DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)

  • Director: David Lean
  • Writers: Robert Bolt, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak
  • Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Siobhan McKenna, Bernard Kay, Klaus Kinski, Gerard Tichy, Noel Willman, Geoffrey Keen, Adrienne Corri, and Jack MacGowran
  • Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#39), shown at 1965 Cannes International Film Festival, 5 Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography – Color, Best Art Direction – Color, Best Costumes – Color), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – David Lean, Best Supporting Actor – Tom Courtenay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with Hoopla (library app), free streaming (with cable subscription) on TCM app, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I get the feeling that Doctor Zhivago, both the book and the movie, may be doomed to never be quite what anyone wants, because they defy quite fitting into anyone’s categories. Boris Pasternak wrote his very long novel over much of the first half of the 20th century, then found it banned in his home country of Russia, to his great consternation. The book took place over the rise of the Soviet Union, from the 1905 Russian Revolution to World War II, and didn’t exactly depict this period as a glorious march of progress. By the same token, in the West, it was a best-seller more because of, rather than in spite of, the Soviet campaign against it. Then Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature, which he turned down in what was apparently a desperate attempt to avoid exile from his beloved homeland.

Director David Lean, in the meantime, apparently read the novel while making The Bridge on the River Kwai in Sri Lanka and decided that he had to be the one to make it into a movie. As he couldn’t shoot in the Soviet Union, this resulted in large sections of early-20th Century Moscow being rebuilt from scratch in Spain, outside Madrid, and the production spending months chasing snow around Iberia for some of the movie’s more ice-bound scenes. Once the thing was released, most critics didn’t like it for one reason or another, many saying that it was, in fact, “naive” about the terrible costs of the Revolution and Communism, i.e., that it didn’t say those things were bad enough, the exact opposite charge that had gotten the original book (and the movie) banned in Russia. Others thought it suffered from an even greater sin, that of being boring. The movie was a hit at the box office, and won 5 Oscars, though mostly in technical categories, and was voted the 39th Greatest American movie of all time in in 1998. This last honor is apparently on the basis that it was released by the Hollywood studio MGM, despite the fact that it was a story by a Russian, directed and written by Brits, shot in various European locales, and with only a single American (Rod Steiger) in the cast. Yet it fell all the way off the next edition of the list, I can only guess because fewer of the voters had actually seen the thing.

The Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, who Lean had worked with on Lawrence of Arabia, is hardly a conventional choice to play a Russian hero, and his performance is an interesting one. Lean reportedly spent the movie asking him to keep doing less, which leads to a lot of scene where most of Sharif’s acting is done by his very glisten-y eyeballs. He plays Zhivago, a doctor slash aspiring poet who marries the beautiful young heiress Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, in one of her first major movie roles) but also falls for the damaged nurse Lara (Julie Christie, in probably her role most likely to be seen today). She, in the meantime, is married to the fiery idealist Pasha (Tom Courtenay). This quadrangle plays out against the backdrop of Russian history in the first half of the 20th Century, which involves many wars and revolutions. The supporting cast includes not only Steiger but the great Ralph Richardson as Zhivago’s father-in-law, and even Alec Guinness in the part of Zhviago’s half-brother Yevgraf. Who is sort of telling the story, I guess? For parts of it, anyway.

All of these all-time-great actors are good in this movie, but the movie itself mostly lacks the scope and depth of most of their best work. This definitely feels like lesser Lean, closer to the Lean who made Ryan’s Daughter than the Lean who made Brief Encounter. I don’t have any real problems with its depictions of a very specific swath of history, except to say that if you’re going to do this story, in this long a movie, it needs to have more to say than poking around at a love triangle. I think that’s probably why the movie found itself being hounded from all sides in an ideological sense. The film isn’t actually all that interested in the question of whether the Russian Revolution was a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just doing this love story in this setting. Whereas what a lot of the people watching, especially when this movie first came out, actually wanted as a detailed discussion of the origins of the Cold War. This is not that movie, and to extent it deals with those issues it does so almost exclusively in the context of its individual characters.

Nor are those great actors always actually acting. In perhaps the movie’s most infamous scene, a woman runs to catch a crowded train carrying exiles to Siberia, and is pulled on by Zhivago at the last moment. In reality, the Hungarian actress playing the part fell under the train, somehow, barely, avoiding catastrophic injury. The shot where she falls was apparently used briefly in the edits by Lean, and he insisted on continuing to shoot while the actress was carted off in an ambulance, to the shock of the other actors. In another scene where Steiger’s character surprises Christie’s with a kiss, she reacts with genuine shock. Apparently this because everyone had, at Steiger’s suggestion, pretended to stop filming before he kissed her, in order to capture her actual expression of surprise.

So to date I have mostly either liked David Lean movies or disliked them, but Doctor Zhivago left me mostly feeling indifferent. I certainly wouldn’t put it on a list of my favorite five films by its director, and definitely not on a list of the 100 greatest American movies, but I didn’t actively dislike it the way I do some very long movies that don’t justify their own existence. There are flashes of brilliance, like when Zhivago and Tonya arrive at the family home in Siberia, which they find totally encased in ice like something out of Frozen. It’s just that I don’t think these moments are enough to actually recommend the movie as a whole, and that’s a shame.

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