Doctor Zhivago Review
Classic epic movies that are forever shown on television during the Christmas period are a dying breed nowadays, but in 1965, two came along at once! The Oscars were a two horse race between the overall winner The Sound Of Music, and Doctor Zhivago, a critically panned yet publicly lauded film directed by the masterful Sir David Lean.
Zhivago was based on the controversial 1956 Russian novel by the under-appreciated Boris Pasternak. The novel was officially banned in his native country until the mid-nineties and had to be smuggled into other countries to be published. Pasternak even won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, but unfortunately the infamous political climate of Russia at the time prevented Pasternak from receiving the award, and he died four years after the completion of the novel in relative obscurity.
Semi-autobiographical, the novel tells of a Russian poet struggling to have his artistic voice heard amidst the political upheaval of two Russian Revolutions, and how his love was shared between two very special but different women. The love story has often been cited as a ploy to disguise the more anti-Russian elements of the story. However, Pasternak has often refuted this, claiming that he was extremely patriotic of his country and only documented what was actually occurring at the time.
Riding off the enormous success of Lawrence Of Arabia, David Lean was given the full canvas when it came to adapting Pasternak's novel. He decided that Omar Sharif, the man who starred in the most famous screen introduction of all time in Lawrence, should be cast as Zhivago. Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham and Charlie Chaplin's newcomer daughter Geraldine were all incorporated into the cast to bestow the film an important status. After Lawrence Of Arabia's superb showing at the Oscars in most departments, Lean chose to mostly hire the same production team: Robert Bolt was once again hired as scriptwriter, Freddie Young was brought in as principal cinematographer, Maurice Jarre was hired for the musical scoring, John Box was given another enormous task of the film's production design and Phyllis Dalton was once again hired to do the costumes.
Plot wise, the film is mostly accurate to its original source. Young Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) grows up in Czarist Moscow during the early years of the turbulent Russian Revolution. Orphaned, Yuri is brought up in the family of Alexander Gromeko (Ralph Richardson), whose daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) later marries him. Yuri qualifies as a doctor, and whilst providing aid to soldiers during the war he becomes frequently entangled with the attractive innocence of young Lara (Julie Christie), a volunteer nurse. Lara has her own tale to tell. Married to Pasha (Tom Courtenay), a preoccupied social revolutionary, Lara is forever forced into an affair with the evil and seductive Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) who is also sleeping with her mother. Various amounts of social turmoil ensue, and Zhivago is accused of war crimes due to his controversial poetry that he has published. He flees to the Urals with the loving Tonya and his family, but is forever drawn to Lara, a flame inside his heart that has never extinguished. The convoluted plot is condensed further by the hindsight narration of Yevgrav (Alec Guinness), Yuri's half-brother, who describes the backbreaking life of Yuri whilst also narrating the historical background of Russia.
Doctor Zhivago travels along two notions: As a doomed love story, and as a historiograpical text on the Russian Revolution and events before and after. As a love story, the film works majestically, and Sharif's portrayal of Zhivago never generates criticism from the audience, despite the fact that he is vehemently torn between two women. Geraldine Chaplin portrays Tonya with immense warmth and devotion, and Julie Christie portrays Lara as enigmatic, almost attractive in a form of utter simplicity. As a narrative piece for the Russian history, Zhivago slickly and subtly refers to the significant events, but will seem confusing and lacking if the viewer isn't clued up on Russian history. As a fusion of the two themes, Zhivago works tremendously, and will forever be remembered as an endearing epic.
Cast wise, the ensemble of stars perform amazingly. Omar Sharif proves he is capable of top billing with a thankless task as the thoughtful and pondering Zhivago. It was argued that Zhivago is never believably portrayed as a classic poet through Sharif's characterisation, although Sharif clearly portrays Zhivago as a man tormented by inner struggles, and to his credit poets never translate well on the big screen. The two female leads of Christie and Chaplin (as mentioned before) give the perfect touches to their characters. Rod Steiger clearly fancies himself as Komarovsky, and gives icy menace to his calculating gestures. Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson all deliver splendid performances (but you would expect them to). You can even notice Klaus Kinski as a nihilist!
Production wise, the film is trademark Lean - Beautiful vistas, authentic costumes and sets, and epic in scale. What makes Doctor Zhivago better (arguably) than Lawrence Of Arabia is the presence of a tighter narrative pull through the movie, and Robert Bolt deserves credit for this. His script sheds much padding from Pasternak's novel, and condenses it nicely into a little over three hours running time. Maurice Jarre's Lara Theme is so instantly recognisable and haunting that it is now regarded as one of THE cinematic themes.
The film has met with much criticism - with many romantic cynics claiming it to be an expensive exercise in soap opera tedium. To add substance to these claims, the film is certainly episodic, with every sequence being rendered a set piece. This, in the thirty six year hindsight, appears however to be the most charming aspect of Doctor Zhivago - It's not a cinematic milestone or a classic director's best work, but a simple yet classic story, told with conviction and sensitivity.
Academy Awards 1965
Best Adapted Screenplay - Robert Bolt
Best Colour Cinematography - Freddie Young
Best Colour Costume Design - Phyllis Dalton
Best Production Design - John Box, Terence Marsh, Dario Simoni
Best Original Score - Maurice Jarre
Academy Award Nominations 1965
Best Director - David Lean
Best Supporting Actor - Tom Courtenay
Best Film Editing - Norman Savage
Best Sound Recording - Franklin Milton, A.W. Watkins
Presented in remastered anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the visual quality is immensely powerful without the presence of dirt or grain, and the print is the cleanest it has ever looked. Colours are slightly washed out yet high on contrast, but even so, this is one of the best print transfers for a sixties film.
The soundtrack is full of clarity, and is presented in a remixed 5.1 format (even though the original mono soundtrack is sadly lacking). Dialogue is mostly mono, but effects such as warring gunshots and packed crowds are given the surround treatment, as is the Maurice Jarre musical score.
Discs: As the film is exceptionally long, it is spread over two sides (dual-layered) with the intermission being the obvious cut-off point. Aside from the commentary and introduction from Omar Sharif, all of the extras are housed on the second disc (single layered).
Menu: A static menu, consisting of painted images from the film, although Maurice Jarre's Lara Theme is provided on the soundtrack.
Packaging: Although the packaging looks splendid, it is very susceptible to damage, and probably won't last the test of time. The two discs are housed in a gatefold slick cardboard packaging that is nicely illustrated, and this is protected by a Gold outer dust cover that is also nicely illustrated.
Introduction By Omar Sharif: A one and a half minute introduction by star Omar Sharif, briefly reminiscing about the film and talking about its importance in cinema history.
Commentary With Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, Sandra Lean: A very pleasant commentary to listen to, with Omar Sharif and Lean's wife Sandra talking about the production and speaking very fondly of the cast and crew and the experiences making the film. This track is intercut with Rod Steiger's commentary (recorded separately) in which he devilishly takes high amusement from portraying the wicked Komarovsky, a character he clearly wishes he were more like! You expect Steiger to be a boring and cantankerous crank, and he is in fact funny, charming and very respectful of his fellow cast and crew. As the film is over three hours, there are a number of pauses in between comments, and Sandra Lean modestly allows Sharif to take the spotlight on most occasions which is welcome. Overall, the commentary is a perfect touch for a classic film, and shows that some participants are better then none.
Dr. Zhivago: The Making Of A Russian Epic - Documentary: An excellent sixty minute documentary presented and narrated by Omar Sharif, which covers just about every facet of the film's epic production. Split up into twenty-one chapter stops, the documentary is slickly sectioned into separate departments, such as music, photography, production design, casting etc. Most of the cast and crew contribute interviews (notable absentee is Julie Christie) and the late David Lean is represented by his wife. This is a fascinating insight into the tremendous effort that was given to the production, such as creating acres of fake snow in sunny Spain! Also fascinating is the revelation that famed director Nicolas Roeg was hired as cinematographer but was soon fired by Lean after the pair clashed numerously on set.
Isolated Score: A fabulous option of hearing the complete isolated Maurice Jarre score in 5.1. The score won an Oscar, and is a perfect companion piece to the wonderful narrative of the film. You probably won't want to watch the film with just the score for its entirety, but it's still nice to have.
Zhivago: Behind The Camera With David Lean - Featurette: An interesting promotional featurette that was produced the year Zhivago was made. The featurette lasts ten minutes, and is essentially an extended trailer with narration promoting the various star-studded celebrity cast and crew. The featurette has been remastered, and isn't full of the usual dirt and grain detriments that are usually a part of old featurettes. This is valuable if only because it contains some insights from Lean himself directly to camera.
David Lean's Film Of Doctor Zhivago - Featurette: A seven minute featurette that was produced in 1965 and was used as an attempted promotional featurette to explain to audiences the origins of Boris Pasternak's novel and the upcoming movie adaptation. Again remastered, the featurette is interesting if just for an example of a nineteen sixties' featurette.
Moscow In Madrid - Featurette: A four minute promotional featurette produced in 1965 which concentrates mostly on the stars appearing the film. If you've watched most of the other, longer extras, then this isn't of much value apart from on the collectable scale.
Pasternak - Featurette: An eight minute 1965 promotional featurette attempting to explore the background of Boris Pasternak, and mentioning some of his influences and what brought him to write the novel. Toward the final quarter of the featurette, it cleverly drifts into promoting the new film adaptation.
New York Press Interviews Julie Christie: A black and white series of promotional interviews from 1965, which are humourous and interesting for unusual reasons. Firstly, the interviews take place in a crowded hotel bar, and Julie Christie is sitting down at a table, smoking and being served by waiters. She seems totally bothered by the interviewer's questions, and comes across as haphazard, bored, fragile, untrusting and subtly insecure. This is an interview from a forgotten age, of an icon from swinging sixties England being interviewed by some conservative Americans, and is gripping to watch on a historical sense. The interviews last for ten minutes.
New York Press Interviews Omar Sharif: The same format, time and location as the Julie Christies interviews, with the exception that this series lasts eight minutes longer and Omar Sharif is far more charismatic and welcoming compared to Julie Christie. Sharif proves adept at answering complicated questions, and the press interviewers generally take a shine to him.
Geraldine Chaplin Screen Test: A three minute selection of screen tests that director David Lean set-up in order to test screen newcomer and daughter of Charlie Chaplin, Geraldine Chaplin. It's the same scene featured in the extensive documentary, although here it is presented in its entirety. Chaplin is quite photogenic, but lacks the complete picture with regards to acting skills.
This Is Julie Christie, This Is Omar Sharif, This Is Geraldine Chaplin - 3 Short Featurettes: Three black and white one minute featurettes promoting the three respective stars of the film. These are quite collectable, but of little note.
Chaplin In New York: A two minute black and white featurette mentioning Geraldine Chaplin's modelling background, her debut in Zhivago and her famous parents.
Original General Release Trailer: Presented in anamorphic 2.35:1, the trailer lasts three and a half minutes and is a gripping, detailed promotional short that fully complements the drawing power of the film.
Awards: An onscreen text list of the Oscars and nominations the film received.
Cast And Crew: A brief textual look at the list of the cast and crew.
Doctor Zhivago is a classic love story amidst the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, told with majestic beauty by the masterful David Lean. The picture and sound quality of the film is superb for a film made in 1965, and the extras are world class and heavy in both number and quality. For any serious, diverse film lover, Doctor Zhivago is the perfect antidote for the collection filled with modern day no brainer actioners.