Robert Bolt was a very lucky writer – terribly talented, yes – but lucky, lucky, lucky. He wrote only a very few screenplays, and most of those that he wrote were produced, and most of those he wrote won many awards, and most of those he wrote were made into superb movies. Compare him with the majority of screenwriters – many excellent screenwriters, first-rate screenwriters – who write a dozen, two dozen, screenplays and maybe get one produced – and probably with other writers’ names on it as well.
This tremendous “luck” is one more reason us crazies in the basement consider Robert Bolt something of a screenwriter’s saint. The fact that his work on the “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) script was interrupted because he had been arrested at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protest also makes him kind of cool.
“Doctor Zhivago” (1965) features some of the best use of voice over in any English language film. The story is essentially told by the General Yevgraf Zhivago to a young woman who may – or may not – be his niece. Apart from the introductory and concluding bookends, Yevgraf, as a character, never speaks in his appearances in the story. The voice over of the older Yevgraf, remembering the events, covers any dialogue that would actually have been spoken by his younger, remembered self.
What makes the “Zhivago” voice overs – monologues, we will call them for the purposes of our article – worth careful study is how carefully and deliberately they complement or harmonize with the images and actions they are describing. One particularly nice example is Yevgraf’s describing his dropping the bombshell on his poet-brother Yuri that his poems are “not liked” by the Bolsheviks.
Yuri, in the scene, asks, rather pathetically: “Do YOU think it’s personal, petit-bourgeois, and self-indulgent?”
But Yevgraf’s voice over says: “I lied…But he believed me. And it struck me through to see that my opinion mattered.”
Again, to fully appreciate the following monologue, it must be seen played against the images and music. But to sit back and enjoy the meaning and poetry of the language itself is still a treat.
The following is Yevgraf’s first major monologue, and the first time we see him as a young man, joining the ranks of Russian soldiers heading off to fight the First World War. This monologue, and the montage accompanying it, manage to cover the entirety of WWI and its impact on each of the main characters in a few minutes – a beautiful, elegant feat of compression.
Soldiers march off to war flanked by flag-waving, adoring crowds. And Yevgraf speaks:
“In bourgeois terms it was a war between the Allies and Germany. In Bolshevik terms it was a war between the Allied and German upper classes – and which of them won was a matter of indifference. I was ordered by the Party to enlist. I gave my name as Petrov. They were shouting for victory all over Europe – praying for victory to the same God. My task – the Party’s task – was to organize defeat. From defeat would spring the Revolution. And the Revolution would be victory for us. The party looked to the conscript peasants. Most of them were in their first good pair of boots. When the boots wore out, they’d be ready to listen. When the time came, I was able to take three battalions with me out of the front line – the best day’s work I ever did. But, for the moment, there was nothing to be done. There were too many volunteers like me. Mostly, it was mere hysteria. But there were men with better motives, who saw the times were critical and wanted a man’s part. Good men, wasted. Unhappy men, too. Unhappy in their jobs. Unhappy with their wives. Doubting themselves. Happy men don’t volunteer. They wait their turn, and thank God if their age or work delays it. The ones who got back home at the price of an arm or an eye or a leg, these were the lucky ones. Even Comrade Lenin underestimated both the anguish of that nine hundred mile-long front, and our cursed capacity for suffering. By the second winter of the war the boots had worn out. But the line still held. Their great coats fell to pieces on their backs. Their rations were irregular. Half of them went into action without arms. Led by men they didn’t trust … And those they did trust? … At last, they did what all the armies dreamed of doing – they began to go home. That was the beginning of the Revolution.”