Warner Bros. // 1965 // 200 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // December 6th, 2004
"Good marriages are made in heaven -- or some such place." -- Alexander Gromeko (Ralph Richardson)
The most powerful scene in Doctor Zhivago comes early on. While the Tsar's dragoons brutally attack Bolshevik protesters in the street, the manipulative Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) rapes Lara (Julie Christie) in his carriage a few blocks away. The lost innocence of Russia, foreshadowing the future civil war between the Reds and Whites and their mutual brutality, overlaps with Lara's future ambivalence over which man should be allowed to possess her: the Machiavellian Komarovsky, the coldly rational Strelnikov (Tom Courtney), or the sensitive Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif).
Perhaps Lara is too much a possession in Zhivago. It is not clear why any of these men love her (she does not do much else but allow herself to be loved, as if that were her job in life), other than that she fills some need inside them. For Zhivago, this need is probably the loss of his childhood innocence. When his mother dies in the beginning of the story, he looks at her abandoned balalaika and hears what will become the incessant "Lara's Theme." Should Freud be concerned by this? Indeed, Zhivago's inability to decide between his wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his stepparents, and Lara, the perennial victim of men (her own mother, Komarovsky's lover as well, commits suicide), reflects his own sense of rootlessness. He wanders throughout the film, from Moscow to the Urals, from house to house, from war to war -- always watching, but never taking action.
This is all terribly, terribly frustrating to watch. Director David Lean spends the first two hours moving back and forth among the threads of the sprawling plot, offering intriguing glimpses of things to come and characters we want to know better. But oddly, when he finally does offer the expected payoff in the final hour -- the anticipated affair between Zhivago and Lara -- the film grinds to a halt. The supporting characters seem to drop by arbitrarily and the story does not go in any particular direction. Is this love? Isn't desire supposed to make us go somewhere, if we believe Freud? It seems as if the message of Doctor Zhivago is that love makes the world -- and the movie -- stop in its tracks.
Let us cut right to the chase: Doctor Zhivago is a love story. The Russian Revolution, which serves as the backdrop of the film's action (or lack thereof), is rather incidental: This story could happen anywhere. And perhaps this is the film's greatest narrative failing. The Marxist ideal of brotherhood, the tension between the covert support of Yevgraf and Yuri's betrayals of two women? Yuri's inability to act on anything because of his paralyzing desire to avoid making decisions? All these are glossed over by the film, which distracts us with its lush landscapes, rich music, and puppy-dog eyes.
Yes, Doctor Zhivago is the equivalent of puppy-dog eyes. That lost, longing look that says, "Love me!" regardless of what forgiveness the film might earn on its own merits. Yuri Zhivago is a frustrating hero, ambivalent and indecisive. At least the frustrating Scarlett O'Hara could fend for herself when left on her own, even if she could not get along with other people in relationships. Yuri seemingly cannot function without somebody to moon over. In this sense, Omar Sharif's performance is remarkably convincing. Few "handsome" actors can really become "sensitive" on screen; they tend to look merely self-absorbed. Sharif, however, manages to look like he is always in love with somebody else. So Sharif does what must be expected of him.
But the real problem is somewhere down deep in the material. Pasternak's novel, beautiful but rather more shallow than the philosophical complexities of his mentor Tolstoy, has been stripped of its sense of political resistance by screenwriter Robert Bolt. In context, Pasternak's romantic longings are a strategic critique of the faceless rationalism of Bolshevism. If Yuri seems flawlessly romantic, it is in part a reflection of Pasternak's ego (the character is based on him and his own long affair with a woman named Olga) and director David Lean's desire to capture the "soul of a poet" on film.
But Lean seems to have the impression that all poets are solipsistic, staring off into space in order to examine their own souls. The myth of the "introspective" poet, modeled on the popular view of Keats and Shelley, is not really indicative of most poets. As a poet, how do Yuri's experiences in life affect him? We have no idea, since we only ever see him writing poetry when isolated with Lara (although he is supposed to be a famous poet prior to this). And his "Lara" poems? Even Lara admits they are really about him and not her. His external world means nothing to him: He is pure interiority. And as such, Yuri allows circumstance to take its course without his choosing any particular direction. Lara's choices are delineated by men who choose for her. We never see her presented with any opportunity to thwart her ownership by others. Even when she tries to fight Komarovsky by shooting him at a Christmas party, she is merely brushed off.
In any case, Lean and Bolt make Lara and Yuri innocent victims of circumstance, manipulated by powerful men like Komarovsky and Strelnikov. But oddly, it is these enemies who show more genuine depth than the heroes of the movie. Strelnikov, really Lara's husband Pasha Antipov, is an idealist whose rage for order overwhelms his moral values. Komarovsky craves power, and when he loses Lara to Zhivago, he turns to alcohol and cynical offers of help in order to show how his ruthless pragmatism is more effective than Zhivago's romantic isolationism.
But the most difficult character to get a handle on in the story is Zhivago's half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness). In a sense, this is his story as much as Yuri's: Yevgraf narrates the tale of Yuri's ill-fated affair to the long-lost daughter of the tragic couple. Does Lara represent something else to Yevgraf -- his lost sense of the passion of the Revolution perhaps? He looks over the engineering triumphs of the Soviet state, but he seems more interested in lost family members (as are all the heroes in his story).
The Yevgraf framing-device (which is not in the book) brings to light the most awkward flaw in Robert Bolt's screenplay. Yevgraf's periodic exposition and odd habit of "narrating" over his encounters with his brother rather than ever showing them actually talking together on screen suggests that we are meant to view the entire story through the eyes of Yevgraf, that he is the primary narrator. Yet, it is Yuri who is the bystander watching the action of the film. Lean's strategy (revealed by Sharif and widow Sandra Lean on the commentary track) is to tell the story through Yuri's eyes, to make him the narrator. How can we reconcile this overlapping perspective? Are we meant to see Yuri Zhivago not as a real person, but as Yevgraf's own lost doppelganger, a creation of his thwarted desire, leaving the "real" Zhivago in limbo? Lean seems to avoid this intriguing question. This is, after all, a pretty love story.
And pretty it is -- there is no question here. Doctor Zhivago is a beautiful looking film. Every detail is finely crafted, and this remastered and remixed DVD shows it all off to full effect. You can see every flower, and the color pops right out of the screen with nice depth. It is easy to get lost in the lush production design, to feel the warm music wash over you, and forget the troubling questions you might have about the characters' motives (or even psychological consistency) or plot threads that seem to drop in and out of the picture abruptly (particularly those dealing with the cruelly underused Tonya and Strelnikov). Because David Lean wants to tell his story in tight close-ups, steering our attention toward the mooning of the characters, their reactions to events, rather than the events themselves (remember, this is a film in which emotional interiority becomes heroic), the lush backgrounds often drop off into a blur. And the slight softness of the film (partly age, partly Lean's attempt to warm up the romantic look) and edge enhancement used to sharpen the foreground images as part of the digital remastering both heighten the sense that this is a film in which the background events -- the Russian Revolution itself -- are pretty much incidental. If only we could hide away from the world, everything would be alright.
And for those looking for a romantic escape, Warner Brothers' two-disc release of Doctor Zhivago might serve reasonably well. While I cannot say that this is a film of genuine historical or critical significance, it is entertaining to watch in spite of its numerous flaws. This two-disc set (one disc double-sided to hold the 200-minute film, plus a second disc of supplements) is packed full of material that should appeal to fans of the film, although it is unlikely to draw any new admirers. The cast and crew filmographies contain brief audio interviews with Sharif, Christie, Chaplin, and Lean, plus a radio blurb from the film's premiere (attached to Steiger's page). Warner has also included a set of promotional featurettes made in 1965 for the original release of the film. All are full frame and sometimes repeat the same information. "Zhivago: Behind the Camera with David Lean" focuses less on Lean's career than a constant praising of his genius. "Moscow in Madrid" is a shorter version (four minutes rather than ten for the previous piece) of the same material, this time focusing on the production design of the film. A nine-minute biography of Boris Pasternak is pretty informative, although it has a curious Cold War slant (noting how Pasternak was forced to "voluntarily" reject his Nobel Prize). All these shorts are in fine shape for their age.
Two gushing lovefests with the press are featured, as Julie Christie (for ten minutes) and Omar Sharif (for twice that length) submit to stupid questions for taped segments for local television critics. In this raw footage, Julie Christie pretends to have tea and gets visibly twitchy and uncooperative while the interviewers try to remain perky. She clearly would rather be somewhere else -- and fast. Omar Sharif, ever the dashing one, tells some cute stories (you'll hear them again on the full documentary and the commentary track) and keeps smiling while the journalists become increasing vapid. One unintentionally funny moment comes when a would-be jokester tries to crack wise at Sharif like your drunken uncle at a lodge beer night. Sharif keeps on smiling, but you can just picture Julie Christie (who is spared an encounter with him) clawing the guy's eyes out.
Three very brief bits of studio puffery introduce us to Christie, Sharif, and Geraldine Chaplin, making her film debut in Zhivago to much fanfare. To play up the whole "Wow! That's Charlie Chaplin's daughter!" effect, the studio also produced a short "Chaplin in New York" piece included here. Geraldine Chaplin (who turned out to be a fine actress in the film, if woefully underutilized by the story) did not need all the hype -- her screen test, included here, shows that she has plenty of talent.
But the centerpiece of the extras on disc two is a one-hour documentary entitled "Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic." It contains pretty much everything covered in the studio-produced promotional films from 1965, plus some fine behind-the-scenes stories. Hosted by Sharif (who also provides an introduction for the feature on Disc One -- hope you enjoy that, because you cannot skip past it! -- the documentary covers the popular culture craze that was Doctor Zhivago in 1965. We get to hear some of the more quirky stories about the production: how Geraldine Chaplin modeled her performance of Tonya after her mother (who was also married to a notoriously mercurial artist, of course); how the first cinematographer, future director Nicholas Roeg, walked off the picture; how Spain's dictator Franco tried to interfere with the production; and why those hairstyles look so suspiciously 1960s. The film hints that Julie Christie was difficult, but never comes out and says it, while Steiger proudly boasts of his own shocking on-set antics. The best part, however, is the revelation that Pasternak's novel was highly autobiographical -- and the producers interview the real "Lara," a woman named Olga, who was Pasternak's mistress and even ended up in prison twice as part of the Soviet government's persecution of the poet.
Again, I hope you enjoy the stories Sharif and Steiger tell, because you are going to hear them again on the commentary track. Sharif and Lean's widow Sandra comment together (while Steiger is recorded separately) and offer lots of anecdotes and insights into director David Lean. There is very little analysis of the film or its characters, and there are some very long gaps. Yes, I know it is tough to fill a three-hour-plus running time with commentary, but another voice or two would have been welcome here, perhaps discussing the technical aspects of the film or providing some scene-specific analysis. The anecdotes are pleasant, and Steiger's own comments, in which he works hard to defend the ruthless Komarovsky (ah, method acting at work!) as a sort of genuine romantic hero, are pretty amusing.
I suppose there are those for whom Doctor Zhivago is a must-have disc that bears rewatching. And I know many people have fond memories of this film from years ago. But while the supplements are plenty (if a little repetitious) and the film still looks beautiful after all these years, I suspect that it may be an exhausting 200 minutes (allegedly tightened up by Lean from its first disastrous screenings -- can you imagine what those were like?) for some. In the end, the success of Doctor Zhivago depends on whether you can project your own desires (as do all her suitors) on the long-suffering Lara as an object of affection. But always remember that your love for her may be more a reflection of yourself than anything else...
Review content copyright © 2004 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2001 Nominee
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 200 Minutes
Release Year: 1965
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio Commentary Featuring Actors Omar Sharif and Rod Steiger, and the Director's Widow, Sandra Lean
* Video Introduction by Omar Sharif
* Music Only Audio Track
* Cast and Crew with Audio Clips
* Featurette: "Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic"
* Featurette: "Zhivago: Behind the Scenes with David Lean"
* Featurette: "Moscow in Madrid"
* Featurette: "Pasternak"
* New York Press Interviews with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif
* Geraldine Chaplin Screen Test
* "This Is" Featurettes on Actors Julie Christie, Omar Sharif, and Geraldine Chaplin
* Featurette: "Chaplin in New York"
* Theatrical Trailer