WolfmanOz at the Movies #57

A love caught in the fire of revolution

A couple of weeks ago on the Weekend Open Thread there was a some discussion in regards to David Lean’s film Doctor Zhivago. I had briefly touched upon the movie on my post on David Lean a few couple of months ago but given the interest in the film, it is probably due it’s own review and discussion.

Released back in 1965, Doctor Zhivago was David Lean’s follow-up film to his magnificent masterpiece Lawrence Of Arabia. What Lean, and his cinematographer Freddie Young could do with sand they would do now with snow.

Based on the best-selling 1957 novel by Boris Pasternak which I have to admit I have not managed to read all the way through. I’ve tried but Pasternak frequently introduces a character by one of his/her three names, then subsequently refers to that character by another of the three names or a nickname, without expressly stating that he is referring to the same character. It just proved too much for me, but I am reliably informed that the film is relatively faithful to the novel.

The story is set in Russia during and post World War I where a narrative framing device set in the late 1940s or early 1950s, involves Zhivago’s half-brother, now a general, searching for the daughter of Zhivago and Lara where he believes a young woman may be his niece and where he tells her the story of her father’s life.

Omar Sharif plays the title role, a married physician and poet whose life is irretrievably changed by the Russian Revolution whilst falling in love with another woman, Lara Antipov played by Julie Christie.

interestingly Lean’s first choice for Zhivago was Peter O’Toole who turned the role down. Now O’Toole is my all-time favourite actor of but he wouldn’t have been right in the role. There’s an intensity, an almost manic aura with O’Toole which is not how I envisaged Zhivago. Omar Sharif was perfectly cast after he had initially sought the role of Pasha Antipov (Strelnikov).

Also Julie Christie was not the first choice for Lara. Producer Carlo Ponti wanted the role for his wife Sophia Loren but Lean persuaded him that Loren wouldn’t have been convincing playing Lara as a virgin early in the film !

Assembling most of the crew from Lawrence, including screenwriter Robert Bolt, production designer John Box and composer Maurice Jarre; the film was mostly shot in Spain and the production looks throughly authentic, as we see in the following clip, depicting the snow covered streets of Moscow.

When released the film went onto to become the 2nd highest grossing film of the year (behind The Sound Of Music) and is in the top 10 highest-grossing films of all-time adjusted for inflation. The public fell in love with the film although critical reaction was somewhat mixed, as if, they resented Lean’s success and ability to make both a popular and thought provoking dramatic film.

Critics have complained that Lean had romanticised the drama over the politics of the Russian Revolution, which I have always totally disagreed with.

Lean was always a subtle film-maker and there are many touches and scenes where he under-scores the conflict between the human condition and the devastating impact of socialism/communism that was imposed upon them.

No scene better demonstrates this when Zhivago, on his way to Varykino in the Urals, is caught and is interrogated by Strelnikov. The dialogue exchange between the two is striking and is superbly acted by both Sharif and Tom Courtenay as Strelnikov.

One of the things that also strikes me with the film is that Zhivago’ wife, Tonya, is not an unsympathetic shrew but a likeable and strong woman. Yet despite that, I am always hoping against hope that Yuri and Lara can find lasting happiness but knowing that ultimately their love affair would end with their parting, which we see in the desperation of Yuri in trying to get his final glimpses of Lara as she rides off into the distance.

Nearly 60 years after it was first released and at just over 3 hours long, Doctor Zhivago is not only one of cinema’s great epic historical romantic dramas it is also, IMO, the best cinematic depiction of the Russian Revolution, a seismic event which caused untold misery, suffering and death to tens of millions of Russians.

Doctor Zhivago sits amongst one of my favourite 50 films of all-time.


and the tease for next weeks post . . . A nation awaits its . . .