Doctor Zhivago (1965) is one of the screen’s great epic love storiessuccessfully interweaving romance, adventure, and the pageantry of tumultuous times into one captivating package. I remember vividly seeing the film for the first time as a teenager and, over the years, it has not only remained a personal favorite but in my mind come to exemplify the finest in cinematic craftsmanship. The exacting style of director David Leanwhich may not be entirely graceful but can withstand the most detailed thematic scrutinyremains the standard against which I measure all others (and invariably find them lacking). Some credit is certainly also due screenwriter Robert Bolt for helping to successfully translate the book to film.
Of course, we remember Zhivago today as one of the blockbuster successes of its era. And it was. Though it was interesting for me to be reminded, as I studied various references, that the movie was far from universally liked by the criticswho undoubtedly had their expectations peaked by Lean’s accomplished resume: including In Which We Serve (1942), Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), Oliver Twist (1948), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Summertime (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Pauline Kael, for example, found Zhivago “ stately, respectable and dead.” “It’s not art, it’s heavy labor,” she sneered. Fortunately audiences disagreed. The film ended up taking home a respectable six Academy Awards, but was finally overshadowed by The Sound of Music, which won the coveted Best Picture and Best Director prizes for that year. Julie Christie did garner Best Actress, however for her other 1965 hit, Darling.
Making Doctor Zhivago was an arduousand expensiveundertaking. Following the success of Lawrence, MGM gave Lean virtual carte blanche (and $15 million) to film Boris Pasternak’s sprawling novel set during the Russian Revolution. Of course, it’s always amusing to hear early casting suggestions. MGM pushed for Paul Newman to star as Zhivago. Producer Carlo Ponti understandably favored his wife, Sophia Loren, to play Lara. At one point Jane Fonda was even considered for the rolethough her accent was deemed too American. Fortunately common sense and a little bit of cinematic serendipity came in to play. This was model Geraldine Chaplin’s (daughter of Charlie) first film. She was cast as Zhivago’s wife, Tonya, largely on the basis of a successful screen test. At the time, Julie Christie had only a small part in Billy Liar to indicate she was about to become the latest screen sensation. But she impressed the savvy Brit director enough to win the role of Zhivago’s lover. Of course, Omar Sharif, who eventually was promoted to the title role after being set to play Pasha, had worked with Lean on Lawrence. Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson and Rita Tushingham rounded out the final cast.
The company shot for more than nine months, mostly in Spain where 10 acres of sets were constructed to recreate the Moscow streets and the northern plains were enlisted to stand in for the Russian steppe. Co-star Richardson supposedly quipped he now knew what it was like traveling with Napoleon. As these things inevitably go, the weather proved highly uncooperativemeaning unseasonably warm. Varykino, I’m sorry to tell you, is mostly blanketed by marble dust and wax. The actors are sweating buckets under their furs. For those expansive long shots where the snow couldn’t be faked, Lean and co. went to Finland. The shoot wrapped on October 9th and amazingly Leancapitalizing on his training as an editorhad the film in the theaters by Christmas (though Kevin Brownlow’s biography reports some additional tinkering was done following the initial NY/LA openings).
From an analytical point of view, one of the things I’ve always loved about Zhivago is that you can take apart almost any scene you choose thematicallyin terms of sets, costumes, color, sound, editing, etc. Lean uses every element of cinema to tell his story. When the lecherous Komarovsky (Steiger) takes the virginal Lara out to a posh restaurant, the room is bordello red with sensuous, nearly nude gold figures adding to the sexual oppressiveness of the décor. The girl, naturally, is dressed all in white. Outside, the oppressed poordressed in black and carrying striking red bannersgather in protest, calling for brotherhood, freedom and bread. Their singing of the “Internationale” briefly interrupts the aristocrats’ revels, a warning of things to come. Later, as the Czar’s soldiers fall upon the innocent protesters, Komarovsky forces himself upon Lara. If you watch carefully, Lean has a little joke here. “Mount!’ an officer commands as the men swing onto their horsescut to Komarovsky and Lara.
Zhivago’s mistress, Lara is frequently associated with flowers. She is like a force of nature the good doctor can neither resist nor escape. And note how frequently the two are separated by panes of glassincluding the first time Zhivago sees Lara, while working to save her suicidal mother’s life; and the last, when he fails to attract her attention through the streetcar window. The glass is like the unseen fate that works to keep the lovers apart. When they finally repair to Varykino, they are living quite literally in a frozen past with the wolves howling outside their door. The last time we see Lara, she is dwarfed by a massive poster of Stalin. “She died or vanished somewhere, in one of the labor camps, a nameless number on a list that was afterwards mislaid …” In Doctor Zhivago, and indeed all of Lean’s epics, man is but a tiny figure in the landscapethe individual who struggles mightily against the inevitably overwhelming forces of time, nature, and history.
“The star of Doctor Zhivago is Director Lean himself, who has effectively captured on film the essence of Pasternak’s belief that men are priceless as individuals, not as cogs in a superstate. Lean speaks for humanity in a language of unspeakably beautiful images: the desolate ritual of a funeral on a windswept Russian heath; a band of running, white-shirted schoolboys suddenly massacred in a field of golden wheat; or simply the timeless, kaleidoscopic, never-ceasing cycle of the seasons. His sentimental Zhivago is perhaps warm and rewarding entertainment rather than great art; yet it reaches that level of taste, perception and emotional fullness where a movie becomes a motion-picture event.” Time Magazine, 12/31/65
At right, Doctor Zhivago memorabilia from the Teegarden/Nash Collection: a hand bill, movie still (Christie & Sharif), mini lobby card (Sharif, Chaplin, & Christie), and second still (Steiger & Christie).
This article originally appeared in Audience Magazine (AudienceMag.com).