Doctor Zhivago: Revisiting Lean’s Blockbuster Romantic Epic

doctor_zhivago_posterCombining art and commerce, skill and kitsch, David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” is a guilty pleasure, sort of a tasty fruit salad made up of uneven ingredients.
If you disregard the filmmakers claims that the picture is an adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s epic novel of the Russian Revolution, you will have a good time. Looking at Julie Christie’s gorgeous blue eyes is pleasurable and observing Omar Sharif’s dark looks and teary eyes is not a bad idea either.
As a follow-up to Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai,” and especially “Lawrence of Arabia,” this spectacular, over-bloated, schmaltzy Oscar-winning epic is disappointing. However, put in perspective, the same year, 1965, also saw the release of another schmaltzy Hollywood picture, Robert Wise’s musical movie “The Sound of Music,” which swept the Oscars! This should give you an idea about the kinds of films that compete for and often win Oscars (see below).
doctor_zhivago_3_sharif_christieTold in an elaborate scheme of flashbacks, the saga, credited to Lean’s frequent collaborator Robert Bolt, chronicles the life of Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) and Tonia Gromeko (Geraldine Chaplin), who meet as youngsers when Yuri, an orphan, is taken in by Tonya’s kind parents.
The ambitious Yuri goes on to become a physician and to marry his sweetheart Tonya. But during WWI, he fatefully crosses paths with the Lara (Julie Christie), the beautiful daughter of a dressmaker. Yuri and Lara fall passionately in love, but their affair is interrupted by the burst of the Bolshevik Revolution.
doctor_zhivago_5_sharifUnable to maintain a consistent level of interest for its excessive running time of 197 minutes, “Doctor Zhivago” is not as exciting and powerful as David Lean’s previous films, “Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Bolt’s script is necessarily episodic but it’s also choppy, leaving out much of the good material that is in Pasternak’s famed novel, compressing characters and events.
The second half of the film is particularly sentimental, magnifying all the problems of Davis Lean’s typically overblown spectacular style, which would create similar problems in his next outing, “Ryan’s Daughter” (1969), an even weaker film that “Doctor Zhivago.”
doctor_zhivago_2_christieLike the film, the performances of the large, multi-national ensemble is uneven. Egyptian-born Sharif is likable but ultimately miscast; he overdoes the sentimental aspects of his role. British Julie Christie is intense, desirable and passionate, even when she lacks credibility. 
The supporting players include the gifted Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness and Tom Courtenay, in an Oscar-nominated turn.
As expected, Lean’s handling of the physical aspects is skillful if not masterly and the film’s production values are polished, perhaps too polished for the subject matter at hand. Largely shot in Spain and Finland, “Doctor Zhivago” offers splendid sights of the harsh Russian winters, collective scenes with masses of extras during the Revolution, treks across snow. (Warren Beatty’s “Red,” an epic set in the same era and also shot in Finland, is influenced by Lean’ s style and suffers from the same problems)
doctor_zhivago_1_sharifMaurice Jarre’s score, though much praised at the time, gets jarring and repetitive, though it’s very much in tune with the film’s sentimental nature. The lilting tuner, “Lara’s Theme,” was played all over the world in bars and nightclubs, and popularized Balalaika as musical instrument.
As of 2014, it’s the eighth top-grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation, making over $912 million at the box-office.
“Doctor Zhivago” exerted greater influence on fashion trends than other pictures, specifically the hats and boots, which were designed by Phyllis Dalton.
About the Book
Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel was published in the West amidst celebration and controversy.  The novel was completed in 1956, but it had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union by an Italian, entrusted by Pasternak to deliver the book to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian publisher who published. The Soviet campaign against the novel made it a cause celebre in the Western world.  It occupied for 26 weeks the top the New York Times best-seller list.

Pasternak was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. While the citation noted his poetry, the prize was mainly for “Doctor Zhivago.” The government saw the award as a hostile gesture to the Soviet Union, and under pressure, Pasternak felt compelled to refuse the Prize. The situation made Pasternak a Cold War symbol of resistance to Soviet communism.

Yuri (Omar Sharif)
Tonya (Gerladine Chaplin)
Lara (Julie Christie)
Pasha/Strelinkoff (Tom Courtenay)
Yevgraf (Alec Guinness)
Anna (Siobhan McKenna)
Alexander (Ralph Richardson)
Komarovsky (Rod Steiger)
The Girl (Rita Tashingham)
Amelia (Adrienne Corri)
Produced by Carlo Ponti.
Directed by David Lean.
Screenplay: Robert Bolt, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak. Camera: Freddie Young. Editor: Norman Savage Original Score: Maurice Jarre. Production Designer (color): John Box. Art Direction-Set Decoration (color): John Box; Terry Marsh Costumes: Phyllis Dalton. F/X: Eddie Fowlie.
Oscar Nominations: 10
Picture Director Screenplay (Adapted): Supporting Actor: Tom Courtenay Art Direction-Set Decoration Cinematography Art direction Costume Music score Sound
Oscar Awards: 5
Screenplay (Adapted) Cinematography Art direction Costume Music score
Oscar Context
The 1965 Oscar competition for Best Picture was rather weak. Stanley Kramer’s flawed and pretentious “Ship of Fools” and the screen adaptation of the Broadway comedy “A Thousand Clowns” stood no chance of winning. The other two contenders were made by British directors, Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” and John Schlesinger’ “Darling!” clearly the most innovative of the nominees, singled out by the New York Film Critics Circle as Best Picture.
For most Academy members, the choice was between “The Sound of Music” and “Doctor Zhivago,” each of which received ten nominations. At the end of the day, the awards were also equally divided, with each movie getting five, though, except for Screenplay, “Doctor Zhivago” received mostly technical awards, such as Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction-Set Decoration, and Color Costume Design.
In 1965, the 24-year-old Julie Christie became the hottest actress in the world as a result of her appearances in two films: “Doctor Zhivago” and “Darling,” for which she won the Best Actress Oscar.
DVD’s New Special Features:
Doctor Zhivago: A Celebration Part 1 & 2 (all-new production)Additional Special Features:
Commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Lady Sandra Lean
(wife of David Lean) Part 1 & 2
Introduction by Omar Sharif
Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic
Eleven Vintage Featurettes 
Zhivago: Behind the Camera with David Lean
David Lean’s Film of Doctor Zhivago
Moscow in Madrid
New York Press Interviews Omar Sharif
New York Press Interviews Julie Christie
Geraldine Chaplin Screen Test
This is Omar Sharif
This is Julie Christie
This is Geraldine Chaplin
Chaplin in New York
The Blu-ray Exclusive includes an 8-Song CD Soundtrack Sampler of the Oscar-winning score