In the summer of 1966, on a Greyhound bus trip to Oklahoma on business, my father had a layover in St. Louis and decided to go to a movie. It was apparently quite a long stop. He saw Dr. Zhivago.
When he got home, he went on and on about this great movie, of which he had taken no notice before the trip. When it ran at the Carlisle Theatre, he went to see it again. This time I went along.
Dr. Zhivago is, of course, a love story set against the sweeping backdrop of the Russian Revolution. At 13, I was admittedly more interested in the backdrop than the love story. What I remembered most about the movie were scenes of trains with red flags speeding through the endless Russian forest, one of them bearing the enigmatic revolutionary Strelnikov, a.k.a. “Pasha” Antipov. (I didn’t realize it then, but you know it’s an epic when people go by different names in different contexts — Strider/Aragorn, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, Tom Riddle/Voldemort....)
And of course I was impressed by the legendary “ice palace” scene, in which protagonists Yuri and Lara enter an abandoned family estate covered with a magical-looking frozen coating. I remember there being music in the film, but forgot it so completely that a decade later, when I heard the distinctive music from the carriage ride to Varykino woven into a live recording of “Can You Understand” by the British progressive-rock group Renaissance, I failed to recognize its origin.
My wife had seen Dr. Zhivago several times when it first came out, and once a year for the past 10 or 12 years. I’ve watched it with her four or five times — always in the winter, preferably snowed in, if that can be arranged. Sitting in the living room, perhaps under a blanket, with at least the wind howling if wolves are unavailable, we’d feel a little bit like Yuri and Lara in the ice palace, conscious of a cold, hostile world but safe for the moment in a little enclave for ourselves.
We were partway through our annual viewing the other night when my cell phone went off. It was a text message from my son, saying that the check-engine light had gone on in the truck on his way to his church youth group meeting on the other side of town, and could I come over and help him take a look at it.
As I put on my fleece jacket, I felt like the young Dr. Z. donning his fur-lined coat to go out on an emergency call with Professor Kurt to treat Lara’s mother after her suicide attempt upon finding out about her daughter’s affair with that swine Kamarovsky. Or it could have been any of the many other scenes of bundled-up people, icy breath and snow-packed streets.
The temperature in Central PA was in the high 20s that evening, but there was a biting, cutting wind that felt like it had roared right down the Urals and across the steppes and chilled us by at least another 20 degrees. All I could think of as we popped the hood and checked the oil and antifreeze was getting back to the living room.
For just a moment, I questioned whether it might have been better, on a night like that, to have watched a movie that was set in, say, the Caribbean. But I quickly got back to enjoying this vicarious experience of the cold after no longer having to be out in it for real. I even blocked out of my mind the fact that Omar Sharif and Julie Christie didn’t exactly freeze on the ice-palace set either — the scene was filmed in Spain, where the temperature was in the 80s, and the “ice” coating was made of beeswax.
Dr. Zhivago is filled with other things I’d rather not experience as well — oppression, war, revolution, marital infidelity, medical procedures. They are best viewed on the screen, and if it can be done in a warm room, in freedom, peace, marital bliss and good health, with sweeping Russian scenery, it makes for an epic three hours.
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