Director: David Lean
Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness
You never forget your first. By that, I mean your first “grown up” film at the cinema. Mine was David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” which, at the time, utterly overwhelmed the 12 year old me. I may not have understood everything I saw on the screen, but I obsessed about the film for weeks afterwards. Subsequent viewings weren’t quite so ecstatic but, as the epic romance approaches its half century and prepares for release in a newly-restored print, perhaps it’s time for another look.
There’s only one place to see it and that’s on the big screen. The epic sweep, vast Russian landscapes and large scale crowd scenes are sorely diminished by anything less. And, just as importantly, it gives you the same experience as 1960s audiences. With a running time of three hours 15 minutes, there’s an intermission half way through. They don’t make ‘em like that any more!
The love triangle at the centre of the story is set against the turbulent years of the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Adopted as an orphan, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) has grown up to become a doctor with a growing reputation as a poet. He marries childhood sweetheart, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) and is then sent to the front in World War I, where he meets Lara. Their paths have crossed before, but they’ve never actually met and they embark on an affair but the start of the Revolution takes Yuri back to what’s left of his home and his family. It’s not the last time he and Lara will be together.
That’s just part of it. For an epic romance, you need a similarly sized cast of characters, let alone the events of history, so sub-plot after sub-plot weaves its way in and out of the film. Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness), a high ranking officer in the Red Army, searching for his niece. Lara’s relationship with the amoral Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), her mother’s lover. Pasha (Tom Courtney), Lara’s fiancée, an idealistic student who becomes a revolutionary. And so it goes, creating an elaborate tapestry, but one that never becomes over-complicated or difficult to follow.
It’s an illustrious cast, but one that doesn’t wholly deliver on the acting front. Omar Sharif stepped into the title role after Lean’s first choice, Peter O’Toole, turned it down. Sharif certainly has the looks and a certain amount of screen presence but an increasing reliance on close ups of those huge chocolate brown eyes hint at the director’s dwindling confidence in his main man to shoulder the film. There’s almost as many close ups of Julie Christie’s – huge blue – eyes as well, although her shiny blonde hair and pale lippie are more reminiscent of a 60s model than a resilient survivor. In truth, the best performances are to be found among the supporting actors, particularly Tom Courtney’s accidental revolutionary commander and Rod Steiger’s unscrupulous Komarovsky, who always manages to keep his head above water, regardless of the colour of the government.
Visually, however, the film is a lavish feast, one that is seriously impressive for its day, and watching it on anything less than a big screen would be to do it a disservice. Freddie Young’s Oscar winning cinematography relishes the huge panoramas: the funeral at the start, viewed from a distance (and one that echoes Lean’s “Great Expectations”), a near-frozen Yuri as a small, dark figure staggering through the snow to find his way home and the troika ride through a brilliant white landscape to the deserted country house which looks like an ice palace. But it’s not all about big scenes. The smaller scenes are equally beautiful and full of detail – Lara’s mother’s workroom, for instance, or the frosty etchings on a winter window.
Although it eventually won five Oscars, “Doctor Zhivago” wasn’t originally welcomed by the critics. Time has been kinder, especially to those aspects that have stood the test of time – the cinematography for one, Maurice Jarre’s stirring soundtrack for another – and it’s now regarded as one of Lean’s most popular films. Its flaws are there for all to see, but this essentially a romance on an epic scale that encourages you to wallow in it and suspend your disbelief. And, as an example of Lean’s ability to pick a really strong story and tell it with clarity, they don’t come much better.