During the Russian Revolution, an idealist doctor, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif, Lawrence of Arabia), falls in love with a mysterious young woman, Lara Guishar (Julie Christie, Darling). Zhivago decides, however, to marry his cousin, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, Talk to Her). Years later, the doctor meets Lara again, and they realize that they belong together after all, but the war keeps getting in their way.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it.”
A sprawling, hugely popular romantic saga that wasn’t just an enormous box office hit, but one of the most popular films of all-time — many viewers quickly dubbed the movie “the Gone with the Wind of the 1960s.” David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago was also a critical success, one of the best-reviewed movies of the decade.
Produced by maverick Italian mogul Carlo Ponti (Marriage Italian Style and The Cassandra Crossing) and shot primarily in Spain, Doctor Zhivago is an epic in every sense of the word. Although its grandiosity and fantastic visuals are an essential part of the film, this is a touching and intimate love story at its core.
Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons) adapted Russian novelist and poet Boris Pasternak’s 1957 Nobel Prize–winning book. Director Lean instructed Bolt to tone down the book’s politics and amplify the romance. As expected, many contemporary critics accused the film of being overly romantic, but I think that’s precisely why Doctor Zhivago remains as popular as ever — politics are divisive while romance is universal.
Doctor Zhivago‘s biggest flaw is that the title character is not an interesting person. Egyptian actor Omar Sharif does a commendable job as Zhivago, but he frequently comes across as being weak, even dull. I haven’t read the novel, so I’m not sure who should get blamed for this flaw, but I do think Lean and Bolt should have tried a bit harder to make the character stand out, especially since he’s in almost every scene.
Fortunately, the supporting characters are fascinating. My favorite is the mercurial Komarovsky, played by Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night). You never know what he’s going to do next. Tom Courtenay (The Dresser) is also excellent as the conflicted Pascha — Courtenay impressed me on every level. Sir Ralph Richardson (Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes) plays Zhivago’s adoptive father and Sir Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets) plays Zhivago’s half-brother.
And then there is Julie Christie. She has an ethereal quality that’s hard to describe. She reminds me of a young Greta Garbo. Christie is not only extraordinarily beautiful, but also possesses super-star quality. She ended up winning the Oscar that year for Darling, but I’d like to think that the award was meant to reward both performances.
Maurice Jarre’s (A Passage to India) majestic score — specifically “Lara’s Theme” — quickly became one of the most famous movie scores of all-time. Naysayers call it “elevator’s music,” but it is a lovely melody. However, everybody agrees that Freddie Young’s (Ryan’s Daughter) cinematography and John Box’s (Lawrence of Arabia) sets are superb — the movie isn’t pretty, it’s breathtakingly beautiful!
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Despite its excesses and extreme length, Doctor Zhivago succeeds in developing a narrative that works inwards, pulling the viewer in. It’s not as good as Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, but every time I watch it, I like it a little more. I’m sure Doctor Zhivago played better on the big screen, but if you have the proper home entertainment system, this is a great movie to watch on a lazy Sunday evening. Color, 220 minutes, PG-13.