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How the movies led me to Russia

In 1965, my parents took me and a school friend to the Elmwood Cinema in Elmwood, Connecticut, to see the just-released David Lean epic Doctor Zhivago. That was in the days when big, serious films had overtures and intermissions, and Doctor Zhivago was nothing if not serious and big, with a super-sized running time of 192 minutes and a balalaika-spiked Oscar-winning score by Maurice Jarre that contained a hit tune ("Somewhere My Love") that saturated the airwaves for months.
 
I was enthralled.
 
Lean's desperately romantic and passionate film, released at a moment when the United States and USSR were locked in the deadly nuclear competition of the Cold War, sent me on a quest for deeper knowledge of all things Russian. I began to read the novels of Dostoyevsky and, a few years later, began studying Russian, taking the first steps on a lifelong crusade to conquer and penetrate that most challenging and rewarding of languages. Doctor Zhivago humanized Russia for me, transporting me far beyond the small faded New England clock city where I had spent my life to date to a vivid and exciting world that on the screen loomed so much more real and important than my own. There was Russia, right on the screen just a few hundred feet away, alluring and seemingly attainable. I could almost reach out and touch it.
 
No wonder Vladimir Ilych Lenin had once called cinema "the most important of all the arts." Images seen on the screen have a way of overwhelming and superseding all others.
 
In time, I came to recognize how artificial, inaccurate and manipulative was the image of Russia presented in Doctor Zhivago, and in other films about Russia that emerged from Hollywood. But they infected me with a fascination and love for Russian history and culture that has enriched my life beyond measure. 
 
And eventually, these films led me to the work of Lewis Milestone, an immigrant from the Russian Empire who came to the United States on the eve of World War I seeking a new life, but never forgot the country or culture he came from.

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Why Lewis Milestone?

It was while I was writing my previous book, Russians in Hollywood: Hollywood's Russians that I first became interested in the life and work of Lewis Milestone.  It became clear to me that of all the many emigres from the Russian empire (Yul Brynner, Gregory Ratoff, Akim Tamiroff, Maria Ouspenskaya) who came to work in Hollywood after the 1917 Russian Revolution, he was the most significant in film and American cultural history.  Years ago I had seen I seen his profound and moving Academy-award winning film about World War I, All Quiet on the Western Front, still one of the greatest representations of the psychological impact of war on common soldiers.  And it is told from the German point of view, something entirely new in Hollywood at the time.  I had also seen his poetic and disturbing adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic novel, Of Mice and Men, with a ground-breaking musical score by Aaron Copland.
 
Because he was fiercely independent and often quarreled with the powerful studio bosses who controlled film production in Hollywood's Golden Age, Milestone had a somewhat up-and-down career. He burst into fame in the silent era, and throughout the 1930s and 40s was regarded as one of the most gifted and intelligent directors in the business--a founding father of American cinema.  He worked with many of the greatest stars in film: Mary Astor, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra (and the rest of the Rat Pack).
 
Since I have been studying and writing about Russia since I was a teenager, what also drew me to Milestone's work was his life-long interest in Russia and the USSR. He maintained friendly relations with Soviet directors and made several major films about Russia: the documentary The Russian Front, and an ambitious feature about the Nazi attack upon the USSR, The North Star. It was this intense interest in the USSR, in fact, that later made Milestone a target of the congressional investigations into Communist influence in the movie business in the late 1940s. As a result, his career was derailed for several years.
 
A serious artist who believed in film's power not only to entertain, but to convey messages of social importance, Milestone gained a reputation as a man of principle in an industry not known for an abundance of virtue. His best films celebrate the common man and the underdog, a situation he could understand since he came from such humble immigrant roots himself.

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