In many ways the epic story and film Doctor Zhivago echoes the real-life story of Boris Pasternak, who penned the original novel. Pasternak was a firsthand witness to the events that led to and became the Russian Revolution. He collected 50 years of memories that began with the early days before the revolution and ended with his own confrontations with the USSR government. Like Zhivago in the story, Pasternak’s work was banned in his own country. The manuscript had to be smuggled out of Russia and found its way first to Italy, where it was finally published for the first time. But it didn’t stop there. The book quickly found its way to countries all over the globe. It was translated into several languages in a very short time. In 1957 Pasternak was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for literature. Alas, that was not meant to be. He was confronted with the Party Government and warned he would not be permitted to return home should he go to Sweden to accept the prestigious award. And while that might not have appeared to have been much of a threat when you consider Pasternak’s harsh observations, this was his homeland, and he did have family there who would have most assuredly paid a price for his actions. He declined the award, begging the committee to not “judge him too harshly”. It would be Pasternak’s last stand. He would never see the complete success of the novel or the impact it made on the world stage. He died just three years after turning down the award. He was never to see David Lean’s epic interpretation of his work. He never saw the film Doctor Zhivago.
I must confess that I too had never seen the movie. I had certainly seen many clips of the film. It was impossible to follow films, in general and not be aware of the film and its impact. Of course, I had heard much of the music. The Love Theme, also called Lara’s Theme, has become one of the most recognizable movie themes in the history of the industry. The movie was quite popular, but circumstances just never presented themselves for me to have the opportunity to see this movie, at least in a manner worthy of its reputation. Certainly, there were television showings, but I could never bring myself to experience such an iconic film in a cut-up fashion with likely an inferior print. Even DVD kept me at a distance. Did I really want to watch this movie with a 3-4 mbps bit rate? Certainly not. I suspect there is perhaps an entire generation of film fans out there that found themselves in the same situation. We’ve been asking ourselves: will there ever be any chance of seeing the movie in a format that preserves its splendor? I guess I was holding out for a nostalgic screening at a local at house theatre. And then came Blu-ray, with its limitless possibilities, and finally a copy of Doctor Zhivago would arrive on my doorstop. My dog barked ceaselessly at the UPS man who delivers these goodies on an almost daily basis. This time there was an extra snarl in that growl, I was sure of it. Could she have known that this particular delivery was going to find me and my wife locked away for nearly 4 hours (in my case more like 6) in our, closed to dogs, little theater? She knew. She knew.
The film begins with Yevgraf Zhivago (Guinness) interviewing a young lady (Tushingham) about her forgotten heritage. He is seeking his lost niece, and believes the young girl could be her. As he questions her about what she might remember of her parents, he begins to tell a tale of his own, one that begins in the early days of the 20th century, just before World War I and the Russian Revolution that would give birth to the Soviet Union.
His story begins with the burial of a young woman. Her very young son Yuri is witness to the somber event. With his father already gone, Yuri is adopted by friends of his family and taken from his remote village to Moscow. There he thrives. He begins to write poetry with no small notice. But he considers poetry not a true vocation. What he needed, we’re told, is a job. He studies medicine and becomes a gifted researcher and doctor. He does quite well and begins to experience the better things in life. He begins a family with Tonya (Chaplin) and appears on the rise in Russian society.
The story also tells of a young woman named Lara (Christie) who is in love with an ideological man who is attempting to ferment the inevitable revolution. She cares not for the politics, but loves the man, Pasha (Courtenay). She has been brought up by Komarovsky (Steiger) who fancies her a bit more than a daughter. She manages to break free from his control and settles with Pasha.
The lives of both Pasha and Zhivago are changed on a cold snow-filled night. Pasha is leading a peaceful march for his Communist party while Zhivago watches from his balcony. Mounted soldiers wielding sabers violently rush through the demonstration. What Zhivago sees in the aftermath, as do we, is a splash of crimson against the snow. The days of peaceful demonstration are over.
As the first World War begins, Zhivago finds himself in the service as a medical officer. There he meets Lara for the first time. He’s seen her before, but now they have met, and she serves as a nurse with him during the war. The war cements the Russian Revolution, and by the time it is over the Communists are taking firm control of the nation. Zhivago returns to find his home has been deemed too lavish and many of his possessions taken. He wisely complies with the demands. It is under these circumstances that me meets his half-brother Yevgraf. Yevgraf is a military officer with the Party. He convinces Zhivago to flee Moscow and return to his ancestral village. That means a packed train ride in a cargo car with hay and stench to contend with. Once home, he finds the Party has confiscated that home as well. He is content to live in the property’s cottage. Again, his family begins to grow. But Zhivago encounters Lara once again. She becomes his mistress. Eventually he is shanghaied and pressed into service for the Red Army in their attempt to quell any rebellion against their own rebellion. By the time he escapes and manages to walk across a frozen tundra home, his family is gone. Only Lara remains. When their lives are threatened, they move into the confiscated ancestral home to live what days they can before the Party catches up with them. It is there that he writes what are destined to become his most famous collection of poems, collectively entitled The Lara Poems.
The film is often called an epic. I just used that terminology myself. It deserves the classification. The term epic is something that David Lean is closely associated with. He might well be the last of the so called “epic” directors. Other films he’s directed include The Bridge Over The River Kwai, Lawrence Of Arabia, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. All of these are legitimate classics today. But Doctor Zhivago is a different kind of an epic. It is what I like to call an intimate epic. The story itself absolutely involves an epic period in world history, but that is not really the story. It is merely the backdrop, though a vital one it is. Still, this is an extremely personal journey for Zhivago himself. This film rests heavily on the shoulders of one actor. There are many wonderful and important performances here, to be sure. But if Omar Sharif can’t completely sell us on this journey both internal and external, if he can’t make us not only believers, but witnesses to his struggles; if he can’t do that convincingly, then Doctor Zhivago simply would not be the film it is considered today. Lean was familiar with his star. They worked together on Lawrence Of Arabia. For a young Egyptian actor, Sharif has had some tremendous material in which to master his craft. I doubt very much that Lean would have cast Sharif if he were not completely satisfied that the young thespian could pull off such a complex character. This is an epic, indeed, but Sharif is in nearly every frame.
Lean died in 1991. His last film was Passage To India in 1984. The times might have passed his style by, for the moment, but he leaves a legacy of incredible work behind. While the backdrop of the Russian Revolution is epic to be sure, it is not really Pasternak’s story or Robert Bolt’s screenplay that makes this film. As stories go, it is good but it often plods along. It is Lean’s touch and attention to detail that makes this a great film. It’s all in the nuances. It’s that speck of blood in the snow. It’s the incredibly effective use of silence to portray powerful moments on the screen. There are several key frames that are completely without dialog. We witness Lara’s mother commit suicide and the aftermath all from quick glances through several outside windows. We’re relegated to simple voyeurs, and it is most effective. There is a transition where Zhivago is looking from a frost-covered window which dissolves into flowers and spring. Today it’s a simple morph, but this was 1965, and there were no such computer technologies. The attack on the march is played out almost entirely on Zhivago’s face. Sharif pulls it off brilliantly, but only Lean would have even attempted such a thing. Lean knows how to use shadow and nuance like few directors could. Any of his well-known epics will help to demonstrate the point. Doctor Zhivago perhaps does it best.
With the heap of praise that David Lean gets for this movie, one can’t talk about Doctor Zhivago without mentioning the perfect cast. I’ve already talked about Omar Sharif. Julie Christie was predominately a British television actress up until that time. This movie changed everything. But I think her performance also owes tremendously to Lean. He makes her look far better than she really does. That’s not to say she’s not an attractive actress, but Lean knew how to photograph her in the best possible light and angle. He utilized her eyes in ways few directors would be capable. She went on and continues to work in a variety of films since then. None were ever as effective as this one. The future Obi-Wan Kenobi Alec Guinness plays the inquisitive half brother. It is his narration that guides the story. One of the best scenes in any movie period involves his meeting with his brother. In that scene Sharif contributes dialog, but Guinness does not. It is his narration that intertwines with the dialog. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Zhivago’s wife is played by the daughter of silent-era funny man Charlie Chaplin. Geraldine Chaplin appears more like a model than an actress. She holds her own, but it is a very quiet and subtle part. About the best one can say is that the actress is totally invisible. She’s had a very long and illustrious career, showing that she wasn’t chosen simply because of her father’s name. Her most recent role was that of the gypsy in the new Wolfman. She even had the honor of playing her own grandmother, Hannah, in the bio-film Chaplin. How cool is that? Tom Courtenay plays Pasha with nuanced strength. There are many names associated with the Revolution that are more familiar to us, but Pasha represents the face of the movement with cold surety. I’m not sure if it was intended, but he first appears with rounded glasses that remind us of John Lennon. A curious touch, if intended, when one thinks that Pasha was a follower of a different man with the same name, spelled differently. It was 1965 and the height of Beatlemania. Finally, Rod Steiger gets to play the rather evil guardian who returns at the end to attempt a redemption, of sorts.
Doctor Zhivago was not instantly a hit at the box office. The critics were rather harsh, and even with over a million dollars spent on publicity, the first three weeks were a disaster. Lean’s now famous remark at the time was that you could hurl boulders in the theater and not hurt anyone. If a million-dollar promotion couldn’t bring them in, what did? It was the music. Lara’s Theme began to receive a lot of play time, and suddenly people were swept up in Jarre’s moving score. What is this all about? That was the question on everyone’s minds at the time. And in the heart of the Cold War, David Lean delivered the birth of the Russian Revolution.
If success can be measured in Oscars, David Lean was already The Man. His films had already racked up 14 Oscars. Doctor Zhivago added 5 more, most notably for Best Music. It was nominated for Best Picture but lost out to The Sound Of Music, which did not win for its music (although it did for its music adaptation), a rather ironic turn of events. I’ll bet Lean had a little laugh about that. OK, maybe not. Julie Christie did pick up a Best Actress Oscar that year, but for Darling, not Zhivago.
Let’s talk about the image and audio, shall we?
Doctor Zhivago is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1 at an average 23 mbps. Lean was fond of saying that film like life was in the details. This Blu-ray release proves the axiom. It is not color that will grab you. Lean uses very little of it. There are notable exceptions. There is the red stain of blood on the snow. The club where Zhivago is entertained is decked out in lavish red to contrast the opulence with the song of equality from the marching revolutionaries. We see Lara in a striking red dress as she poses for her lecherous guardian. These moments are so much more effective because of the drab, cold nature of most of the film, and they stand out here just as starkly as Lean intended. Again, it is detail that makes this such a superb image presentation. When Zhivago returns home after walking through the tundra, you can see the wear on his face: the sunken jaw, the red rings around his eyes, and the frozen debris on his mustache. As it thaws the melting mucus is delightfully disgusting. There are times the detail is too good. The famous Ice Palace looks remarkably artificial in this kind of scrutiny. Lean might have intended this, but did he really think we’d ever have this clean a look at it? I doubt it. The print is in fair shape, but some print defects remain. Black levels are good, if not inky black. There’s a lot of white, and it is clean of compression issues or digital harshness. It is the faces that show the greatest detail. Lean loves the close-up, and it looks remarkably natural here. There doesn’t appear to be any runaway DNR work. Thank God for that.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is just a little harsh at times. The new mix does not take an aggressive path, and that is appropriate. It’s the score that benefits most from this uncompressed audio presentation. The subs often come surprisingly alive. This is a dynamic score, to be sure. Dialog is fine even at its softest moments.
There is a very strong Audio Commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, and Sandra Lean (David’s widow) offers some nice moments. Don’t let Sharif’s mellow-sounding voice fool you into thinking he doesn’t have a lot of love for the film. It’s just the way he talks. Listen to what he says here.
This is a three disc set. You also get a 45-page hardcover booklet/case. Inside you’ll find the Blu-ray film disc along with a DVD bonus disc. This is pretty much the same bonus disc as the 2-disc DVD release. You can learn more about that here:
You also get a CD of selections from the score. This is intended to replace the isolated score option on the DVD release.
On the Blu-ray there is a Two Part Feature:
Part I (23:52) Filmmakers from today talk about the film and their own feelings about it. They talk a lot about David Lean and his style. It’s a love-fest to some extent. There are some behind the scenes moments, but they are brief.
Part II: (16:13) This continues the examination of the film, focusing to some extent on the second half.
In many ways I wish it were not such a long film. I would very much like to see it again, but I’m not sure that I could sit through it all again so soon. One day I will, and perhaps revisit it in these pages. I’m not sure about that. Films are often very personal things, and I think this one is more so than most. It’s not what we tend to be used to today. I’m not going to sit here and tell you about “The Good Old Days”. There are absolutely great movies being done in the modern era. This is not even in my top ten of best films of all time. It is a classic, and it does have a certain look and charm. But then again: “That’s how it was done in those days”.