Beautiful stars? Check. Beautiful scenery? Check. Cultural backdrop full of potential for high drama? Check. Yes, Doctor Zhivago qualifies on all counts as a “sweeping epic,” full of beauty and suffering. Based upon the novel by Boris Pasternak and starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, the film was a big hit at the time and has remained popular ever since; it checks in at number 39 on the 1998 AFI list. It follows the life of Yuri Zhivago, a young doctor and poet, who deals with personal and political struggles during one of the more tumultuous periods in Russia’s history.
Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) was orphaned as a boy and taken in by friends of his mother’s. He grows up to be a doctor and a published poet, and marries Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of his benefactors. Lara Antipova (Julie Christie) is a beautiful young woman who is seduced by a friend of her mother’s, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), but escapes him in order to marry a young revolutionary named Pavel (Tom Courtenay). The paths of Zhivago and Lara cross early on, but it is later, when everyone’s fortunes have changed due to World War I and revolution in Russia, that they come to be working together in a field hospital. Lara believes her husband to be dead, and she and Zhivago develop feelings for one another, although they do not act on those feelings. Years later, they are to meet again, having both moved away from Moscow after the rise of Communism, and at this time they enter into an affair. Zhivago is abducted and conscripted into service by Communist partisans. When he is finally able to return home, he finds his wife, father-in-law, and children have emigrated to Paris, and so he stays with Lara. They are happy for a time until Komarovsky seeks them out to let them know that they are both in political jeopardy. He convinces Zhivago to let him take Lara out of the country for her own safety, and so the lovers are again parted. More time passes, and Zhivago sees Lara back in Moscow, but before he can catch up to her, he suffers a heart attack and dies.
Yeah. That’s kind of a lot of story, isn’t it? The whole thing is book-ended with narrative by Zhivago’s half-brother, Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), who is searching for the lost daughter of Zhivago and Lara. Whether or not this added bit of plot was really necessary I’m not sure, but then, the film as a whole doesn’t seem terribly concerned with such a silly thing as brevity. This is a whale of a movie, and all of its good points don’t account for its length in the final tally, I’m afraid. It’s very beautifully filmed, and the actors are all good, but, well, it’s just so long. And kind of slow. I think from an historical perspective it’s fairly interesting, if a bit confusing, but it’s hard not to wish that they’d spent more time on the love story between Lara and Zhivago instead.
Let’s talk about the acting. The first thing that really must be said is that Julie Christie, in this movie, is possibly one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. She also does a great job with a character who is surprisingly understated, considering all the fuss she causes. I actually like that about her, particularly when these days, the romantic heroines of movies have to be overly charming or quirky or whatever. Lara is a smart woman who does the best she can with what she’s got, and adapts to the situations around her. It doesn’t sound like high praise, but I appreciated her character a great deal, perhaps even more so because of her looks. It would have made it easier just to make her pretty, but it is her character that Zhivago loves. He, too, is interesting in quiet ways. He’s an intensely passionate person who truly lives in the moment, even while he is surrounded by the chaos of war and revolution. He seems to care very little about the consequences of his actions, but this is somehow endearing rather than merely narcissistic. He simply seems to believe that he must follow where his heart leads, and deal with whatever comes about as a result. Sharif does a great job of portraying this passion, and Zhivago’s bewilderment that everyone else doesn’t see the world the same way.
Even as enjoyable as the two lovers are, in their quiet way, Rod Steiger steals the show. Komarovsky is not a nice man. He seduces Lara when she is still a schoolgirl, torments her throughout their relationship, and rapes her after she tells him of her intent to marry Pavel. Much later, when he shows up to offer his assistance to Lara and Zhivago, he is drunken and odious. And yet, he’s easily the most interesting character in the whole film. He’s a businessman-turned-diplomat (I think?) and as such, he’s mainly a survivalist. He’s brutally honest and seems to have no real loyalties, but I think Steiger manages to give him a soul. He’s just one of those charismatic characters that swallows up every scene he’s in. It’s not really possible to like him, but he demands respect nonetheless.
If you’re into scenery and wide, panoramic cinematography, this is a movie for you. Director David Lean wanted to make sure that the changes of the seasons were documented, and so we see Russia, both city and countryside, in snow and sunshine. It really is beautiful. It won Oscars for cinematography, costume design, and score; in the first two cases, I think deservedly. In the case of the latter, I don’t remember much about the score beyond the famous “Lara’s Theme,” which is played far too many times, and which, in my opinion, sounds less romantic and more like the kind of canned music you might hear in an Italian restaurant. I think that a good score adds to and deepens a film rather than distracts from it, and here, sometimes, it was difficult to focus on anything besides them playing that theme for the millionth time. My apologies if you had it played at your wedding or something; I guess plinky balalaika just isn’t for me.
All in all, we weren’t that impressed with Doctor Zhivago. In scope I felt it was similar to 1956’s Giant, which stars Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, and follows a Texas rancher and his family through a couple of decades. Giant was ranked 82nd on the AFI list, but in my opinion, the two films ought to be reversed. Pieces that span extreme amounts of time need more dynamic characters and story lines to keep the interest up, and in the case of Doctor Zhivago, everything is just a little too subtle and complex. It has a lot going for it, and I hope I haven’t completely put anyone off on seeing it, but the fact remains: it’s a long haul. Maybe it was designed that way to add to the experience and depiction of revolutionary Russia? Let’s go with that.