David Lean’s 1965 epic DOCTOR ZHIVAGO represents a triumph of great entertainment. Whether it is great filmmaking is a matter of taste. Yes, the film is beautifully conceived and produced. But its triumph lies in style, not substance for anyone who is familiar with the Boris Pasternak novel, Lean’s adaptation will seem very curious.
In some ways, Lean may have been the wrong director to approach the project. Coming off his triumph of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA he clearly wanted to out-do the vast grandeur of that towering work. Pasternak’s novel, which created an international sensation after it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, seemed like the perfect project: the vast upheaval of the Bolshevik Revolution, in which a nation’s turmoil provides the backdrop for a passionate love triangle. Too often, though, this feels like LAWRENCE OF SIBERIA in terms of trying to redefine the scale of epic filmmaking.
Lean’s film has no shortage of turmoil. Thousands of extras barrel their way through various sequences: marching, running, screaming, fighting, standing on lines, shooting each other, riding into battle on horses, etc. Yet DOCTOR ZHIVAGO captured the commotion but not the emotion of the era. Lean’s decision to trim down Pasternak’s insight on the political dimensions of the era in favor of the adulterous love story between the eponymous doctor-poet and his muse Lara, a revolutionary leader’s wife, throws the film’s soul out-of-kilter. The star-crossed lovers against a backdrop of political fury could easily take place in any location at any period. The shock of Pasternak’s frank and brutal dissection of the bloody rise and ultimate betrayal of the Bolshevik period is absent indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Lean’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO could upset the Kremlin with the force that Pasternak’s book created.
It doesn’t help that in Lean’s film, Zhivago’s wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) is such a bland cipher that it is impossible not to fault the philandering physician for spending so much time in the arms of the lovely Lara (Julie Christie at her sexiest peak, complete with anachronistic mod hairdo). Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is also a bit of a curiosity: more of a passive observer than an actual participant to the upheaval, he often seems like an afterthought rather than the center of attention. The audience doesn’t even get to see or hear the poetry that the moist-eyed Sharif writes by candlelight while Lara rolls in their naughty bed. It is no wonder that the film’s showier supporting characters Rod Steiger’s oleaginous attorney, Tom Courtney’s indefatigable revolutionary and Alec Guinness’ enigmatic secret policeman wind up stealing the scenes.
And still, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is enjoyable in an old-fashioned manner. The production values are extraordinary: Russia was clearly off-limits for this Cold War production, so vast recreations of Moscow streets were created at a Spanish studio while Finland and Canada doubled for the snowy Urals. The film is rich with dramatic images most notably the snow-and-ice encrusted dacha where the lovers’ retreat while the rich detail of the costuming and art direction represents a triumph in film design. Maurice Jarre’s theme music, of course, has become a classic in its own right. And, yes, Sharif and Christie look damn fine together as illicit lovers.
Now returning on DVD for a 45th anniversary release, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO represents the kind of film that doesn’t get made anymore. Whether that is good or bad depends on personal taste but despite its faults, the film deserves to be seen again.