Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Doctor Zhivago

 Off to the second of the four David Lean films did I go today! I looked at the AFI's top 100 list and see that they have this at number 35. It is the last of the three Lean films they have on the list and I think it is a fair call to say it isn't quite in the league of The Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia. But I state this now; the line between them all is so infinitesimally small that it really comes down to personal opinion which of them you think best, or prefer. I stated in my Lawrence of Arabia review that I like The Bridge on the River Kwai more.

 Doctor Zhivago is certainly a great film and I doubt anyone can really question that. Until I saw it today I had always considered it a woman's film. I really don't know why. I think it is because through the years it was always woman who I heard talk about it. It  may be my imagination but this slant may be true because today out of 22 people in the theatre there were only 3 men!! Again, like Lawrence of Arabia and Charade, I was the youngest there!! Where are all the younger film buffs?? Annoyingly right throughout this session there were 4 old biddies yakity yaking and I was getting really pissed off with them. Every bloody scene these old bags would start talking. It was frustrating, but they were well over 70, and I really didn't have the heart to tell them to 'shut the f.... up'!

 I certainly went into doctor Zhivago under a false impression. I would definitely say now that there is no way  that it is solely a 'chick flick'. Yes David Lean wanted to make a movie with a romantic slant after Lawrence and Kwai, but it is still an epic with plenty of historical drama. The romance isn't 'chick flick' really and it didn't bother me. As a film with a romantic under tone it was well made.

 It is overall a quite brilliant film and as I watched I liked it more and more. For some reason I thought it had been made in black and white. This was because so many stills I had seen of it were in B&W. So it was with delight that when that 'epic' sound track blasted out and the film started to roll I found it was actually in colour. The first thing I noticed was that it was in far better condition than Lawrence of Arabia. It was mildly grainy, but right throughout the picture quality was superb. It wasn't a re-mastered copy either so I got a good feel of what it must have been like to see this when it was released in 1965. Like Lawrence too, Zhivago had an inter-mission as the reels were changed! Such a nostalgia trip! But fortunate as it ran to just over three hours as I had to see a man about a dog!!

 The other thing I quickly noticed was how visually dull colour wise this was. Lawrence of Arabia was vibrant with colour courtesy of the desert. It is the colour that Lawrence is renowned for, and is one of the main reason it is regarded as one of the best films ever made. But in Doctor Zhivago Lean shows why he is such a master film maker as he replicates the chill of Russia's famed winters. I could almost feel the cold! Where it has aged noticeable is where Lean had to use fake snow. He had no trouble with sand in Lawrence, but in Zhivago snow, and the cold, would have been prohibitive to film making so many scenes had to use fake snow. It is obvious at times, but modern film makers suffer the same fate in trying to replicate wintry conditions. I love how Lean froze the windows. Certain scenes we see the characters looking out of them through thin layers of ice. brilliant. But even better was putting a lit candle near the window to form a small circle of de-frosted ice. brilliant Mr Lean. quite Brilliant!! Perfection, and a master piece of film making and visuality. 

 As I watched I immediately was able to recognise Lean's style. Everything I admired in Lawrence and Kwai he used in Zhivago. He was such a precise film maker who made sure no detail, no matter how small or trivial, was perfect. This was of course the days before CGI and it is remarkable the lengths ,and money, that was spent on making this. Moscow streets had to be replicated as did burnt out Russian villages and estate houses. It all looks authentic, and I couldn't help but contrast the CGI in Burke and Hare of 1828 Edinburgh, and how fake it looked against hand made props and scenery. Who said CGI was better? Bah!! I certainly commend Lean for his accuracy and detailing in making it all feel and look Russian. What a man! and when you see such things you can understand why three of his films are three of the best. Ever.

 Too further the point we see Zhivago walking back to his family through the depths of a Russian winter. It is blowing a gale from the depths of Siberia and snowing heavily. When he arrives at Lara's we see Sharif with a frozen moustache and icicles on his eye brows. Even his lips are blackened and cracked looking. Detail folks, detail. I could buy into Zhivago's journey on foot, and the physical suffering he must have endured by Lean's detailing and authenticity. Brilliant stuff.

 So visually Doctor Zhivago was everything you would expect from David Lean. It doesn't have the stark raw beauty of Lawrence of Arabia. But much of that was filmed in the Moroccan desert where- as Doctor Zhivago alternated between city scenes and country side. Apparently the Russians were in no way going to oblige Lean by letting him make the film in Russia, but Finland has similar scenery and many of the winter scenes were filmed there. The rest was shot in Spain of all places! It is a shame in some ways considering it is actually a Russian novel, but it was at the height of the Cold War. I'm not sure how the regime viewed the novel but that may have had some bearing to. I believe the film wasn't played in Russia until 1994!!!

 I haven't read the book unfortunately so can't comment on how faithfully Lean has kept to it. I have read different views on this point. Since I haven't read it all I can do is view it as a stand alone film. I believe from various sources that Doctor Zhivago was accredited with lifting MGM out of financial trouble when it was released. I have read it is the eighth highest grossing film in America ever. It certainly cannot be denied it is a popular film. Not only popular, but a damn fine one in the process. It is a case of substance, with style.

 The performances are just magnificent. Alec Guinness again...well... what can I say that I haven't already?! In Zhivago he has a limited role and appears only several times. He plays a Russian general, but what a contrast against last week as Arab Prince Faisal!! He has the quiet, menacing authority of a member of the Cheka down to a tee. Is there any role this finest of actors couldn't perfect??!!!

 What struck me though was how there were so many stand out performances. Again Lean shows his genius as there isn't just one standout as there is three, four, five, even. For me this is definitely Omar Sharrif's film though. Like Guinness what a contrast between an Arab, Sherif Ali, in Lawrence, and a Russian in Zhivago. It is hard to credit now that he wasn't initially considered for the role. Lean wanted Peter O'Toole but he turned the part down. Sharif wanted the part of Pasha and was surprised when he was offered the role of Zhivago. And it is also incredible to think that Paul Newman was considered for the role of Zhivago, as was Michael Caine, who read the part and suggested Omar Sharif play him.

  Marlon Brando and James Mason both turned down the role of Komarovsky who was played by Rod Steiger. Audrey Hepburn was considered for Tonya, but Charlie Chaplin's daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, got the role. Lara was played by Julie Christie after Jane Fonda, Sarah Miles, and Sophia Loren were rejected. Incredible stuff huh?!! The movie turned out brilliantly and it is almost better that it didn't have the big names of the era involved. Somehow Lean wasn't able to get who he wanted for many of his films and his second choices turned out to be better!! Thanks god for posterity that Omar Sharif played Zhivago and not Newman! And I'm a Newman fan! It may seem blasphemous, but when you look at it in that light you realise how fortunate it was.

 The only criticisim for me was Julie Christie playing a 17 year old. To be sure she had to play the role over many years but she didn't look 17 at the time her character was. It is a minor thing as I realised as the film progressed and I saw the necessity of her playing the role later as a twenty something woman. But that was the only thing that irked me. Everything else was as flawless as you could ever hope for in a film. I really, really enjoyed this, and am incredibly pleased to have finally seen it just to get the false impression out of my mind of being a 'chicks' film. It isn't. Even though it is romantically based the backdrop is historical, and the excesses of the Revolution are displayed, as is a subtle hint of anti-communism.

 So without doubt Doctor Zhivago is one of the greatest films to have ever graced the silver screen. Like Lawrence and Charade it was again a pure pleasure and privilege to see it in all its original glory. As previously stated I think Lawrence of Arabia is regarded as the better film because it is visually more startling than Zhivago. But for me that is the only difference between them. Both are just simply brilliant epics in every way. There is nothing to choose from performance wise either. As brilliant as Peter O'Toole was in Lawrence Sharif matches him in Zhivago. It is to their individual credit that they took on such roles when big names such as Finney, Brando, Hepburn, etc were turning them down or deemed unsuitable.

 For me this is undoubtedly one of David Lean's finest works. I was more than impressed and have been mulling it over in mind all day. I like it more than Lawrence of Arabia. Even though it isn't a 'fun' movie I enjoyed it. I just revelled in Lean's eye for detail and flawless style of film making. The performances are just superb. Yes, this is a truly great piece of cinema and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity in life to watch it on the big screen where it belongs. If you ever get the chance to like me DON'T miss out. You won't regret it I promise you!!


Up next week: Ryan's Daughter.

Click here for a synopsis and more:

And here for more:

I also recommend a look at wikipedia's page as it has a lot of interesting information regarding the making of the film and other behind the scenes info. Well worth a gander.


  1. Great review! I never got around to seeing this one, and it looks like I need to!

  2. In a word it is unmissable!