Warner Bros. // 1965 // 200 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 4th, 2010
A love caught in the fire of revolution!
"You lay life on the table and cut out the tumors of injustice. Marvelous."
Yury Zhivago (Omar Sharif, Hidalgo) is a surgeon and poet. As a child, he was abandoned by his family and taken in by the kindly Gromekos family. He grew up alongside Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, Nashville), and as the years passed Yury began to realize that he was expected to eventually marry her. He certainly likes Tonya, even if his feelings for her aren't particularly passionate, so he goes along with this. As the socialist revolution begins, Yury attempts to help the wounded without getting too intimately involved with the politics of the war.
Lara (Julie Christie, Finding Neverland) is an attractive young woman whose mother (Adrienne Corri, The River) is in a casual relationship with a corrupt attorney named Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger, Mars Attacks). Lara is engaged to a young idealist named Pasha (Tom Courtenay, Billy Liar), but in a moment of weakness is seduced by Komarovsky. When her mother discovers this, she attempts to commit suicide. Later, Komarovsky rapes Lara and then sneeringly informs her that their relations were consensual.
These two people cross paths repeatedly over the course of their complicated lives, and it's increasingly evident as time passes that they have feelings for each other. Alas, there are social, moral, and political obstacles that stand in the way of their love. Will Yury and Lara ever find happiness? If they do, will it be in each other's arms?
Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago was proclaimed by many to be one of the greatest novels of the century shortly after its release, and David Lean's ambitious film was clearly intent on generating similar acclaim. After all, Lean's masterful epics The Bridge Over the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia were "great" in every sense of the word, so many predicted that he would work wonders with such rich source material. Unfortunately, Lean's efforts were largely derided by critics, who found his work to be self-indulgent, bloated, and lacking the novel's depth. Though the movie had its defenders (and it went on to win no less than five Academy Awards), the experience was such a bad one for Lean that he vowed he would never make another movie again (a promise he broke when he made Ryan's Daughter, which received even more intense criticism). So, how well does Lean's epic hold up after all these years? Honestly, I think it holds up quite well indeed.
No, Doctor Zhivago is not quite on par with Lean's aforementioned masterpieces, but it is an engaging and superbly-crafted epic that I find involving on both an emotional and technical level. One has to bear in mind that at the time, many anticipated that Doctor Zhivago would be the single greatest film of the year. In truth, it's much better than many films of the era but it fell short of the huge expectations that had been placed upon it in 1965. If you're willing to forgive a few stilted scenes and some self-indulgence now and then, you'll discover a rather grand piece of filmmaking. The '60s was pretty much the last decade in which expensive literary adaptations like this were commonplace; it's kind of touching to see such grandeur and spectacle applied to a story that is, at its core, about the feelings of two people.
Lean does a tremendous job of thoroughly immersing us in the atmosphere of the social revolution, albeit a somewhat melodramatic and sensationalized atmosphere. He does such a good job of it, in fact, that it's easy to forget that Doctor Zhivago is not about war or politics. Nonetheless, it's important to bear the film's purpose in mind, as the film is not attempting to say something about the revolution so much as it is about the feelings of the characters. The battles, the political conflicts, the peripheral characters...all of these are merely part of the absurdly comprehensive backdrop, ultimately fading into the background as Yury and Lara slowly come into focus.
The performances go a long way toward keeping us engaged throughout the whopping 200-minute runtime, led by Christie's passionate yet subtle turn as Lara. There are occasions when the screenplay seems to treat the character as more of a plot device than an actual person, but Christie ensures that Lara is a fully-realized character at all times (sometimes with as little as a slight shift in body language or a facial expression). Omar Sharif is equally passionate yet not as subtle as the title character, though he isn't deserving of the criticism he has received. It's a good reading of the role; it just has some rough edges. The two leads are very well-backed by a fine supporting cast that includes Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Geraldine Chapman, and Klaus Kinski. Steiger in particular creates a complex villain who steals just about every scene he appears in.
Being the visual spectacle that it is, I'm enormously grateful that Doctor Zhivago has received such a fine hi-def transfer. Though the image is hindered a little bit by some softness, that's largely due to the manner in which the film was crafted to begin with. Otherwise, this is about as good as one can possibly expect the film to look. There film is pretty much entirely free of the scratches and flecks that are so frequently found in films of this age, and the level of natural grain present is minimal and barely noticeable. Blacks are acceptably deep and detail is magnificent in scenes where the softness isn't too significant. Audio is also quite strong, particularly in terms of Maurice Jarre's lyrical score. Dialogue and sound design are well-mixed, with the intimate dialogue scenes and the loud battle scenes managing to come through clearly without forcing the viewer to adjust the volume. Early in the film, there are some brief bits of dialogue that sound a little muffled.
There's only one brand-new special feature of note offered on this Blu-ray release, but it's a good one: the 40-minute "Doctor Zhivago: A Celebration," which provides analysis of the film from a wide variety of film historians and filmmakers. It's a substantial, informative piece that I greatly enjoyed. Everything is ported over from the previous releases: an audio commentary with Sharif, Sandra Lean (David's wife) and Rod Steiger, an hour-long making-of documentary, a collection of old archival featurettes from the time of the film's release, interviews with Sharif and Christie, plus a theatrical trailer. The film is presented as a 3-disc Blu-ray book, which is thicker than most of the books Warner Bros. has released (the 40 color pages are sandwiched between two of the discs, while a third disc -- a soundtrack CD sampler -- is attached to the package inside a cardboard slipcase). Overall, a very fine package that looks handsome on the shelf.
Despite the fact that it's rather dated and still has a few nagging flaws, it's hard not to get swept up in Lean's sprawling epic. Warner's Blu-ray release is exceptional in pretty much every way, earning Doctor Zhivago a strong recommendation.
Review content copyright © 2010 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 200 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Soundtrack Sampler