A LOVE CAUGHT IN THE FIRE OF REVOLUTION.
When Soviet censors examined the script for Boris Pasternak’s novel ”Doctor Zhivago” in the mid-1950s, they were not happy. The story wasn’t politically correct, meaning it contained criticism of the Soviet system. This novel must not be read, it was decided, and the script had to be smuggled out of the country. Reaching Italy in 1957, it was published and became a sensation. The following year, Pasternak was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, resulting in Soviet outrage. This story is certainly steeped in politics.
The drama begins shortly after World War II, when KGB officer Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) approaches a young woman, Tanya (Rita Tushingham), whom he believes could be the daughter of his half brother, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). He’s not sure, and begins to tell her the story of the man and the woman who might be her parents. In Moscow in the 1910s, Yuri is a medical student and Lara is 17 years old, courted by a much older man, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), who is connected to her family. A young idealist, Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay), wants to marry her; he’s a Communist, fighting against the repressive rule of the Czar.
As he clashes with the authorities, Lara’s mother finds out about her daughter and Komarovsky, leading to tragedy. This is when Yuri first meets Lara, but the dramatic events of World War I and the revolution will change their lives forever…
A great romantic classic
Doctor Zhivago has become one of director David Lean’s most popular films and it is undeniably a great romantic classic. What makes the romance work so well is its complexity, fusing realistic events with dreamy sensibilities. Yuri, who eventually becomes the titular doctor Zhivago, is deeply affected by two women in his life.
The first is Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), the daughter of the Moscow family that takes care of him as a boy after the death of his mother. They have a familiar bond and she’s the woman he eventually marries and has several children with. But before the wedding, Yuri also meets Lara. During the war, he’s drafted as a military doctor; she becomes a nurse. As they run a field hospital together, and Lenin takes over the country, they fall in love. It’s interesting to see how Yuri builds something meaningful with these women in different times and under different circumstances. The haunting aspect of the love he shares with Lara is beautifully emphasized by Maurice Jarre’s music score and the famous theme he wrote for her.
At the film’s premiere, the critics were divided. Some of them thought the revolution had been romanticized (Sharif and Christie are a beautiful couple), others that the movie was too long. Lean does lose our attention here and there and the film doesn’t quite have the emotional impact one hoped for.
Still, its technical ingredients are pretty hard to beat. Freddie Young provides the right epic qualities to the film’s visual look. The idea was to shoot the film in parts of Spain that were guaranteed snow, but the country experienced its warmest winter in decades. Some of the sequences are genuinely wintry (Finland and Canada offered the right conditions), others rely on fake snow – but we can’t really tell the difference because of the filmmakers’ skill. We certainly believe that this is Russia, a country doomed to eternal winter under its never-ending despotic leaders.
Doctor Zhivago 1965-Britain-U.S.-Italy. 197 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Carlo Ponti. Directed by David Lean. Screenplay: Robert Bolt. Novel: Boris Pasternak. Cinematography: Freddie Young. Music: Maurice Jarre. Production Design: John Box. Art Direction: Terence Marsh. Costume Design: Phyllis Dalton. Cast: Omar Sharif (Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara Antipova), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko), Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Siobhan McKenna… Ralph Richardson, Rod Steiger, Klaus Kinski.
Trivia: In the beginning of the film, the young Yuri is played by Sharif’s son Tarek. Alternative version runs 180 min. Remade in the U.S. as a 2002 miniseries and in Russia as a 2006 miniseries.
Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actor (Sharif), Screenplay, Original Score.
Last word: “I wish I’d learned more from David Lean, that I’d been more aware. He was so smart – he was a genius with everything, down to the costumes. We shot the scene when my character, Tonya, arrives at a train station multiple times. First, we shot it with her wearing black. David said no. We did it again with Tonya in white. Then he said: ‘No, she’s coming from Paris. It should be pink!’ And it works. It became iconic.” (Chaplin, Cléo)