Film Friday: Doctor Zhivago

Dr Zhivago is just one of those breath-taking epically beautiful films that draw you in and even after three hours, you are not ready for the end.  Omar Sharif and Julie Christie are at their height of beauty.  The sets, the music, they all create such a beautiful masterpiece.  I highly recommend watching it. Below, I have added the New York Times movie review from the film’s release.

Poster - Doctor Zhivago_02

Doctor Zhivago

Directed by: David Lean
Produced by: Carlo Ponti
Screenplay by: Robert Bolt
Based on: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
Starring: Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Siobhán McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, Rita Tushingham
Music by: Maurice Jarre
Release date: 22 December 1965 (US)

In the three hours and seventeen minutes (not counting intermission time) it takes to move Robert Bolt‘s dramatization of Boris Pasternak‘s Doctor Zhivago across the screen, a few rather major things happen. The First World War for one and the Russian Revolution for another. A whole social system is torn down and another of a harsh, dynamic nature is constructed to take its place.

Yet these things are only indicated in a few fine and fiercely acted scenes that are thrust suddenly through a fabric of personal drama and then are as quickly withdrawn. Such scenes as a devastating slaughter of socialist demonstrators in the streets of Moscow around 1910 or a clash of Czarist troops and Communist deserters on a frozen road toward the end of the war or a longer, more agonizing sequence of exiles being transported in a train to the distant regions of the Urals do suggest the boiling surge of violent change. And they are sharply illustrated on the large screen under the skillful direction of David Lean.

But the much greater part of this picture, which had its world premiere last night at the Capitol, is given to sentimental contemplation of the emotional involvement and private sufferings of a small group of bourgeois who are brutally unsettled and disrupted by the surrounding circumstances of change. And particularly is it given to the description of a passionate love affair between the gentle, courtly Dr. Zhivago and Lara, the lost, estranged wife of a Communist.



This sad love affair of two people who have come to their grim Gethsemane in a dismal town in the Urals after going through various personal trials in Moscow and elsewhere is the matter upon which Mr. Bolt has chosen to settle all the tensions of spiritual conflict and personal tragedy that are packed in the Pasternak novel. And this is the weakness of the film. Mr. Bolt has reduced the vast upheaval of the Russian Revolution to the banalities of a doomed romance.

No matter how heartbreaking he has made the backgrounds of the couple appear—with the doctor torn from a promising practice and from a lovely, loving wife by the brutual demands of the revolution and with Lara left on her own after a girlhood affair with an older lover and a marriage with a revolutionist. No matter how richly graphic these affairs have been made by Mr. Lean—and, believe me, he has made them richly graphic; the decor and color photography are as brilliant, tasteful, and exquisite as any ever put on the screen.

No matter how sweet and loving, idealistic and pitiable the handsome Dr. Zhivago is invariably made to seem by dark-eyed, intense Omar Sharif, and no matter how sad and brave the remarkable young Julie Christie makes the bold but confused Lara be, the long-drawn sadness of these two lovers is not enough for the crux of this film.

Furthermore, the necessities of drama—of action and suspense—are not served by the fact that these two people and some others are possessed by a strange passivity. As much as Dr. Zhivago obviously dreads and distrusts the onslaught of the vulgar revolution, he does not get his back up to it. He takes all its cruel oppressions with a solemn, uncomplaining wistfulness. Lara, too, is submissive to the irony of fate. This may be proper to their natures and faithful to Pasternak, but it makes for painfully slow going and inevitable tedium in a film.

Missing, too, in the doctor is that aura of genius that Pasternak evolved as the spiritual setting of the man and his poetry. Mr. Sharif’s Zhivago is just an ordinary gent who seems to have no more poetry in him than an occasional jingle for a holiday. Thus it is startling and disturbing to see him sit down in the middle of the night toward the end of the film in that ice-box villa on the edge of the wintry and wolf-infested steppe and start writing poems to Lara that we are led to assume are great. I have a feeling it is fortunate they don’t let us hear the poetry.

But his being a poet is the basis for the framing device in which Mr. Bolt has set his drama. The picture is begun and the story told with the half-brother of the doctor—a Soviet engineer, austerely played by Alec Guinness—trying to discover whether a Russian working girl (Rita Tushingham) is the lost daughter of Lara and Zhivago, now long dead. Neither the inquiry nor the device can be reckoned a success.

Successful, however, beyond question is the physical production of this film—the brilliant visual realization. As in Lawrence of Arabia, Mr. Lean has joined with Fred A. Young, his photographer, to create a superlative mise-en-scène. His pictorial stuff is tremendous, whether it be a snow-filled Moscow street or a burnished room full of Christmas celebrators or a great expanse of windy steppe or a train in the snow or a country cottage frosted with shimmering ice.

And he has got very good performances from Rod Steiger and Tom Courtenay—the former as the bourgeois opportunist who first seduces and later plagues Lara, and the latter as the thin-lipped revolutionary who is strangely and briefly loved by her. Geraldine Chaplin is shiny but vapid as Dr. Zhivago’s band-box wife and Ralph Richardson is pompous and pathetic as his bumbling, bewildered father-in-law.

But all these people and others are but characters in a sad romance that seems almost as far away from Russia as the surging revolution seems from them. They are as fustian and sentimental as the music of Maurice Jarre that has a nostalgic balalaika tinkle. They are closer to Hollywood than to the steppes.


Directed by David Lean; written by Robert Bolt, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak; cinematographer, Freddie Young; edited by Norman Savage; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, John Box; produced by Carlo Ponti; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Running time: 197 minutes.

With: Omar Sharif (Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara), Tom Courtenay (Pasha Antipov), Rod Steiger (Komarovsky), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko), Alec Guinness (Yevgrat Zhivago), Siobhan McKenna (Anna Gromeko), Ralph Richardson (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Tushingham (The Girl), and Adrienne Corri (Lara’s Mother).

One comment

  1. I loved, loved, loved this movie when I first saw it. The review was not overly positive but then how can a film condense everything that is in a book? I haven’t read the book but if I had I may have been disappointed in the film too. As it was it was one of my favourite movies of all time.


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