Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Release Date: December 31st, 1965 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: David Lean Actors: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Klaus Kinski
he movie starts with an overture, which is standard evidence that it will at least be protracted in length – the spectacular, catchy music by Maurice Jarre would win “Doctor Zhivago” one of its five Academy Awards. As it turns out, the film is of an immense scale (as perhaps only director David Lean could have delivered, based on the controversial and celebrated Russian novel by Boris Pasternak), epic through and through, complete with stunningly expansive locations, staggering performances, detailed period-piece fashion, monumental battles, poignant scenarios, and a tragic yet enticing story of forbidden love amidst war and revolution. Its appeal is vast, with both technical visual achievements and the artistry of Robert Bolt’s adaptation leading the way to an unforgettable production.
General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago (Sir Alec Guinness, trussed up in a uniform reminiscent of the evil Imperial army from “Star Wars”) is interested in locating his niece, the daughter of his half-brother Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie). He summons a dam worker girl, who denies being of any relation to the comrade general. As he mentions the names of people and locations that might jog her memory, a flashback begins (occasionally narrated by Yevgraf, in which he also appears) that takes viewers to the early years of Yuri, who watches solemnly as his mother is buried. Friends of his mother, the Gromekos, take Yuri to Moscow to live. When he grows up, he studies to be a doctor and wishes to do general practice work, along with the calming pleasures of writing poetry.
Larissa “Lara” Antipova’s fiancé Pasha (Tom Courtenay) wants a revolution, whether or not the country is ready for it. During a peaceful demonstration, Zhivago happens to watch from his balcony as saber-armed soldiers descend upon the protesters, killing women and children and disfiguring Pasha. As the bitter man puts his political agenda above his love for Lara, Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a wealthy, corrupt advisor for Lara’s mother, takes advantage of his position to seduce the 17-year-old girl. After consulting a priest, she’s convinced she must now remain with Komarovsky, even though she doesn’t completely understand their relationship. Her mother finds out, and eventually attempts suicide. When Professor Boris Kurt (Geoffrey Keen) is called upon, Zhivago accompanies him, and sees Lara for the first time. Despite knowing little about her, he’s instantly in love. After Komarovsky successfully avoids any political scandals caused by his involvement with Lara (though he does take a vengeful bullet in the arm), the distraught girl is taken away by Pasha; they are married and have a child, Katya, during the following years that mark the outbreak of World War I.
During the historical February Revolution, Lara and the enlisted Zhivago reunite after four years apart. He realizes, tragically, that he still loves her, despite the fact that she wishes to return to her child – and his own wife, Tonya (Geraldine Page), the girl who he grew up with, is waiting for him back home. Yuri and Lara are separated once again. He returns to his house, now being forcefully divided amongst 13 other families by the new government (a more “just” living arrangement) and soon realizes that they don’t have enough money even for firewood. It’s here that his half-brother Yevgraf introduces himself to Zhivago and urges his family to escape to the countryside, especially as Yuri’s poems are disliked by the Soviets, which could lead to anti-communist punishment. During the train ride, he comes across Pasha, now a ruthless activist assuming the title Commissar Stelnikov, who informs him that Lara is in Yuriatin and that he no longer has any desire to return to her. This sets up an opportunity for Zhivago to start an affair with Lara, which becomes even more complicated when Tonya becomes pregnant again and he’s captured by Red partisans to serve as a medical officer – for several years. As time passes, they continue to meet and part; fate, it seems, perpetually keeps Zhivago away from all of his loved ones.
Although the stirring love story is deeply embedded amongst historical events, it’s still the most prevailing theme. Concerning itself heavily with the Russian Revolution, civil wars, various battles, and the establishment of the Soviet Union, “Doctor Zhivago” is actually rather difficult to follow (not unlike the book), especially when gaps exist in the timeline and not every political outlook or movement (for instance, the reasoning behind the Red Forces versus the White Army) is fully described. For the most part, the characters pass through Russian history as their stories progress, indifferent to the audience’s ability to absorb facts or details, yet chronicling them nonetheless (in this way, it could be compared to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Forrest Gump”).
A substantial factor that diversifies “Doctor Zhivago” from other great romances is the nature of the characters. Yuri is unfaithful to his wife and Lara doubts her virtue after succumbing to Victor; they aren’t standard antiheroes, but they definitely lack the righteousness found in many similar love stories. It makes sympathizing and caring for this doomed couple slightly more difficult, but once viewers are drawn into their flawed world, it’s still considerably rewarding.
The film also features incredibly powerful imagery that marks it as one of the most influential of classics. Crimson blood splattered on the bright snow during a protest; frozen bodies protruding from wintry battlegrounds; Yuri’s wide, nearly teary, isolated eyes as he discusses the impossibility of being with Lara; the petals of a sunflower falling as Zhivago heartbrokenly walks away from one of her departures; a woman running to board a train during an escape from a shelled city; the sudden reveal of Stelnikov; and Lara being driven on a sled from her glacial home all paint extraordinary sequences. While covering themes of individuality, loneliness, the seeds of insurgency, and love conquering all, “Doctor Zhivago” becomes a masterpiece of emotional resonance and melodramatic romanticism, adding award-winning art direction, cinematography, costume designs, and a popular score to its numerous accomplishments.
– Mike Massie