Doctor Zhivago

Dir: David Lean, 1965. Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness. Classics.
Doctor Zhivago

The third film in director David Lean’s "How To Make An Epic" Trilogy, Doctor Zhivago followed The Bridge On The River Kwai and Lawrence Of Arabia. It may not carry the same critical cache today - some find it too soapy and less "important" - but it’s just as entertaining and just as impressive as his previous two epics. This period for Lean from ’57 to ’65 followed his rather dated Criterion Collection endorsed British period of the '40s and early '50s. And then his follow up to Zhivago five years later, Ryan’s Daughter, does not quite hold up today. But his follow up to that, his final film, the underrated A Passage To India in ’84, is rather interesting and showed the seventy-something director still working with all his powers, if not quite the scope.

Doctor Zhivago could be used for any class on film symbolism. It‘s constant: the leaves falling from the sunflower, the melted snow, the electricity of the cable cars, the deliberate use of the color red standing out among the drab colors. Robert Bolt’s concise script helps to spell out the character's feelings without the actors ever having to proclaim them. It all works to boil down Boris Pasternak’s epic novel of adultery before, during, and after the Russian Revolution. In terms of history class, along with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Franklin Schaffner’s Nicholas And Alexandra, Warren Beatty’s Reds, and Woody Allen’s Love And Death, you have everything you could ever want to know about that period in Russia, or at least everything I know about it.

The Egyptian heartthrob Omar Sharif plays the too passive poet and doctor. Zhivago, coming off his breakthrough role in Lawrence of Arabia, made him an international sex symbol. And though he has since made at least another seventy movies in his long career, this was his last role of any renown, though I’ve never seen his hard-to-find performance in the title role of Richard Fleischer’s legendarily campy Che. As Zhivago the mustached pretty boy is supported by a mostly British line-up of '60s all-stars. At her most stunning, Julie Christie plays Lara, the poet’s muse and mistress. Her Billy Liar co-star Tom Courtenay this time plays Lara’s creepy looking revolutionary ex-boyfriend. As Lara’s long lost daughter, the one time Brit "it-girl" Rita Tushingham (The Knack...And How To Get It) bookends the film along with (a David Lean usual suspect) the brilliant Alec Guinness. And Ralph Richardson shows up to add even more British class credentials to the film. Standing out in the cast is the oddly attractive Geraldine Chaplin and Zhivago’s long suffering and strangely understanding wife. Lean really know how to give an actor an entrance; Chaplin’s in her pink coat and puffy fur hat is one for the ages.

Actually, along with Freddie Young’s splendid photography (he took over for future overrated cult director Nicolas Roeg, who was fired early in the production) and Maurice Jarre’s hauntingly lush romantic score, which produced a top ten hit with the balalaika inspired "Lara’s Theme," the real star of the picture is the only American in the cast, the great method-ham Rod Steiger as Lara’s seducer and some time protector, Victor Komarovsky. Steiger was on a multi-accent, emoting roll in the mid-'60s and early '70s. Along with this Russian scoundrel he managed to chew the hell out of the scenery in a dozen or so different films, including his Oscar winning roll in In The Heat Of The Night, The Pawnbroker, No Way To Treat A Lady, Duck You Sucker, and most memorably as Mr. Joyboy in The Loved One.

When they say "they don’t make 'em like they use to," Doctor Zhivago is what they are talking about. Like its motion picture cousins Gone With The Wind and The Godfather, Zhivago is a big, pre-CGI, epic with a capital E. However what really makes it work as a true epic, what so many contemporary filmmakers don’t seem to understand, is that it‘s not just because of the huge sets and the amount of money spent on extras and lavish costumes. It’s the emotions that it hits. It may be splashy and it may of cost a fortune, but the longings that Zhivago has are universal, what he goes through to be with Lara haunts him and eventually kills him. The history and the wallpaper around him are only a small part of the story. You don’t need CGI effects to explain why a Russian poet feels the way he does, in this case, just an Egyptian actor with a really cool mustache.


Doctor Zhivago won five Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design - Color, Best Cinematography - color, and Best Art Direction - Set Direction - Color. The film was nominated for another five Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Tom Courtenay), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Picture, and Best Sound.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
May 6, 2010 12:01pm
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