Ed Driscoll


VE HAVE VAYS OF MAKING YOU READ DIS: I rarely take exception with what James Lileks writes, and this is a pretty minor one, in the scope of things. But in Monday’s “Bleat”, he wrote:

Friday night I decided to dip into the Classic Movie Collection. I usually buy the DVDs of classic movies restored to original luster, just because you want to support that sort of thing. I took down “Dr. Zhivago.” I lasted 35 minutes. It’s lovely but it’s dull and disjointed. It has that sodden pace of an Important Movie. The real deal-killer, though, was the inexplicable fact that everyone spoke with an English accent.

Why not a Russian accent? Did they think that a movie about Russia would be somehow unauthentic if the characters sounded like, you know, Russians? I would have accepted French accents among the upper classes. But British? It certainly doesn’t help suspend your disbelief. Especially when the first character you meet is Alec Guinness.

I have similar mixed emotions about Dr. Zhivago. It’s far from the ripping adventure yarns that Bridge On The River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia are, but it’s actually aged rather nicely, considering how savaged it was by critics at the time of its release. It is a little too ponderous for me to want to watch as often as the two Lean films that came before it, but I own it on DVD. (And it was one of the first laser discs I bought, back in the dark ages of the late 1980s, when letterboxed movies were A Big Deal and few and far between. And you had to walk 50 miles to the few stores that sold laser discs to get ’em. And those 12-inch discs were heavy and hard to carry back. You kids today don’t know how easy you have it with your new fangled five-inch DVDs, dagnamit!)

As far as Zhivago’s British accents, the reason for that might be that, other than Omar Sharif and Rod Steiger, everybody in the film is British, as is the director, screenwriter and most of the crew. And I tend to respect films set in non-English speaking countries that don’t have people talking in fake accents more than those that do. (Liam Neeson’s thick German accent in Schindler’s List is the exception that proves the rule, I think.)

Stanley Kubrick once gave an interview where he said that a critic complained that the soldiers in Paths of Glory should have been speaking with French accents. His response was simple–the entire film was set in France, the characters were supposed to be seen interacting with each other as they normally would, and fake French accents would have been distracting. (The one German character who appears at the end of the film–who would later become the future Mrs. Kubrick–only spoke in German.)

I think the same is true for a film set Russia–if the entire cast were speaking in Russian accents, they’d risk starting to sound like Boris and Natasha awfully fast.

Maybe The Hunt For Red October did it best–have the characters start speaking in Russian with subtitles, and then just when the audience thinks it’s in for a lot of on-screen reading, zoom into a character’s mouth and then zoom back out, and have everybody speaking in English. (Doesn’t Zhivago have a similar shot early on, but with signage, to explain why all the writing in the film is in English?)

Patrick Stewart once gave a speech to the National Press Club in Washington DC that was broadcast by C-Span. Afterwards, a reporter wanted to know if Star Trek’s producers ever asked him to do Captain Picard with a French accent. Stewart said he tried it once or twice in early rehearsals, “but it came out sounding rather like Inspector Clouseau. So I quickly concluded that Captain Picard loved the English language so much, he decided to speak it in its native tongue“.

One thing I will agree with Lileks on is the dangers of increased taxation on petroleum distillates–and he does a thorough job of demolishing Andrew Sullivan’s proposal to raise them, which ran in Time magazine no less.