, beginning at the time of the first world war of the twentieth-century; and Henry Miller, who is skeptical of political ambition, says that he thinks there was as much sex then, in the early part of the century, as in the latter part, except that sex has become more loveless. John Reed and Louise Bryant begin as public figure and admirer, but become lovers then colleagues then comrades. As John Reed and Louise Bryant, Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton have great charm, and hers is a vibrant portrait of a modern woman, full of ambition and doubt, hope and anger. At first, Louise Bryant (Keaton) is not disciplined or focused in her work, though she wants respect—and she accuses John Reed (Beatty) of seeking fame. It is easy for politics to be part passion, part philosophy, and part pretension, especially among sophisticated people, but Reed turns out to be as committed to politics as to journalism and makes dangerous sacrifices for his work. Louise Bryant learns from Reed’s criticism of her work and John Reed attempts to make a personal commitment to their relationship (there is an ongoing joke about his always having a taxi waiting). John Reed takes Louise Bryant with him to Russia, where he becomes a participant in the revolution, and the two write and lecture about the political changes there; and Reed’s book, a report on the revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, is his masterpiece. Through the film, we can see their ambition and passion and conflicts: art allows the invention, or simply the perception and understanding, of what nature, society, or individual temperament makes difficult or even impossible. What is freedom; and what are its limits? Reed and Bryant are alive in a time and place in which the modern mind is being created, with awareness of the international scene, social dissent, labor unions, experimental art, and free love. Ideas are exciting to people who think: ideas are only alienating, dull, and insignificant to those who cannot think.

Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) & John Reed (Warren Beatty)

In Reds, the lives of the leading figures, the writers John Reed and Louise Bryant, take them from Portland in Oregon to Greenwich Village, Provincetown, Chicago, Croton-on-Hudson, Paris, Petrograd, Moscow, and to Finland and Baku. John Reed, who suffered from kidney trouble and was diagnosed with scurvy while in a Finn jail, had the rare distinction of being the only American buried in the Kremlin. Yet, the film is a reminder that history begins with personal experience, contemplation, and choice, with deciding to act in public out of principle. It is changed consciousness and individual acts that affect manners, relationships, art, business, and politics. Whereas Yuri Zhivago in Doctor Zhivago attempts to maintain his personal integrity by doing his work, both medicine and poetry, and by not relinquishing the emotions and perceptions the political committees have contempt for, John Reed tries to enlarge the realm of public integrity with his journalism and activism, by being honest, promoting new standards, and insisting that political promises be kept. To what extent can Doctor Zhivago and Reds, films of beauty and craft devoted to meaning rather than sensation, speak to an age in which technology and content are fragmented, mobile, quick, personal, and superficial, to people who give much attention to Facebook, Twitter, reality television shows, self-absorbed popular dance songs, dumbly nihilistic hip-hop, sports, celebrity memoirs, religious fundamentalism, hateful conservative talk radio, and the resurgence of ethnic prejudices in an unstable economy and shifting social scene? The only impression many people have of significant subjects—communism, feminism, homosexuality, Islam, literature, philosophy—is a result of a million shallow references. In Reds, Louise Bryant says that socialism would not work in America; and the film, in its presentation of bohemian culture and progressive politics, seems a view of the path not taken. The bohemians and activists spoke of new possibilities for themselves and their fellow citizens in their daily lives and in their art, journalism, and public demonstrations. With their work, and with friendship and love and sex and arguments and dancing and imperfect meals and a pet dog and celebrated Christmases, Reed and Bryant create their own lives, lives of persuasive vitality. The image of Reed and Bryant dressed in beige and white strolling on a sandy beach beneath a blue sky is easily elegant. Although they moved in a world in which people with different ideas were suspected of being traitors, John Reed and his associates labored to enlarge the private freedom and public power of ordinary people, advocating on behalf of birth control and sexual freedom, labor unions, democratic participation in government policy, and international peace, as well as on behalf of free speech and modern art. When politicians ran campaigns promising peace and entered office and pursued war, endangering the lives of young men and boys, the intellectuals organized and protested. “Men love wars. Always have,” says one of the witnesses in Reds, but Reed and his friends do not accept that. They do not wrest the levers of industry and power from the hands of capitalists or warmongers in America, but their contributions make the country better—more in tune with human needs. The diligent exposition of political analyses and conflicts in Reds is rare. John Reed reports on, then he becomes involved with, a socialist party, but when that party takes a conservative line, separating from the working class and supporting the war effort, Reed works to create a communist labor party that will not support war. Louise tells him that his writing accomplishes more than his political squabbling, and she is right: the writer’s only responsibility—though not the citizen’s—is to write. Yet, what do you do when you want to feel as if you have done all you could? You do all you can. It is fascinating to see in Reds how open and significant—and how feared—was the discussion of communism as a political possibility in America. Its acknowledgement of the fact that western countries were so threatened by communism in Russia that they invaded that country is a nearly forgotten piece of history. There, in Russia, John Reed sees the revolution falter—power is held by an intellectual elite, and the populace lacks food and fuel—but Reed does not give up; and when he and Louise Bryant lose touch, with a distance that letters, telegrams, and rumors cannot bridge, each journeys through an immense, icy expanse to reach the other. John Reed and Louise Bryant did not have a child together—but do they have artistic or intellectual children?

I think that I, a Louisiana country boy who moved to cosmopolitan New York, may have seen Doctor Zhivago when I was a boy—I seemed to have been haunted for decades by the entrance of Zhivago and Lara to the house of ice. I saw Reds when it was new—and loved it. I studied political economy in college, among other things, and read the work of Karl Marx, liking his manuscripts—of 1844?—on economics and philosophy; and I recall riding on a Manhattan train one night with Capital and being asked by Spanish speaking man—from El Salvador? Nicaragua?—if it was permissible for me to read that, and my being surprised by the question before answering yes, explaining that I was reading it for a class. I would visit Revolution Books, which was associated with the Communist Party and had books on class, race, gender and other political and cultural topics—the place where I picked up anthologies of essays by C.L.R. James. I was of the generation that admired Freud, R.D. Laing, Alice Miller, Albert Memmi, Plato, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Shakespeare, Chekhov, August Wilson, Picasso, Warhol, Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Francis Bacon, Rilke, W.H. Auden, Anna Akhmatova, John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Bob Marley, The Smiths, A Tribe Called Quest, Nirvana, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, James Purdy, Dawn Powell, Robert Duncan, Pauline Kael, Bernardo Bertolucci, Richard Pryor, My Beautiful Laundrette, Pedro Almodovar, Julie Dash, The Matrix, Gayatri Spivak, J. Hillis Miller, and Jacques Derrida—and so many other figures in the arts, philosophy, and criticism. There is transcendence in learning about the world. Yet, I became too distracted for a short time, regrettably, by race, gender, and sexuality, with their rigid categories and restrictive rhetoric: intelligent human beings are complex, evolving; but, subsequently, I resumed free thought and sensuous awareness, and I returned to class analysis with membership in Democratic Socialists of America, a group that Michael Harrington, Stanley Aronowitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Cornel West led. While trying to draw connections among different ideas and issues, I proofread articles, and participated in and organized discussions, helped fill envelopes for mass mailings, and attended some political rallies; and, of course, met some interesting young people. There was a poster of Reds in the organization’s office. Yet in most places it is unusual for class analyses to come up in a way that seems natural: Americans talk about class aspirations more than class conflict. I recall that when Gorbachev advocated greater openness in Russian society and more dialogue with the capitalist west, that seemed admirable; and although I did not want the heavy boots of government on its citizens’ necks or the ongoing prospect of nuclear war, when the Soviet Union ceased to be, I mourned the loss of a symbolic alternative to world capitalism. (No doubt, an earlier generation—that of Irving Howe, Dwight Macdonald, and William Phillips—had felt a comparable concern.) Why do we know so little of Sweden and the social welfare experiments and programs of Nordic countries, with their extensive support of workers and their families? Why is the promise of socialism with its ideals of equal opportunity and compassionate justice, with its free education and health care, so terrifying? Does our experience of human nature nullify our sense of human potential? We forgive and forget our own awkward and malicious mistakes, which—if examined—can be small tentative steps toward knowledge, toward whatever good we do; but we do not forget the mistakes of others. Does there remain a genuine belief in the public welfare? The word welfare—which means benefit, health, a positive state, safety, and well-being—has been turned into a curse, an accusation of indulgent laziness, even pampered criminality, by the shrewdly amoral but self-righteous proponents of selfish living, exploitive business, and indifferent government: good is described as evil. Is there even a language now with which to discuss profit, power, and privilege? During the first decade of the twenty-first century, when much of the world was overwhelmed by an international financial crisis, a catastrophe for the banking, employment, and housing sectors, there remained a hesitance to call the powerful and the rich to task. Where were the prosecutions for great commercial crimes, in a country that easily punishes powerless individuals? Obviously capitalism was carnivorous, a snake eating its own tail: and yet it took time for it to be questioned (the crisis occurred in 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street movement emerged in 2011, and the movement had trouble identifying specific goals). Would people be different after a revolution? People will be different only if and when they want to be, and work—daily, hourly—with honesty, joy, and tenderness on achieving self-criticism and self-transformation, before attempting with others—with intelligence and generosity—to achieve social change. The focus has to be on particular projects and methods—creative, ethical, useful. What is impressive about Doctor Zhivago and Reds is that history gave to art an example that made the conflicts and possibilities perceptible, ideas and images of color and form, ideas and images that could be named: freedom, brotherhood, love.

(Article submitted August 5, 2013)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue. Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 17, Issue 6-7 / July 2013 Film Reviews   historical film