WE first saw “Dr. Zhivago” in 1965 at the Ideal Theatre, home of MGM movies. We were fresh out of college and had our first job. We read the book by Boris Pasternak which was banned in Russia but first saw print in Italy, then quickly translated to various languages. It was acclaimed worldwide and Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, which embarrassed Communist Russia. When we watched the film version directed by David Lean, we were quite disappointed as so many changes were made, specially the ending.
It had the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, the fall of the Czar and the Romanovs, and WWI as its background, but we felt this was trivialized as it gave more importance to the love story of Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif, who was discovered in David Lean’s Oscar-winning “Lawrence of Arabia”) and Lara Antipova (Julie Christie).
We finally got the chance to watch its restored version (issued on its 50th anniversary) and funny how the 55 years in between our first and second viewing have changed our perspective about the movie. David Lean did his best in making a movie adaptation of the epic novel. It was nominated as Oscar best picture then, but of course, it didn’t win, as it was up against everyone’s favorite that year, “The Sound of Music”.
Julie Andrews as Maria should have won as best actress, but she just won the year before for “Mary Poppins”, which was more of a sympathy award because she lost the plum role of Eliza Dolittle in the film version of “My Fair Lady” to Audrey Hepburn. In 1965, the best actress award went to Julie Christie, but not for “Dr. Zhivago” but for “Darling”, where she played a slutty model who uses sex to get what she wants.
On second viewing, we realized how a beautifully assembled movie “Dr. Zhivago” is: the stunning cinematography full of astonishing images, the script by Robert Bolt (“A Man for All Seasons”) that combines the epic with the personal elements, the fabulous and lavish production design and, most specially, the magnificent music of Maurice Jarre that makes use of the Russian balalaika and won the Oscar. It’s really staggering, specially the love theme, “Lara’s Theme”, that became the hit song “Somewhere My Love”, which was used by a local film of the same title starring Eddie Rodriguez and Carmen Soriano.
The film starts with Gen. Yevgrav (Alec Guinness, who a few years before this won Oscar best actor for “Bridge on the River Kwai”, also directed by David Lean), searching for the missing daughter of his half-brother, Dr. Yuri Zhivago and his lover, Lara Antipova. He talks to a girl (Rita Tushingham) who might be Zhivago’s daughter then Yuri and Lara’s story is told in flashbacks.
It starts with the funeral of Yuri’s mom in a remote snowy village in the Ural Mountains (which is how the novel really starts). The boy is now an orphan and a family friend (Ralph Richardson) brings him to Moscow to care for him. Yuri grows up with their daughter, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and he becomes a doctor and also an acclaimed poet. When Tonya returns from her studies in Paris, they become engaged.
Lara (Julie Christie) is the daughter of a seamstress who is the mistress of the unscrupulous opportunist, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). He also has the hots for Lara, even if she already has a boyfriend, Pasha (Tom Courtenay), an idealistic young man.
Revolution against Czarist Russia is in the air and the characters in the story are all swept up by the fall of the Romanovs, World War I and the Communist takeover that gives birth to the Soviet Union. Yuri first sees Lara when he treats her mom who tried committing suicide. Although he’s now married to Tonya, he will encounter Lara when she tries to kill Komarovsky. They finally get to work together during the war in a hospital where he’s the doctor and Lara is his nurse.
It takes sometime before they finally become lovers. By that time, Lara already has a daughter with Pasha, who has become a notorious leader of the revolution called Strelnikov. But it is easy to predict that their happiness will be doomed and fleeting.
The movie has many unforgettable set pieces, but the best for us is the ride from Moscow to Varykino where Yuri and family are packed like sardines with other passengers in a train that goes through the frozen Urals. The scenery here is just awesome, including the sea of yellow flowers set at their cottage in Varykino when spring comes. There are many other spectacular scenes and they all help drive the story to its tragic conclusion.
By the time the movie ends (it runs for more than three hours, with intermission), we were reduced to tears, filled with empathy for Yuri and Lara. We didn’t appreciate Sharif’s acting the first time as we found his Yuri quite weak. But now, we realize that he adequately charts the character’s arc from an energetic young man to a tortured man with a memorable death scene.
His passiveness is just in keeping with his character who’s really passive, easily blown away as their world crumbles with the winds of fate. Christie is suitably radiant all throughout, starting as a teenager who gets attracted to her mom’s lover and maintaining her dignity as she searches for her missing daughter.
The other members of the cast deliver fine ensemble acting, from Rod Steiger as the villain to Alec Guinness as the embodiment of the revolution who takes up the cudgels for his brother. We’re sure there are entire generations of film fans, specially the Millennials, who haven’t seen this iconic film.
If you’d want to watch the works of David Lean, a true master, you can start with this one, which is movie making at its best. Then you can check out his legacy of classic works like “Bridge on the River Kwai” (which also has an immortal music score with its famous march),”Lawrence of Arabia”, “The Nun’s Story” (one of Audrey Hepburn’s best), “Summertime”, and “A Passage to India” (his last film before he passed in 1991.)