Director: David Lean
Writers: Boris Pasternak (novel), Robert Bolt (screenplay)
Producers: Arvid Griften, David Lean, Carlo Ponti (MGM)
Photography: Freddie Young
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Jeffrey Rockland, Tarek Sharif, Bernard Kay, Klaus Kinski, Gerard Tichy, Noel Willman
“In a land of guns and ice, there is the great sound of battle and the greater silence of lovers.”
For a good thirty years, David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago was unanimously hailed as one of the biggest and best British productions ever made. Its box office release remains the No. 8 highest grossing in history (adjusted for inflation). At the 1988 People’s Choice Awards, its theme song, Maurice Jarre’s “My Love (Lara’s Theme),” was voted Favorite All-Time Motion Picture Score. And in 1997, the film ranked a powerful No. 39 on the AFI’s original Top 100 list.
But around the turn of the millennium, and interesting phenomenon occurred, as Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), a similar romantic epic set against a Bolshevik Revolution backdrop, began swapping places with Zhivago on most every best list. Today, Zhivago has completely dropped off the AFI Top 100 and does not even place in the AFI’s Top 10 Epics, where Reds ranks No. 9. It does, however, still carry weight with the romantics out there, who voted the film No. 7 on AFI’s 100 Passions. And in that realm, the film will never go away.
Based on the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, the film opens in late 1940s/early 1950s Stalinist Russia, where Police General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guiness) is searching for the child born by his brother, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), and mistress Larissa “Lara” Antipova (Julie Christie). Believing it to be a young dam worker named Tonya Komarovsky (Rita Tushingham, referred to in the credits as “The Girl”), Yevgraf invites her to listen to his account of his brother’s life from 1905-1921 in the run-up to the Bolshevik Revolution.
In flashback, we pick up with young Yuri, orphaned as a child and taken in by family friends. When older, he studies to be a doctor (“Doctor Zhivago”), but poetry remains his passion. His young adulthood and marriage to childhood friend, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), unfolds simultaneously with that of his soulmate Lara, who lives with her mother (Adrienne Corri) and is involved with two men, young Bolshevik idealist Pasha (Tom Courteney), who was permanently scarred by Cossacks, and her mother’s own lover, lawyer Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). When Lara’s mother discovers the affair, she tries killing herself with iodine, at which point Yuri is called in as a doctor — allowing for his first meeting with Lara at her mother’s bedside.
Years later, after the 1914 outbreak of WWI, the two meet again as medics on the Ukranian front and unveil unstoppable desires for one another, despite their prior marriages, he to Tonya, she to Pasha, who is believed killed in the war but who has really come to be called Strelnikov.
1917 brings the close of the war and Lenin’s coup takeover of Russia. With the country now in civil war between the Reds and White, Yuri and Lara return to their respective homes, she in Yuritan, he in Varykino, where his home has been overtaken by the Red revolutionary government. Throughout the political turmoil, Yuri and Lara engage in a passionate love affair, during which Yuri writes poems about Lara that will make both of them famous after his death. These poems are the ultimate legacy for these star-crossed lovers, and possibly the proof Yevgraf needs to prove the true identity of his niece decades later.
Believe it or not, all this is greatly condensed from Pasternak’s novel, for which he wrote passages during the Revolution in the 1910s and ’20s, but which was not completed until 1956. When the Soviets quickly rejected it, he had to smuggle the manuscript into Italy to have it printed, delaying its publication until 1957. A year later, Pasternak would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an award the Soviet Union strongly opposed, having banned the book. Until 1988, the only way Soviets could read Doctor Zhivago was through “samizdat” editions, underground copies of government-repressed literature. When screenwriter Robert Bolt returned with Lean after Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and adapted Zhivago into an Oscar-winning screenplay, it too was banned. In fact, the film was not shown in Russia until 1994, five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. What a long tim eto wait for the movie curtain — in this case, an Iron Curtain — to reveal a classic picture show.
In the 30 years that it took Russians to see the film, audiences in the U.S. had fully embraced the screen adaptation. Lean had put faces to Pasternak’s characters, ones that would remain linked for all time. After playing a supporting role in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Sharif would find his career role as Yuri Zhivago, making his iconic arrival through a doorway in his war homecoming, complete with his big brown eyes and signature mustache.
It was also provide Julie Christie’s most iconic role, and that’s saying something considering she went on to do McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), Shampoo (1975) and Heaven Can Wait (1978). Christie is absolutely beautiful as Lara, from that red-and-black dress with neck choker, to that fur coat and hat.
Supporting them both is the best acting in the entire film, from Courteney’s Oscar nominated turn as Pasha, to Steiger just two years before his Oscar for In the Heat of the Night (1967). Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin, was an inspired cast for Tonya, and Lean knew what he was getting with Alec Guinness, who had played in Lean’s Great Expectations (1945), The Bridge of the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
The most vital appearance, though overshadowing that of all the actors, is the Russian landscape, captured exquisitely by Lean’s grand vision and Freddie Young’s Oscar-winning color cinematography. If any one filmmaker is known for his vast, panoramic displays, it’s Lean, and in Zhivago, he had found epic material to match his epic visual eye.
The snow-covered Russian landscapes are shown in all their magnitude against tiny human figures in Lean’s gorgeous wideshots. The sets are equally impressive, earning Oscars for Set Direction and Costume Design in a remarkable recreation of the time period. Watching the film, you feel as if you’re actually living and breathing in Revolutionary Russia: drab, cold and uncertain. We feel Sharif’s trudge across the wintery landscape just as we felt O’Toole’s trudge across the desert in Lawrence of Arabia. Rather than sunburn and sand, we get frostbite and snow. Together, the two sequences make for the most grueling journeys against the elements in movie history.
Lean earned a Palme d’Or nomination at the Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for Best Director. But he lost the latter in a travesty to Robert Wise for The Sound of Music. While one can make an argument for The Sound of Music winning Best Picture 1965, Lean is grossly superior in the directing department.
Throughout Zhivago, there are repeated reminders of Lean’s filmmaking prowess. Note the camera setup inside the buried casket of Yuri’s dead mother. The shot of Lara and Victor on the dance floor, rapidly tracking to the right to show them sitting at the table. The sexual cut from Victor’s advances on Lara, to a Cossack on horseback yelling, “Mount!” The detailed shots of the Bloody Sunday attack with tubas crashing to the ground, drums rolling away without an owner and red blood splattered against the white snow. The shot of a soldier’s glasses falling off, as we see look through the lenses to watch other men fall. The camera moving around outside a building, looking in through four different windows after Lara’s mother’s suicide attempt. Yuri looking in through a window to see Christie sleeping in the dark, her arm the only thing visible in the shadows, and then seemlessly fading into the morning light to reveal her entire body.
Note also the slow dolly-in on a foggy window lit by Pasha’s candle, the entire scene told without dialogue but rather the sound of churchbells accompanying the blurry figures inside. The steam from an iron rising between Lara and Yuri as they repress their feelings for one another. The mise-en-scene of that flower plant symbolizing their love and always shown behind Lara until she leaves for home, the petals slowly drooping off. The shot of a train approaching the foreground, its cattle catcher plowing through the snow-covered tracks and flinging snow directly at the camera. The beautiful composition of Lara lying in a fire’s glow in the foreground, while Yuri stis at his desk in the background, writing his poems about her. And one of the ultimate constructions of tragic endings, him spotting her from a bus window but unable to call out because he is so ill, finally falling to the ground in an extreme high angle, his body surrounded by townspeople as Lara rounds the corner, unaware it even happened.
At least we forget the running motif of the balalaika, a triangular Russian instrument left to Yuri by his mother, appearing on-screen as a symbol of Yuri’s artistic nature, and off-screen as Maurice Jarre’s hauntingly romantic score.
Still, watching Zhivago, one can’t help but feel that somewhere along the way, it was the beginning of the end for him. Lean would only make two more films, Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Passage to India (1984), two absolute snoozers. Perhaps Zhivago was his final successful flourish of Lean-ness, an ironic name considering his films are anything but Lean. The very thing Lean’s critics harp on the most — his unwavering insistence on grandiose projects — finally start to get the best of him in Zhivago. While Kwai and Arabia boast compelling-enough plotlines to fill their lengthy runtimes, Zhivago‘s 200 minutes seems grossly overblown. Without a little prior knowledge of Russian history, or a prior reading of Pasternak’s novel, the experience can be overwhelming. And even with that knowledge, the film is dangerously inaccessible, many viewers no doubt turned off by the slow, drawn-out process.
Still, it’s important we do not forget Zhivago. With an adjusted gross of $854 million, the film remains the No. 8 highest grossing in history (adjusted for inflation), roughly a $100 million more than The Exorcist (1973) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). With repeated TV airings, the film has dug itself further and further into our cultural fabric, its memory invoked throughout pop culture to this day. “Dr. Zhivago” is the name of Leo’s dog on TV’s That 70’s Show. Jill Taylor lights up with excitement about Zhivago much to the Toolman’s chagrin in TV’s Home Improvement. And the ’90s boy band 98 Degrees reference it in their song “The Hardest Thing.” “Like Dr. Zhivago, all my love I’ll be sending, and you will never know ’cause there can be no happy ending.” For romantics, young and old, Doctor Zhivago continues to be a source of inspiration, a Gone With the Wind for a different nation’s civil war.