The 1940’s to the 1960’s was the era that was famous for the production of numerous epics, famous for its lavish production design, colorful performances, and a story that can be told on a large canvas usually with some sort of historical background. Unfortunately, the era of epics began to die down around the release of this movie, Doctor Zhivago in 1965. In fact, many film scholars call this film the “last great epic of this era.” That is not entirely true as films similar as Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur springs up every once in awhile. But there is no denying, that epics began to die off as the Hollywood studios began to change the content into more of a modern America cinema.
Ironically, Doctor Zhivago was the first epic I have watched from this era and it was the film that brought my attention to these popular films. For the most part, I very much enjoyed it. It took place in a historical period I am interested in-the Russian Revolution that took place in 1917. The film used this revolution as a source to tell a great story. In the past, critics have been vocal in their points that the film fails to talk about the history with too much detail. But that is precisely the point. The film effectively uses the history as a background in order to tell the main story-the sweeping romance story. I am usually not the one to enjoy a romance film, but this film is beautiful, both literally and figuratively. The film features beautiful cinematography and the landscapes are gorgeous which is not surprising because the film is directed by the great David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai), and he is precise when it comes to art direction. It’s a known fact that the film was made in locations such as Spain and Canada because Russia was off-limits because of obvious reasons (Cold War, the source of the story, etc).
Based off the bestseller 1958 novel by Boris Pasternak, this film is about love at the height of turmoil in Russia. The movie begins with a stern Soviet officer, Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) describing some events to this worker girl, who may be related to the people told in the officer’s story. Here is how the particular story goes. Lara (Julie Christie) is romantically attached to a man named Pasha (Tom Courtenay), one of the Revolution’s leaders. She cannot keep up with his demands for the revolution. Also, her mother and herself were being victimized by this scoundrel named Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) who is a very political man. As Lara goes to shoot Komarovsky at a party in an act of revenge, that is where she meets the true love of her life, Zhivago (Omar Sharif), who happens to be happily married to his wife, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Nonetheless, Zhivago falls in love with Lara. That inspires Zhivago to write poetry, mainly about his love of Lara. Meanwhile, all of this is happening during the events of the Russian Revolution where there is lots of blood and violence as the Russian peasants plan to overthrow the Russian monarchy.
One of the film’s strengths is the masterful performances from all the actors involved. Omar Sharif was seen in Lean’s previous effort, but now he is a star thanks to his career-best performance as Zhivago. It is amazing what Sharif was able to as the title character. He was able to give his character a soul. Julie Christie put herself on the map in her marvelous turn as Lara. She gave her character depth and created a believable portrait of a woman who fell madly in love. Despite the strong lead performances, don’t count out the supporting performances which may be even better than the lead ones. I loved Rod Steiger’s performance as the rascal, Komarovsky. He really seemed to make his character soulless. We get a good performance from Alec Guinness, as the Soviet officer who narrates the story and he also happens to be the half-brother of Zhivago. I loved Tom Courtenay’s performance as Pasha, the man devoted to a new Russia. Finally, I thought Geraldine Chaplin was okay as Tonya, but I felt Tonya was the only offbeat character in the film. She knew what was going on between Lara and her husband, but she takes that romance way too well to give such a believable performance. There is no way she could have been that understanding in reality.
As mentioned earlier in my review, this film was based off a novel by Boris Pasternak. It was a very well-received novel that stood for a defiance of the Soviet Union. In fact, the pages had to be smuggled out of the country in order for the story to be published. Of course, it was banned in the Soviet Union and so was the movie. The movie wasn’t screened to the public until the early 1990’s, almost 30 years after the film’s release!
In addition to the sweeping shots of beautiful landscapes, this film features a magnificent score by Maurice Jarre. When first released, there were people who hated the main theme known as “Lara’s Theme.” It’s a beautiful theme, but I believe it wasn’t well-liked at first because it played constantly over the course of the 200-minute long film and the repetition can gradually become annoying, depending on who the audience is. But the fact remains is that it’s one of the best themes and most well-known themes of any film in history.
David Lean directed this film and it’s clear that this is not his greater effort. Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai are masterpieces. Doctor Zhivago will just have to settle on being a great film. The visuals, the score, and the performances are perfect, but the story has some issues. The film is a bit clunky at times and there are moments where the romance goes to far. I would have loved to see more of the history added into the film, but I’m not too upset because the way it was used as a background to the story was excellent. I also wonder about the end shot, and so apparently have many others. I wasn’t too sure if it fit into the context of the movie and if it was meant to be some symbol. But watch the film, and you can make the decision yourself. Not a masterpiece, but it’s very close in being so. Featuring breath-taking cinematography, fine performances, and a sweeping romantic story, Doctor Zhivago is another film of David Lean’s to add to your collection.
My Grade: A-