War, 1960s, Romance, Auteurs, Epic

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriter: Robert Bolt

By Roderick Heath

David Lean had been a respected and heralded director since his debut helping Noel Coward realise his vision on 1943’s World War II classic In Which We Serve. His reputation was burnished with a succession of intimate, shaded, romantically charged dramas including Brief Encounter (1945), The Passionate Friends (1949), and Summertime (1955), sharp-witted, dark-edged comedies like Blithe Spirit (1946) and Hobson’s Choice (1953), and lovingly realised immersions in fictional worlds, with his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). But today mention of Lean’s name still conjures a very specific connotation, an impression of vast landscapes and dwarfed humans, lengthy running times and grand dramatic canvases, the coherence of space and time so vital in the cinema experience wielded with a unique tension between the titanic and the finite. Lean, chafing against the limits of the British film industry and audience of the time, which was already leaving behind some great talents like Michael Powell or obliging others like Carol Reed to oscillate between home and Hollywood, began to think big. When he started collaborating with American impresario Sam Spiegel, the two films they made together, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), proved huge hits, captured Best Picture Oscars, and made Lean perhaps the most prestigious name in cinema.
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On the hunt for a new project of comparable scale and vitality, Lean next chose to work with Italian movie mogul Carlo Ponti on adapting Russian writer Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, whilst continuing his successful collaboration with screenwriter Robert Bolt and his star discovery, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. Despite the pedigree, the film was released to lukewarm reviews and played to empty cinemas for a time: if released today, Doctor Zhivago would have been shuffled off to a streaming service and written off as a concussive flop. But the radio popularity of “Lara’s Theme” from Maurice Jarre’s score, abruptly rescued the film by turning it into a quintessential date movie, and eventually it proved one of the most profitable films ever made. To this day it still works for some with drug-like fervour and leaves others cold, and even as it’s retained popular regard, has never really enjoyed the same level of respect as Lean’s previous two works. The rhapsodic yet ironic approach to adventurous war stories with his two earlier projects had allowed Lean to transmute them into veritable cinematic myth, but such an approach seemed quite distinct from the essence of Pasternak’s 1959 novel, which transposed a semi-autobiographical rumination on one of his love affairs to the midst of the Russian Revolution with all its cruel, transformative drama.
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Pasternak’s work had been met with disapproval in the Soviet Union in its attempt to analyse the place of the artist in such a time, and his attempt to reckon with the frail hopes and looming terrors of the country’s crucible age. Pasternak, whose literary reputation up to that point had been as a poet, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature but forced to turn it down by the Soviet authorities, turning the book into a cause celebre. Filming the novel was always going to be a difficult proposition. Although the stage is history at its most vital, the actual subject is personal, intimate, even subliminal. Pasternak’s poet hero Yuri Zhivago was an onlooker, a bit player in history who nonetheless becomes a titan in that history through art. Pasternak’s book got into trouble precisely because it meditated upon a basic contradiction in regards to Communist thought, the concept of history being driven by impersonal forces but only transmissible through recourse to personal perspective, a perspective often inimical to heroic social narratives. Such a story might also seem entirely out of step with the needs of epic cinema.
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But such a character held attraction for Lean, whose focal figures were so often watchers striving to become heroes of their own stories, people who knew they were at the mercy of forces far more powerful than them and yet striving to find purpose and agency. Such protagonists range from the lovers who find themselves ridiculously unable to realise their passion in Brief Encounter, to the course steered by Pip through life under the urging of unknown gravity in Great Expectations, and the messianic delusions and gutter disillusionment experienced by T.E. Lawrence. Lean’s Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) is a pair of eyes, a sensitive instrument watching his world destroy itself whilst experiencing all its ephemeral grace and brute immediacy, as much or more than he is protagonist, clinging to the people who mean something to him but faced with an age that doesn’t just assail his body but wants to deny him the right of his mind. And yet this suited Lean perfectly on the vital level of his relationship with his medium, who had discovered an argot with Lawrence of Arabia that came close to pure cinema, immediately influencing a host of director heroes like Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone, giving them permission with a seemingly spacious but actually intensely rhythmic cinematic design, purveyed through great care in alternating delay and effect.
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A scene late in Lawrence of Arabia depicted the faux-titan hero confronted by a hospital filled with ragged, ruined humans in a Turkish military hospital, and slapped by a British officer decrying the outrageousness of the scene before them. Doctor Zhivago inverts the confrontation, depicting a similar scene in which Zhivago happens upon a hospital flooded with the diseased and mangled victims of war, seen this time through the eyes of the healer who, unlike Lawrence, strives constantly and conscientiously to avoid the eye of history except in the mode of its artistic conscience. The film starts properly in a prologue set decades after the main drama, with Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) a potentate in the Soviet regime, his flag-bedecked car drawing the apprehensive glances of workers on a dam construction. Yevgraf is the first thing scene in the film, a living Soviet Realist sculpture but also a living witness to the struggles of a legendary age – “Do you know what it cost?” he asks of the young engineer (Mark Eden) overseeing the project. The film returns to the setting at its end, echoing the circularity of Lawrence of Arabia with a more testimonial quality: the gaps in Yevgraf’s narrative are also the gaps in history into which people vanish. Yevgraf is seeking the long-lost daughter of Yuri and his legendary muse Larissa, usually called Lara (Julie Christie), subject of a beloved sequence of long-suppressed poems.
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Yevgraf believes one of the dam workers (Rita Tushingham, billed only as “The Girl,” although she’s named as Tonya Komarovsky by Yevgraf) is that daughter, although she’s a nervous, anonymous member of the much-vaunted proletariat. Lean’s deep investment in her protagonist becomes clear in an early scene depicting a formative event of Yuri’s youth (played as a boy by Sharif’s real-life son Tarek), the funeral of his mother. This scene becomes a parade of epiphanies that incorporate obsessive motifs of both Yuri’s outlook and Lean’s cinema – the wind-thrashed autumnal trees and branches tapping against the window glass, the lace-wrapped face of Yuri’s mother, imagined within her coffin, the towering mountains charged with spiritual import and plains of Dali-esque flatness where humans stalk in assailed columns. Yuri’s father’s estate has been embezzled and he has a half-brother he’s never met. His one real inheritance is his mother’s balalaika, an instrument she played as a virtuoso. But young Yuri finds fate almost overly generous to him at first, as he’s adopted into the family of his mother’s childhood friend Anna Gromeko (Siobhan McKenna), who’s married to the affluent and affable Alexander Maximovich (Ralph Richardson), and almost from the first Yuri seems destined to marry their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).
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Yuri’s special artistic talent proves to be poetry, an art he gains fame for even as he studies to become a doctor, a calling he feels is connected with the deeply empathic art he creates. Such a connection is acerbically doubted by his tutor, Prof. Boris Kurt (Geoffrey Keen), who takes Yuri with him to attend the attempted suicide of a pathetic couturier, Amelia Guichard (Adrienne Corri), former mistress of Kurt’s urbane and influential lawyer friend Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). Although left no less idealistic by the sight of Amelia’s sweat-sodden and bedraggled body, this visit proves to be a life-changing experience for Yuri, as he first sets eyes upon Lara, the daughter of Amelia: the luminous Lara reclines in teary solitude under Yuri’s gaze. Zhivago witnesses a scene between Lara and Komarovsky that tells him what the audience has already seen: Komarovsky has forcibly seduced Lara and made her his new mistress. Lara is nonetheless engaged to student radical Pavel ‘Pasha’ Antipov (Tom Courtenay), for whose benefit Komarovsky plays the kindly, interested father figure, before he rapes Lara in a spasm of jealous anger.
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Lara writes a confession to Pasha and sets out to kill Komarovsky with a gun Pasha gave her to hide. She wounds Komarovsky in a swank restaurant just as Yuri and Tonya are announcing their engagement: Komarovsky insists she be allowed to leave with Pasha, and they flee to the country. When the Great War breaks out, the disillusioned and unhappy Pasha and the radically committed Yevgraf join the army for their own diverse reasons. Yuri eventually follows to ply his humanitarian trade and meets Lara again in a military hospital as the war effort breaks down, as she’s become an army nurse in hope of locating her missing husband. Yuri and Lara fall in love working together but don’t act on it. When he returns home to Moscow, Yuri finds Anna has passed away and the Bolshevik regime is descending onerously, and a visit from Yevgraf convinces him to take Tonya and Alexander away. They decide to head to the Gromeko country estate outside the town of Yuriatin out in the Steppes on the far side of the Urals, where the war with the Whites is raging, and board a crowded train to make the long journey that takes through landscapes of holy awe and scenes of human devastation. Some of the horror is perpetrated by the roving, mysterious radical warlord Strelnikov, hero of the anti-Bolshevik revolutionaries.
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By contrast with the general admiration for his previous two films, Doctor Zhivago and its follow-up Ryan’s Daughter (1970) were received by some at the time as laborious exercises in brand extension by Lean. From today’s perspective it seems more like Lean was trying to return to the kind of romance-driven films he had often made in the first stage of his career, where Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia had been quite unusual as costly cinema works virtually without women. Doctor Zhivago pointedly revisits many aspects of both Brief Encounter and Great Expectations. Particularly the latter, as Lean revisits many of its key images and ideas, from the vision of a young boy frightened by a seemingly animate landscape, to climactic scenes in an abandoned and decaying house that has likewise come to seem a living entity, a place where that lost childhood must be reckoned with as well as the pains of maturation and the evils of the world. Like Pip, Yuri grows from a timorous boy to a grown man who nonetheless finds himself driven around forces vast and beyond his control, and yet the wandering eye and mind of the poet insistently recreates that world.
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The careful craftsmanship poured into Doctor Zhivago was at once one of its publicised assets and critical negatives: although rendered in a largely realistic fashion, the universe glimpsed in the film represents the exact opposite of verisimilitude, its period Russia completely fabricated in Spain, with added location shooting in Canada. The central set representing downtown Moscow is a vast piece of theatrical setting, a carefully controlled space to allow Lean’s micromanaged sense of cinematic epiphany space to unfold. Such control is evident in the sublimely chilling moment Lara and Komarovsky pass by a silhouetted cavalry officer waiting for a quiet moment to assemble his fellow horse soldiers to attack a protest march led by Pasha: Lean matches one form of violence, intimate and coercive as Komarovsky forces himself on Lara, with another, as the horse soldiers ride down the protestors. The build-up to the attack on the protest is exacting on the level of cutting and generated menace, but Lean then cuts to Yuri’s reaction as witness, relying on the shivering horror on Sharif’s face to convey the impact of violence on his gentle hero rather than indulge the pyrotechnic delight of bloodshed. Pasha is left badly scarred and forced into hiding after the assault, whilst Lara, fobbed off with vague moralisations when she visits a priest continues on uncomfortably as Komarovsky’s mistress.
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One notable irony of Doctor Zhivago is that for a film prized for its romanticism, the romantic element is complex, even grubby, revolving as it does around abuse and infidelity. Yuri, after all, has his great fling with Lara when Tonya is pregnant with his second child. Lara herself is taken advantage of, abandoned, and eventually forced to take up again with the creep who deflowered her. Komarovsky is in many ways the most compelling figure in the film, a man who compares himself to “ignoble Caliban”. He’s expertly played by Steiger, who cunningly brings outsized charisma and urbane authority to the role as well as occasional slips of vulnerability and outright monstrosity, weapons he easily brings to bear in making Lara his lover. Lean signals his nascent erotic interest in her as he playfully drapes one of her mother’s wares, a light silk scarf, about her face, turning her into a houri, and by the time he’s done with her Komarosky has her dressed as a red-clad, teetering tart. Komarovsky embodies the superficial cosmopolitan assurance of Tsarist Russia overlaying brute prerogative and clasping greediness just as surely as the intense, puritanical, neurasthenic personality of Pasha anticipates the oncoming Commissars. “All this is experience of a kind,” Komarovsky retorts to Pasha when they meet and the younger man boasts of his hardscrabble upbringing, with the acidic undercurrent lying in Komarovsky’s certainty the idealistic young hero can’t make a woman orgasm. A note that seems mordantly confirmed later when Yevgraf’s narration describes Pasha’s reasons for joining the army lie in disappointment.
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Meanwhile Yuri weds the lovely, elfin, dutiful Tonya, but falls under Lara’s spell when they’re thrust together in service, in part because like Yuri himself she’s a bereft soul who exists on the fringes of the common psychic landscape. The grace-note quality Lean sounded in the later reels of Lawrence of Arabia here becomes more like a dominant aesthetic as Yuri constantly finds himself stumbling upon human wreckage left by the passages of armies and dogging the tail ends of columns of moving humanity. His introduction to the warzone long with Lara is tending to the mangled men left by their own rebelling soldiers on the road away from the abandoned frontlines. Yuri’s desire to patch together bodies and express the intricacies of the mind are constantly confronted by people who want to do the opposite, to remake themselves as hard and marauding incarnations of a cruel age. Authority, not the false currency of civil authority or mere hierarchical command but the achievement of it through personal fortitude and certitude, was a concept Lean was obsessed with. A revolution is certainly a stage for the genuinely heroic to step forth, as well as the dauntingly monstrous, the insidiously craven, and the snippily officious and small-minded. He rhymes crucial moments when Pasha and Yevgraf part crowds like Moses before the Red Sea and save people close to them purely by dint of a force of charisma and an understanding that the strongest gestures are the simplest. Yevgraf empties out a gang of cackling vultures with a click of his fingers and lets his uniform do the rest of the work.
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Yuri has no authority; his currency as a humanitarian and poet are stolen from him in an age in which others dedicate themselves to unstinting revenge against the rest of their society. Yuri and Lara repeatedly graze against representatives of the new regime, from the Bolshevik soldier who works with them in the hospital and mutters “God rot good men,” in response to another’s praise of Zhivago: Lara’s sharp glance at the soldier bespeaks her recognition that the world is soon going to belong to men like him rather than those like Yuri. Soon Yuri is up against hatchet-faced representatives of the new order in the former Gromeko home who grow timorous and threatening (“Your attitude has been noted!”) when Yuri prods them over suppressing the truth over disease outbreaks and general famine, and feel more at ease trying to strip the Gromekos of the last of their possessions. Political evolution is staked out in evolving iconography. Posters of the Tsar carried by the soldiers marching off to war are soon supplanted by the stylised visages of Lenin and Trotsky looming heroically over the flotsam of the age – hands are outstretched and gesturing in both sets of posters, offering, paternal, inclusive. The very end sees a colossal image of Stalin, his face rendered stark in black and white on a red field, hovering above a drab and featureless urban street, Lara a tiny figure retreating into oblivion in its shadow, perfectly encapsulating the onerousness of the oncoming age of the Great Terror as Yevgraf’s testimony on the soundtrack describes it in his own terms: “A name on a list that was later misplaced.”
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One common criticism tossed at Doctor Zhivago was that it was impossible to make writing a dramatic act, and that the film neglected giving much sense of Yuri as a poet. To look closer at Doctor Zhivago however reveals that Lean actually succeeded in doing something very rare and specific, selling a grandiose work of poetic reverie to a mass audience. Lean doesn’t need to make much of Yuri’s poems in themselves because the entire film has been doing that, purveying a series of landscapes, both elemental and human, charged with totemic meaning. Although the romance between Yuri and Lara looms large in both their lives and the film’s sensibility, it’s easy to forget how little of the film is given over to it, and the couple are left clinging to each-other in large part because they’re forcibly stripped of everything else. Lean had built his cinematic method through his gift for building intensely rhythmic sequences, instilled as an editor but growing as a director to manipulate every element of film to achieve his coups de theatre.
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Doctor Zhivago offered a unique stage to give his visual effects holistic meaning, joining his visual effects to Zhivago’s poetic method, the chains of associated images that become charged with inferred, symbolic import as they accumulate, and also with the relationship of the artistic process with experience, the collecting of such images over the course of a lifetime. The opening scene doesn’t just present the formative images that haunt Yuri and fuel his imagination, but also anticipate his future, the threat of the blasted Siberian wastes Yuri eventually finds himself alone and exposed in. Lean repeats this seer-like element with a dash of humour as Yuri and Lara unknowingly come into contact on a streetcar in downtown Moscow, well before they properly meet: Lean cuts to the sparks on the overhead cable. The slowly wilting sunflowers Lara picks to brighten up the stark hospital space become associated forevermore in Yuri’s mind with the promises of fecund seasons and the specific beauty of Lara herself.
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Lean contends with the idea of cultural memory in part through the textures of his own cinema. Any filmmaker of Lean’s generation, and especially an editor like him, would have gone to school on Sergei Eisenstein’s films. Lean confirms debt and kinship as he nods to Battleship Potemkin (1925) in the demonstration scene – cutaways to children lost in the tumult and brass band instruments kicked along the street by fleeing people – and offers some distinctly Eisensteinian framings, like the shot of sailors saluting Strelnikov’s passing train. Of course, Doctor Zhivago inverts the propagandist tilt of Eisenstein’s famous films, presenting the early years of the Soviet Revolution as a period of glorious slogans and petty, often pathetic or vicious individuals. Lean makes further nods to silent cinema in his lighting, often staking out his actors’ eyes with pencil spots and placing the rest of them in shadow, a technique reminiscent of German expressionism, also kept in mind in shots like one early in the film when the dam workers file out of a brightly lit tunnel, the red star over the tunnel mouth, like they’re emerging from the maw of branded history. The brief scenes depicting the frontline of the war boil down grand, nation-shattering calamity to a few grimly totemic shots of frozen soldiers still manning their posts on the wasteland frontier, like something left over from a primal war. Lean tips his hat to Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) by quoting Milestone’s signature lateral tracking shot, speeding along the advancing wave of Russian soldiers as they’re cut down by machine gun.
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Cinematographer Freddie Young, whose work is superlative throughout, pulls of one of his best shots as Pasha, respected by his fellow soldiers enough to follow him into the jaws of hell, seems to be killed by a shell blast, his glasses falling to the snow in colossal close-up. Several key passages of the film are played out in a manner reminiscent of the vignettes of silent cinema. Yuri’s first sight of Lara, seated in darkness on the other side of a pane of glass, encapsulates the notion of romantic vision as a cinematic ideal, framed and inviolate, a scarcely liminal vision upon which breaks a miniature dawn, as Komarovsky enters her room with lantern. In the later scene in which Pasha reads her confessional letter, sparking his anger and then forgiveness, the whole scene is shot through a window with a candle slowly burning away the frost on the glass; the shot dramatizes the bleak emotional straits of the characters as well as allowing Lean to stake pure belief in visual storytelling. The scene in which Yuri finally meets Yevgraf, who comes to visit his brother just in time to save him from the wrath of petty commissars over some stolen firewood, utilises Guinness’s voiceover to report his speech rather than have him interact with Sharif and the other actors, an ironic touch that somehow conveys the awful weight of intervening years and the schism between the half-brothers that’s based around totally diverse loyalties but also retains a certain mutual, guttering admiration.
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Lean’s approach to cinema remains fascinatingly indifferent to spectacle on many levels in spite of the infrastructure on hand: his background as an editor, a composer in the dialogue of duration and severance, is plain enough throughout. The long build-up in the tunnel scene to burst out into a grand landscape segues into a jolting edit before anything can be drunk in. The film’s close-ups are just as epic as the landscapes. The way Lean shoots Sharif and Christie reflects their functions as actors inhabiting roles, Christie often nearly facing the camera, caught in reactive moments – particularly the scene in which Yuri breaks off with her, his voice heard but the man unseen, camera instead fixated on Christie’s face with all its tremulous emotion. The camera becomes Yuri overtly here, but has no existence free of Lara’s feeling. The poet is a void without muse. Like many films of the era, whilst there’s nothing outright anachronistic in sight, the quality of Christie’s hairstyles and makeup still often see utterly modish to the mid-’60s, whilst Sharif looks improbably like a bohemian college tutor in black turtleneck. But Christie and Sharif give remarkably good performances considering the fascinatingly diverse demands placed on them by their respective roles. Sharif had to consciously retreat within himself to play a character who observes and absorbs, whilst Christie plays the emotional lodestone, eyes of blue stirring like the ocean as she suffers predations and woundings.
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The train exodus sequence is the centrepiece of the film, where Lean’s cinema is tied most explicitly to Yuri’s perspective in finding sights and sounds of wonder amongst grimy and tawdry circumstances. The train car is packed with fetid bodies, floor littered with straw crusted with shit and piss, food boiled potatoes, but the world without is a parade of alternating natural splendour and human terror. One of Lean’s great coups comes at the segue from the intermission, as he fills the soundtrack with the tumult of the train on the move although the screen remains black, before a point of light grows and suddenly the train bursts from a tunnel amongst soaring, snow-crusted mountains. A pane of ice frozen across the doorway is shattered, revealing a vast landscape of ice-caked lakes and sepulchral forests. The sun burning through morning mist in the trees during a stop distracts Zhivago until he stumbles into danger as he happens upon Strelnikov’s armoured train. Strelnikov has been mentioned breathlessly before, particularly by the chained anarchist zealot (Klaus Kinski, in a small role that nonetheless instantly made him a cinema weirdo of choice) in the passengers’ midst: Lean’s sleight of hand when Strelnikov’s train barrels past theirs is to reveal Strelnikov is Pasha, who might as well be a chill-blooded zombie arisen from the ice, declaring that “The private life is dead,” and musing that he used to admire Yuri as a poet but now feels obliged to find his work petty and trivial.
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Yuri responds by questioning why he attacks and burns villages indiscriminately, and retorts to the proposition that the point must be made, “Your point, their village.” Yuri learns from Strelnikov that Lara is living in Yuriatin, whilst the manor house that was the heart of the Gromeko estate proves to have been claimed and locked up by Bolsheviks. The family instead retreat into a neighbouring cottage and weather out the winter, and Yuri resists the temptation to visit Lara for a time. But when he does finally meet her in the town, their passion finally blossoms. Fate however still has a malicious joke in store for Yuri, as he’s snatched up by a Bolshevik partisan unit engaged in free-roaming warfare against the Whites, who want Yuri’s service as a doctor and pay little heed to his protests as they shanghai him away for a campaign. Lean offers brief but startling visions of guerrilla warfare, in a cavalry charge across a frozen lake on machines guns, with Yuri and the unit’s political officer Razin (Noel Willman) the only members not engaged in battle.
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Razin nonetheless rules the unit as he reminds his fellow soldiers that “all men will be judged politically,” like a secular inquisitor ready to winnow out the unfaithful. Lean’s admiration for John Ford is signalled through in his use of space and landscape (plus Ford had recommended Christie to Lean after directing her on Young Cassidy, 1964) but a scene here in which the unit massacre some White soldiers who turn out to be boys from a military academy pressed into a glorious, pathetic charge, could be seen as darker meditation on a scene Ford offered as a joke in his The Horse Soldiers (1958). “Did you ever love a woman?” Yuri questions Razin when he dismisses the deaths in the face of history. “I once had a wife and two daughters,” the priest of nihilism retorts. The battle in Doctor Zhivago is to remain alive as a thinking, feeling being in the face of such omnipresent horror. It’s a battle Yuri eventually wins, but at the cost of using up his physical body, a candle burnt at both ends. Part of the film’s allure in the day lay in the way it offered a heightened reflection for the idea of a romantic couple fending off such horrors. Yuri abandons the Bolsheviks as they encounter bedraggled survivors who can’t tell the difference between the uniforms tormenting them, and makes his solitary way across the frigid wastes to return to Yuriatin, hoping to return to Tonya and his children. But he’s left with Lara instead, as Tonya and her father have fled the country. Yuri and Lara decide to spend whatever time they have together, and start living in the Varykeno mansion, much of which is filled with sculptural ice.
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The ice palace is one of the film’s most singularly strange and semi-surreal images, echoing back to Miss Havisham’s infested house in Great Expectations as a representation of something bleak and twisted in the psyche and in the world at large, but also with its little annex free of ice, with the table where Yuri learned how to write still intact and well-stocked. Such a little islet of the mind amidst a threatening shell anticipates the image of the family home drifting in space at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), another tale of blighted romance and agonised becoming. Here Yuri scribbles out the Lara poems in feverish activity whilst awaiting whatever knock on the door portends their fate. Of all people, it proves to Komarovsky who does the knocking, the ultimate sophisticate cynic and survivor having successfully reinvented himself as a useful tool of the Soviets offering safe passage to the far east, to escape the coming wrath of the Bolsheviks now that Pasha has abandoned his Strelnikov identity and shot himself rather than face a show trial. Neither Yuri nor Lara want to make any kind of pact with Komarovsky, but Yuri urges Lara to leave with him with a false promise to follow. Yevgraf wraps up his account by describing how Yuri, sickly and taken in hand by his brother after living in obscurity for many years, heads off to work at a hospital only to glimpse Lara from a tram and try to chase after her, only to collapse from a heart attack and die.
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By comparison with the achievement in pacing and image flow that is Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago often feels by comparison a touch rushed and choppy despite its expanse. This is particularly true of the episode depicting Yuri’s service with the partisan band, which is arguably the most interesting part of the narrative and the one that best justifies the film’s epic lustre, and yet which passes by in a few minutes. The evocation of frantic longing and loss in Yuri’s dash to catch a passing glimpse of Lara from the high windows of the ice palace is perfect, despoiled to a certain extent by Lean and Bolt’s choice to turn a full circle with Yuri’s death scene pushes rather too close to a rather more familiar and sentimental kind of romantic drama. The frustration of Doctor Zhivago is also part and parcel with its enormous success: the carefully fashioned, distinctively intimate poetic drama is constantly nudging against the wannabe pop hit. But the diffuseness of the last act is in part a deliberate reflection of the patchiness of history: history is a gaping hole that swallows people, and only lost but talented orphans like young Tonya emerge, and artwork like the Lara poems testifies to the qualities of the lost world. The film’s very end aims for a rhapsodic sense of becoming as Lean surveys the great dam constructed by the workers, the revolutionary project giving birth to its own wonders.

Standard
1980s, Drama, Epic

Reds (1981)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Warren Beatty

By Roderick Heath

“No, I haven’t seen Commie Dearest,” filmmaker Paul Morrissey quipped when asked if he had seen Warren Beatty’s Reds. “The cult of the personality has claimed another victim,” critic John Walker said in his review of the film, referring to Beatty’s reinvention of radical history in terms of the Hollywood epic and focal character John Reed as an avatar for Beatty himself. Most hilariously, during the shoot of the film, Beatty, who had tapped over $30 million in funding from Barclay’s Bank for the purposes of memorialising a Communist hero, gave a speech to a group of Arab extras brought to the film’s Spanish location shoot, explaining Reed’s philosophy and the subject of the movie. He was promptly faced with a strike by the extras for higher wages.
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John Reed was a journalist and committed socialist who wrote the famous reportage from the frontline of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days that Shook the World. Reed was himself a controversial figure, his place in the scheme of early 20th century radicalism contested: Upton Sinclair labelled him a playboy revolutionary. Therein lies some hint as to why Beatty, a man massively successful at that most capitalistic of endeavours, Hollywood cinema, became obsessed with Reed and expended massive amounts of time and cash on bringing his story to the big screen: the kinship he sensed in a man who, like him, was often more famous for his torrid personal life than his singular professional accomplishments, and struggled with some valour and some conceit to claim both individual and collective stature. If nothing else, wrapping these ingredients in a multi-million dollar package and calling it Reds proved that Beatty had cojones the size of California.
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Beatty began his movie career as a handsome ingénue and talented actor, discovered by Elia Kazan for his 1961 romantic melodrama Splendour in the Grass. He gained a reputation as an unruly, independent talent, one who got into awful rows with major directors through his fiery and wilful determination to stick up for his personal vision as a performer. But he also gained status fighting to bring fresh vision to Hollywood as it entered the crisis of the second half of the 1960s, battling ossified studio chiefs and perceiving and exploiting the new clout the movie star could wield in such climes. The perfect fruition of Beatty’s ambition was director Arthur Penn’s 1967 hit Bonnie & Clyde, a film which presaged a major cultural shift. Beatty continued to work with interesting directors and remained a hero of Hollywood’s relatively brief, New Wave-hued, auteur-driven phase, but 1978’s successful and lauded Heaven Can Wait signalled his intention to became an auteur unto himself. Reds was a task Beatty had been toying with since the mid ’60s, for which he collected what would become the film’s famous “witness” interviews over a decade. The zeitgeist that greeted Reds was, however, very different to that which greeted Bonnie & Clyde: Ronald Reagan was President, and radical was no longer chic. The film was mildly successful at the box office, but it was still perceived as a failure as it failed to earn the kind of cultural stature such a project seemed to crave. Admiration for Beatty was still pronounced enough to help him gain a Best Director Oscar for Reds, beating out a strong line-up of rivals for the award. Chariots of Fire was deemed a more apt Best Picture, ironic considering that although Chariots was thematically more conservative, it is more adventurous as filmmaking. Reds has maintained a shadowy kind of life since its release, neither eclipsing masterpiece nor easily dismissed vanity project.
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Reds depicts the last few years of Reed’s life, commencing in 1915 when he encounters wife-to-be Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) during a visit to Portland, Oregon, where Reed had grown up in privileged circumstances. Bryant, who’s been playing the edgy bohemian in Portland and hopes to be a writer, quickly impresses and seduces the venturesome, reputed journalist. With her husband (Nicolas Coster) increasingly irritated by her provocations, including appearing nude in an artistic photo in a gallery exhibition she curates, Louise warily accepts Reed’s invitation to come live with him in New York. Bryant soon finds herself an uncertain, comparative provincial amidst the fast-talking, high-falutin’ world of Greenwich Village, where Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) is the tongue-lashing doyenne of revolutionary credibility, and racy eccentrics are a dime a dozen.
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Reed circles the edges of radical commitment without yet taking the plunge beyond reporting on labor disputes and union repression for a small network of activist newspapers. Bryant’s combative, proto-feminist determination to carve a niche for herself has Reed, who shares her free-love and emancipationist views, often unbalanced, whilst his busy work life and renown belittle her struggle to find a voice and subject. Bryant acts on her ideals by accepting romantic overtures from the couple’s friend, playwright Eugene O’Neill (Jack Nicholson), whilst Reed’s away covering politics. Upon Reed’s return, O’Neill skulks away, and Reed bashfully proposes marriage. The pair bust up, however, after Reed discovers a poem O’Neill wrote for Louise, and he admits to casual affairs of his own. Louise gets herself posted to Europe to cover the war. Reed follows her there with a proposal that they head on to Russia to report on the imminent revolution. There, they are caught up in the fervour of the Bolshevik success.
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Reds is an impressive film in many respects, long and spacious and intelligent. There was certainly nothing wrong with Beatty’s eye for talent and collaborators. Vittorio Storaro’s photography, which utilised a then cutting-edge form of celluloid processing to help him gain uncommon control over colour effects, is superb, clear and sharp, yet expressive, capturing a sense of period without excessive artifice. But Reds is built around a curious series of contradictions and limitations that hamper its impact, the most overt of which is a gap between method and subject. Beatty had clearly gone to school on cinema with depth and intensity, but sadly, not much theory. Like most filmmakers to take up the challenge of epic cinema after the 1950s, David Lean was an obvious touchstone for his efforts. Lean’s cinema provides a ready-made palette for filmmakers thinking on a big scale, with all those images of small figures starkly dwarfed by huge, appealing vistas. But Lean’s visual sensibility was informed by tethering the interior dramas of his characters to the world surrounding them so that the landscape is both counterpoint to their interior vistas and also mimetic canvas for them. Beatty has no such essential compass to guide his appropriations, even as he inevitably quotes from Doctor Zhivago (1965), for a film that’s mostly about the raw power of verbal communication, between men and women and between political debaters. Most of Reds takes place in rooms—small apartments, cosy domiciles, or large halls full of bristling contention. Apart from a couple of brief flourishes, there are few points in Reds where the filmmaking reflects the shattering of norms and the shock of the new (ironically, Beatty’s later Bulworth, 1998, comes closer to the kind of gonzo politico-aesthetic mash-up this could have been). Rather the film as a whole reveals Beatty trying to succeed largely within the terms set by a line of big-time, traditional moviemakers.
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The docudrama immediacy of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965) or the dreamlike shock and ecstasy of Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964) are far outside of Beatty’s terms of reference for handling revolution as a subject. His imitative classicism mixes throughout with variations on the squirrelly New Wave style of filmmaking, full of volatile performing and open-structured scenes executed with restlessly mobile camerawork, whilst other touches harken back to the cutest styles of Hollywood filmmaking. His debut work, a remake of a classic ’40s film, signalled Beatty’s fetish for evoking the spirit of a bygone age, and his methodology for depicting the more traditional reflexes of Reed and Bryant’s relationship feels like a compendium of movie approaches: sentimental scenes of cute dogs and unwrapped Christmas presents that seek to make the fiery, unconventional duo comprehensible to middle America, or Harlequin Romance-like visions of Louise struggling to cross the ices of Finland to find her lover that are pure bunk. Not to mention the heart-tugging reunion at the railway station that gives the film its climax, straight out of any number of classic weepies. Beatty struggles to find an argot that suits his attempt to suggest period social and personal revisionism through the prism of more contemporary versions. Keaton’s performance as Louise is the clearest example of such a prism, a performance in the same key as her work for Coppola and Woody Allen as a strong on-screen avatar for ’70s womanhood, only in period garb. Her approach to Louise’s defensive, glaring, big-talking truculence to cover her anxiety is reminiscent of Jane Campion’s heroines—smart women who approach romance like an argument in the offing, but not sure exactly what about—whilst suggesting a brighter, more brittle Annie Hall.
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One of the film’s amusing, but also most problematic, refrains depicts Reed constantly at a loss in dealing with Louise, the motor-mouthed communicator suddenly reduced to screwball foil in his efforts to play house with her. The film hits a nadir when Beatty insists on including a slapstick scene of Reed bumbling in the kitchen, complete with a pot with a neatly burnt-out bottom. Reed spends an uncomfortable journey to Russia with Louise when they’re nominally broken up over mutual infidelities, where she’s far more responsive to the jokey charm of a travelling companion, Joe Volski (Joseph Buloff), turning the difficult task of crossing war-torn Europe at the time into a comedy routine. The real Bryant, who married a third time and then divorced after rumoured lesbian affairs before dying at 50, was probably the kind of dynamic period poseur whom the likes of Alan Rudolph and Philip Kaufman were better at recreating in The Moderns (1988) and Henry & June (1990), respectively. Keaton is nonetheless superlative in her specific way, particularly in the deadly wary glares she offers Beatty as Reed asks her to follow him to New York (“What as?”), and after receiving one of Goldman’s brute dismissals.
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Beatty’s own performance, by comparison, whilst slick, never really seems to find focus, perhaps a result of the too-neat symbiosis of actor and role many sensed, to a point where the film often feels more like a portrait in Beatty’s befuddlement at the spectacle of ’70s feminism outpacing his own louche lover-boy antics. We don’t learn much about Reed’s background or progress towards radicalism, or, indeed, much about him at all. The journalist came from an upper-class family and conspicuously rebelled against it, but that background is only vaguely depicted. We hear what a great journalist he’s supposed to be, but precious little of his actual work gains any exposure. In a similar fashion, although politics is the lifeblood of the characters, the actual substance of their political thought is, apart from Goldman’s sharply amusing spiel about the place of birth control in the revolutionary movement, left vague.
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Reds is however a study of the disparity between observation and action, and it’s this problem the film wrestles with substantively. Reed, a professional wordsmith and part-time poet, is drawn steadily into the drama and unique thrill of political commitment in a time when it seems the whole flow of history may pivot, and finds there’s a price to be paid for not remaining a spectator. Beatty’s attention to the history of U.S. leftist movements is detailed and immediate, but in a way that mostly avoids depictions of their purpose, emphasising instead long-forgotten schisms and fraternal politicking that suggest why their movements waned, as Reed clashes with Louis Fraina (Paul Sorvino) as the two form rival Communist parties when their radical cabal are forced out of the Socialist Party. Much of the last hour of the film is dedicated to depicting Reed’s squabbles with Grigory Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski) and his bureaucratic cadres as the revolution calcifies into expedient repression in a way that makes it all seem like the world’s most lovingly shot sheaf of committee meeting minutes. Still, Beatty was doing something admirable and risky, delving back into the half-mythical days of Goldman, Big Bill Haywood (Dolph Sweet), and the IWW, pointing out the one-time existence of a radical leftist American movement prior to the 1960s and heavily suggesting that the threat of sedition around the First World War was used as a pretext to destroy alternative political thought. Like many filmmakers of his age and era, Beatty consciously reflected the radical-chic bohemia of the ’60s, his own grounding, through depictions of historical parallels. Moreover, he aims with impudent ambition to demonstrate why Reed’s rise to status as a hero of Soviet history was a peculiarly American achievement, fuelled by bright-eyed zeal and hope for the future, and a certain love of pugnacious display and competitiveness.
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The film’s best sequences, then, tend to be about volatile personalities in close contact, with the keen observational basis reflected amongst the witnesses, with particularly adroit insight by Henry Miller, of all people, that people who gravitate towards radicalism are often beset by intense personal difficulties, with drives and damage outside of the ordinary. Louise and John’s arguments have the kind of fire and brittle, half-savage/half-hysterical energy to them redolent of genuinely loving, contentious relationships. Keaton’s scenes with Nicholson are even better, as both are on their game, playing intriguing characters who have uncommon reactions to situations and emotions. Perhaps the best scene in the film comes when O’Neill turns up at the couple’s new house in Croton-on-Hudson, just after they’ve given into bourgeois propriety and married. O’Neill sullenly declares his love, which he says he doesn’t need returned, but proceeds to extract blood anyway, whilst Bryant worries Reed might return. O’Neill initially seduces Louise by taking the exact opposite pitch to her first husband, who had growled about her desire to be the centre of attention, which O’Neill says she should always be, an appeal to her ego Reed pointedly refuses to make. But of course Louise’s attraction to Reed remains stronger than to O’Neill because of this. O’Neill’s lacerating, obnoxious side is revealed, making him a fitting avatar for Beatty, the infamously demanding director, by bitching about the terrible acting in versions of his plays, including an amateur production in which Louise gives an awesomely awful performance. After his startling run of performances in the ‘70s, Nicholson’s work here forms a marvellous coda before his part in Terms of Endearment (1983) marked his transformation into more of a personality than an actor.
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Beatty offers some obvious, but well-handled narrative ellipses and motifs with symbolic suggestions, and some fine, small flourishes that give the narrative hints of poeticism rather than a mere flow of tableaux it threatens to become. Reed returns from one of his sojourns with an IWW leaflet with a half-written love poem on the back, a neat actualisation of the flip side of these people’s lives. For example, when Reed is first glimpsed in a brief vision of his adventures in Mexico to covered the revolution there, he’s seen chasing a wagon fleeing battle, and makes it on board. Towards the end of Reds, he’s caught in the middle of a White attack on a Soviet train; he again tries to escape chasing after a cart, but is left behind this time, outpaced by history and left stranded amidst its casualties. Or, Goldman’s aggressive dismissal of Bryant is counterpointed when she’s surprised by Bryant coming to Russia in search of Reed, a subtler and, in its way, more emotional payoff than the later reunion of the couple. Indeed, one of the singular achievements of Reds is that it sustains a sense of human intimacy (almost to a fault) in spite of mega-production trappings and a continent-spanning story. The film’s script was cowritten by British playwright Trevor Griffiths, with some added wisecrackery from Elaine May, who would later direct Beatty in the infamous Ishtar (1987). May’s touch is apparent throughout the film, like Reed’s riposte to “What as?” with “It’s almost Thanksgiving. Why not come as a turkey?” and, when Reed’s problematic liver causes him to urinate blood whilst in jail for activism, and a fellow prisoner observes, “This one even pisses red.”
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Perhaps some of the reason for the film’s curiously niggling sense of a lack at its core lies in how, in spite of the richness of Storaro’s photography and the sharpness of Dede Allen and Craig McKay’s editing, Beatty’s direction, like that of most actors turned filmmakers, remains rooted in an overriding delight in the performance and behavioural intricacies. Beatty expends rampant amounts of time and energy to tease out details that a more experienced artist might have painted in moments. Reed, Bryant, O’Neill and others are only defined by what they say and do in relation to each other, and anything that doesn’t relate to this is sped through. Beatty’s intelligent casting gives the film a lot of extra dimension. As well as bringing on board a lot of fellow heroes of the American New Wave, like Nicholson and Gene Hackman as one of Reed’s gregarious but mainstream editors, he also offers some old-Hollywood faces, like veteran character actors Ian Wolfe and Bessie Love as two aged relatives of Reed’s. Beatty fills out other roles with smartly employed nonactors like Oleg Kerensky as his own father Alexander and literary figures Kosinski and George Plimpton (above), who give the film a sense of genuine linkage to the intelligentsia it’s depicting.
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The machine-tooled precision of some of these turns points to what a good handler of actors Beatty can be even as he gives himself and Keaton too much rope. Stapleton won an Oscar, and very well deserved it was, for capturing the essence of someone passionate right through to the bone and pitilessly intelligent at the same time. Goldman, a major figure in E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, was left out entirely from Milos Forman’s agreeable film version near-simultaneously released with Reds, but here she is, roaring with life, provoking Reed and Bryant’s pretences, aching at being deported for her politics even as she proclaims adoration for America, “its mountains and its forests,” and refusing unlike Reed to dismiss the early signs of authoritarianism in the Bolshevik regime. Thus, she is the constant moral centre of the film as well as a source of automatic entertainment, and as such, she’s not in the film half as much as she needs to be.
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The most consistently praised aspect of Reds is Beatty’s use of documentary interviews of still-living witnesses of the era, few of whom actually knew Reed and Bryant but who heard about them or generally inhabited the same sort of world. These include Miller (above) with his insolent Brooklyn wisdom, writer and suffragette Rebecca West, patrician former congressman and Red hunter Hamilton Fish III, and various other leftists, artists, bohemians, and socialites of the 1910s and 1920s. The intelligence and sensitivity of this aspect is indeed tremendous, capturing these ancient but still fascinating, richly experienced personalities on the very edge of mortality and memory, casting their minds back to popular songs, ancient love affairs (including some that never were), observations of people and movements, and archaic rumour. Beatty sometimes uses the witnesses as a counterpoint to his fiction, sometimes as a kind of rough-and-ready narration for his story, and sometimes to justify his own artistic choices, for the point that emerges from the collective voices is often that the exact truth of the past is impossible to capture. Beatty’s habit of framing his interviewees slightly off-centre against a black background seems to have influenced the aesthetic of Ken Burns, and yet he never identifies the people, leaving them as sharply specific and yet anonymous contributors. This touch emphasises an egalitarian approach to the voices, but ultimately Beatty subsumes them to his own vision, even as their loose and unnecessary exposition contributes to the fragmentary nature of the film’s second half.
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The most striking sequence in Reds is a particular ode to the talent of Beatty’s editor, Dede Allen. The stirring climax of the film’s first half sees Reed and Bryant’s affair rekindle in exact accord with the October Revolution, the couple swept up in the midst of epoch-altering excitement, all scored to a rousing rendition of “The Internationale.” This sequence stands out not just because of the vivacity and style with which it captures the peculiar thrill of being part of a great movement, but also because it’s one of the few parts of the film that’s inventive, expressive cinema. Yet, it also ironically dismisses the most interesting part of the story, indeed the very point and totemic import of Reed’s labours, in a few minutes’ whirl of images. The peculiarity of Beatty’s priorities here, that he can devote so much of his extreme running length to domestic squabbles and made-up odysseys and actually move so cavalierly through the Russian Revolution, becomes questionable. But Beatty still manages to provide a flow of powerful and affecting moments. The sequence in which Reed and comrades storm the Socialist Party meeting from which they’ve been barred, with the chairman (John Hillerman) wrestling with Reed for the megaphone he snatches, is dynamic and droll. Well-visualised, but curtailed is a sequence of Reed trying to leave Russia via a hand-cranked rail car into Finland, crossing a chilling and vast landscape only to run into border guards, and Louise, making the same journey from the opposite end, reeling in alarm at the sight of a herd of stampeding reindeer.
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There’s a sense of real strangeness and exoticism to the sequence in which Zinoviev drags Reed out to the Eurasian wilds to preach to desert tribesmen, and Reed finds his speeches calling for Socialist revolution are being tweaked for the local audience into a call for holy jihad. The subsequent attack on Zinoviev’s train by White soldiers is a late, brief, but still welcome spurt of action. Beatty is a good enough actor to at least sell Reed and Bryant’s reunion as he pleads to her, “Please don’t leave me,” capturing the aching sensation of finding something you love in the middle of an alien and hostile land. Similarly good, and surprisingly subtle, is Reed’s subsequent death scene, as the man expires, his remaining kidney eaten up disease. Beatty captures it as a series of indirect cues Louise witnesses in a stygian Soviet hospital as she goes to fetch him some water—a woman praying over an icon, a tumbled water cup, and a young child who seems like Reed reborn—and her return to find him dead is not surprising. Even if Beatty finally ended up only making another movie where a devoted wife weeps over her famous husband’s body, he still brings it home with an eerie and poetic touch. Beatty’s suspicion, expressed in 2006 when the film was finally released on DVD, that the film plays better today with its conscientiously precise charting of the way individual fervour and state aggression grows and wanes during wars and social upheaval, feels accurate.

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