Before there was CGI (Computer Generated Images), there was David Lean. Before filmmakers could create armies of mummies at war with each other or alien spaceships destroying Manhattan with the help of computers, director David Lean was the master of the epic image. Whether it was blowing up a real bridge and destroying a real train in THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI (1957) or filming a vast Arabian desert with a singular camel rider in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), Lean was the visionary filmmaker who did it for real. No computer animation. No Hollywood special effects. If he needed thousands of extras, he used thousands of extras. If he need to film in Sri Lanka or Morocco or Finland or India, he went there.
David Lean made 16 films (he was an editor before he became a director), but he's probably most famous for his three sprawling epics at the zenith of his career. DR. ZHIVAGO (1965) is Lean's third epic after BRIDGE and LAWRENCE. As much as I loved those two films, ZHIVAGO never really piqued my interest. Maybe it was the Russian history element which always confused me. Maybe I was a film snob and just didn't want to see a three hour historical love story. But Lean made only two more films after ZHIVAGO so if I wanted to see another David Lean blockbuster, this was the one to watch.
Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak and adapted by screenwriter Robert Bolt (who won an Academy Award for ZHIVAGO), DR. ZHIVAGO is big soap opera set against the turbulent Russia in the early 20th century. It's easy to see why Bolt won an Academy Award for his screenplay as the story is complicated with many interesting characters and stories and subtext.
DR. ZHIVAGO recounts the tragic story of love found and lost against the backdrop of the Bolshevik uprising, World War I, and the Russian Revolution. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is a middle-class doctor and poet, married to his adopted parents daughter Tanya (Geraldine Chaplin). Yuri meets, falls in love and has an affair with a young dressmaker named Lara (Julie Christie). Lara is engaged to a political labor activist Pasha (Tom Courtenay) but involved in a disastrous affair with an older, arrogant Russian official Viktor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger).
Yuri and Lara never meet officially for the first part of the film but Yuri has chance encounters with Lara, on the trolley and in her mother's studio, that stir something in him. Both Yuri and Lara will lose their innocence early in the film. For Yuri, it's watching his beloved snow covered Moscow turn bloody as government dragoons (guards) with swords attack a workers rally, murdering many demonstrators and wounding others including Pasha. Yuri tries to assist the injured but guards force him back. For Lara, she loses her innocence when Komarovsky rapes her. Afterward, she follows Komarovsky to a Christmas party and tries to shoot him with Pasha's gun, wounding him in the hand. Yuri and Tanya are there, mesmerized by this beautiful, fragile creature. Pasha arrives before the police and leads Lara away.
WWI erupts and Yuri and Lara's lives are thrown in disarray. Lean depicts the horrors of the war in a concise, effective montage. Returning from the front, Yuri and Lara meet face to face for the first time, he as a military doctor and she a nurse. Back in Moscow, civil unrest encroaches on Yuri's family life as his home is taken over by the people forcing Yuri, Tanya, and Tanya's father Alexander (Ralph Richardson) to flee Moscow by train and head east, back to their birthplace.
On the train ride back, Yuri encounters Lara's husband Pasha, who's now a scarred, revolutionary named Strelnikov. Yuri learns that Lara also has fled eastward. Yuri eventually finds Lara, working in a library and they consummate their love. Yuri tries to remain faithful to his wife Tanya but his passion for Lara is too great. As he tries to visit her again one day, Yuri is kidnapped by the Reds and forced to live and fight with them as they attack the Whites. When Yuri finally escapes some time later and returns to his home, he finds Tanya and his kids have left but Lara and her daughter still there. Komorovsky shows up (he's now the Minister of Justice) but this time to make amends by helping to get Lara and her daughter away before the wrong side finds them. The sleigh can only fit three so Yuri stays behind. He never sees Lara again nor does he ever learn that they had a child together.
DR. ZHIVAGO is first rate from Freddie Young's beautiful cinematography to the editing and production design and the lush score by Maurice Jarre with the mesmerizing 'Lara's Theme' played throughout the film. Once you hear it, you'll be humming it for a couple of weeks afterward.
The characters in DR. ZHIVAGO all have incredible arcs which only a three hour film can allow to happen. Omar Sharif and Julie Christie are fantastic as the doomed lovers but I really enjoyed Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, and Geraldine Chaplin. Steiger redeems himself after assaulting Lara by rescuing her and her daughter. Courtenay transforms from dutiful committed comrade Pasha to bloodthirsty revolutionary Strelnikov. He's too blinded by his ideals to notice what a beautiful wife he had in Lara. And speaking of dutiful wife, Chaplin as Tanya is moving. She loves her husband and still loves him even when she knows he loves someone else too. Even cinematic wild man Klaus Kinski has a nice couple of scenes on the train as Kostoyed, a political activist of some sort.
Lean and Bolt never offer easy answers or explanations in DR. ZHIVAGO. There are no credits at the beginning explaining what year the film begins or a brief tutorial on Russian history. And unless you got your doctorate in Russian history, I'm not exactly sure which side were the Bolsheviks and who were the Mensheviks and later the Whites and the Reds. Did Viktor rape Lara or not? Is the young woman that Yuri's half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) interviews in the prologue Yuri and Lara's long lost daughter or not? These mysteries may seem frustrating at times but it makes an audience pay closer attention. In the end, you the audience get to decide.
DR. ZHIVAGO has some visual motifs similar to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Instead of a lone Lawrence against the hot shimmering desert, we have the lone figure of Zhivago isolated against white, frozen tundra. Zhivago has a CITIZEN KANE element as well. As a child, little Yuri is given a guitar, a balalaika. He takes the instrument with him to Moscow, nearly hits a man for almost breaking it when his adopted parents home is overrun, and takes it back to the Urals when they flee the civil war. The guitar represents Zhivago's childhood, his lasting memory of his deceased mother.
DR. ZHIVAGO is not perfect. I think the latter part of the film drags a bit especially the long train ride from Moscow to Siberia. Yuri's well known as a poet but we never hear any of his poetry and he's shown writing a bit only toward the end of the film. Yuri's half brother Yevgraf shows up in the middle of the film (as well as the beginning and end) but I was never entirely sure how he and Yuri were related. As I said, not everything in DR. ZHIVAGO is black and white (or Red and White for you Russophiles).
But DR. ZHIVAGO more than holds up as David Lean's third triumphant epic after BRIDGE and LAWRENCE. It's a shame that he didn't manage to make a few more big pictures but with the critical failure of RYAN'S DAUGHTER (1970), studios weren't as eager to give Lean more money as before. Imagine what David Lean could have done with a good Civil War story or America's push out west. But Lean's influence can be seen in future directors films like Steven Spielberg's EMPIRE OF THE SUN (1987) or SCHINDLER'S LIST (1993).
So pick a rainy afternoon (it shouldn't be too hard if you live here in Oregon) and watch DR. ZHIVAGO from beginning to end. It's one of those films that will make you say, "They don't make them like they use to."