Hollywood Visions of Revolution in Reds and Doctor Zhivago

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Unquestionably, the Russian Revolutions had an impact on the creative world, inspiring some of the most well-known books and movies in Hollywood history. The tragedies that resulted from the czarist regime's persecution and the efforts of common men and women as they endured the ensuing hardships and battled for reform were described by authors and filmmakers from the Soviet Union and other parts of the world. The Warren Beatty picture Reds and Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which is based on his novel of the same name, are two examples of the aforementioned type of work. Reds follows the life of a John Reed, a radical journalist who falls in love with Louise after a chance encounter (Beatty). Their involvement in politics significantly affects their relationship, with both Louise and John engaging in infidelities and breaking up multiple times before reuniting shortly before John’s death. Doctor Zhivago follows the life of the physician and poet Yuri Zhivago and his loved ones as their lives are ultimately changed by the events of the Russian revolution (Lean). Hollywood Russian revolution films are love stories that are punctuated by the upheaval and conflict that characterized the era. They depict the futility of the pursuit of revolutionary ideals by individuals and the consequent adverse effects on their romantic personal lives, as evidenced by a comparison of Reds and Doctor Zhivago.

Both films are principally romantic tales that unfortunately took place during an unstable time in history, a fact that served to complicate the relationships of the featured couples, repeatedly separating them and ultimately being a major cause of their dissolution. The entire first half of Reds focuses on the romance between Louise and John, thereby restricting any political events or discussions to the background. The two lovers first encounter each other in a meeting at a Liberal social club in Oregon. Louise becomes fascinated by the views that John holds of the war effort and by the end of an all-night interview, her mindset is completely altered. Realizing his feelings for Louise, John asks her to flee with him to New York where she would be free to write whatever she wants as she would be unencumbered by her social status. Louise decides to leave her husband for John and together, the couple settles in New York and authors articles championing for socialist causes (Beatty). However, as John is repeatedly confronted with the poor conditions that most workers had to undergo at the hand of capitalist companies, he becomes more involved with the movement. The turning point for both the couple and John occurs when a worker’s union meeting he is attending is broken up by the police, thus bringing Reed to the realization that he needed to do much more if he was to effect change. Louise, on the other hand, subscribes more to the ideal of liberalism than the action of the revolution and she focuses on feminism and the push to achieve equality for all women. Feeling abandoned by John’s frequent absences, Louise begins an affair after he leaves to participate in a convention in St. Louis. However, after John returns and finds out the truth, he realizes that he truly loves Louise and the two marry, only to be separated by their conflicting notions and when John admits to cheating on Louise as well (Beatty). Louise moves to Russia to work as a correspondent and despite his ill health, John follows her. The two meet up and rekindle their romance. They separate after John decides to begin a communist movement in America, following the success of his greatest work titled ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ (Beatty). In true Hollywood romance fashion, Louise and John reunite in Russia after John flees America following calls for his persecution due to his communist ideals. Louise nurses John until he succumbs to his illness. While the second half pays more attention to the Russian revolution, the three hour, twenty five minute movie would be greatly diminished if the love story were to be omitted.

Similarly, the main storyline in Doctor Zhivago is the romance between Yuri and Lara which began in the years before the Bolsheviks emerged and was primarily shaped by its events. Even more so than in Reds, Hollywood further relegates the events of the Russian revolution to the background, only mentioning them when they somehow prevent the characters from pursuing their love interests. The main character Yuri is orphaned as a young child, and as such he is adopted by the friends of his mother, and raised alongside his future wife and mother of his children, Tonya. He pursues medicine, and during his work as a doctor, he would meet the true love of his life, Lara (Lean). The first encounter took place when he treated Lara’s mother after her botched attempt to commit suicide when she realizes that her daughter is engaging in an affair with Komarovsky, one of her friends. He runs into Lara for the second time when he treats Komarovsky, whom Lara shoots after he rapes her as revenge for her rejection. Yuri and Lara meet yet again during World War 1, where Lara enlists as a nurse to search for her husband, and Yuri is drafted as a doctor. As they work hand in hand treating the wounded casualties of the 1917 revolution, they fall in love, but Yuri does not take any action due to the respect for his wife and daughter. Yuri returns home to discover that their house has been occupied by the government, and as such, Yuri his wife, daughter, and foster father choose to flee to a secure village, but they, unfortunately, pass through enemy territory. On transit, Yuri is captured and questioned by Pasha, Yara’s missing husband who was then known as Strelnikov (Lean). During an interrogation, Pasha reveals that Lara is situated in the village next to where Yuri and his family were headed. After his family settles, Yuri and Lara meet and begin a romance, which is broken up when Tonya reveals that she is pregnant with their second child. On his way back to his wife, Yuri is kidnapped and forcefully enlisted in the communist service. When he escapes two years later, he once again finds Lara, who tells her that his wife discovered their affair while looking for him and left her a letter informing him that they had moved to Paris. Yuri and Lara begin a relationship once more, only to be foiled when they are told that the Cheka has been observing them and that Lara was in immediate danger (Lean). Yuri sends Lara away with Komarovsky. He falls ill and becomes destitute. He finally dies of a heart attack while running after a woman that looks like Lara while riding on a train. If one were to omit the romances from Doctor Zhivago, there would be barely any content left, other than bits, pieces and brief mentions of the revolution.

The chief point of departure between the two films is the fact that Reds is a factual account of the Russian revolution while the characters featured on Doctor Zhivago were the creation of Boris Pasternak. In fact, Reds is regarded mainly as an autobiography of the American journalist as well as a historical account of the events that culminated in the 1917 revolution in Russia. It chronicles his life as he travels and reports on the condition of the workers across America. It is during one of these tours that John coincidentally met and fell in love with Louise and quickly began a romance whose course is fundamentally tethered to his pursuit of his revolutionary ideals. However, Reds is a tale of the experience of a communist revolutionary who happened to fall in love. In contrast, Doctor Zhivago barely focuses on the revolution and instead romanticizes it. In the grand scheme of the book and the film, the war was a trivial matter that separated Yuri from Lara. However, in both films, the revolution as a background for sweeping romances that might have succeeded if it were not for the war.

Overall, different Russian revolution films that are created by Hollywood illustrate the events and impacts of this period in a different manner. However, whether the film adheres to the actual occurrences as is the case with Reds or chooses to dramatize history by integrating aspects of the truth with fiction as with Doctor Zhivago, Hollywood manages to draw a love story from the proceedings. In both works, Hollywood uses the revolution as a background for a tumultuous romance, focusing on how its progress forced the couples apart rather than the events of the revolution itself.

Works Cited

Doctor Zhivago. Directed by D Lean, Perf. Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Siobhán McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, Rita Tushingham. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1965. Film.

Reds. Directed by W Beatty, Perf. Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Edward Herrmann, Jerzy Kosinski, Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino, Maureen Stapleton. Paramount Pictures, 1981. Film.

April 06, 2023
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