[box cover]

Doctor Zhivago

Warner Home Video

Starring Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Omar Sharif,
Geraldine Chaplin, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness,
Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham, and Klaus Kinski

Written by Robert Bolt,
from the novel by Boris Pasternak

Directed by David Lean

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"Think I'm just about ready to tackle something like it. It's so beautifully done and so true. That's the great thing. Truth. I find I just can't take and am no longer attracted by the phony-for-dramatic reason which I once was. Not badly, but I was."

— David Lean, in a letter to his wife

Vladimir Nabokov was fuming.

All through the summer and fall of 1958, he charted "Hurricane Lolita," as the author liked to call the popular response to his novel. The book was at the top of the bestseller lists.

Then came an upstart. Like Nabokov, he was a Russian. Even worse, he went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature that same season. Lolita was a sex book, while poet and translator Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago was a "love story set against the backdrop of war and revolution," as they say in the movie trade, an "important" book that mixed politics and history with love. To Nabokov, the book was "dreary conventional stuff." The prizeless author deemed the competing book "a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences." Naturally it became a bestseller, supplanting Lolita.

Nabokov had the satisfaction of having his book turned into a movie first, but the film made from Doctor Zhivago was a worldwide hit, earning $200 million for a project that cost $15 million.

To Nabokov, Zhivago was what he liked to call poshlost, or vulgar popular stuff designed to flatter conventional thinking and appeal to common moods. It seems almost inevitable that audiences would be drawn to a grand soap opera like Doctor Zhivago. It feels like art.

*          *          *

Reviewers were fairly hard on Zhivago upon its release. Seeing the film today one can just about imagine why. The central character is mostly a passive observer of other, slightly more interesting characters. The history lesson that comprises the backdrop of the tale is predictable and superficial. The central lovers don't even formally meet until about 90 minutes into the 197-minute epic. But mostly the problem is the look of the film.

It must have been bitterly disappointing for director David Lean to read reviews that ridiculed his film's appearance when he had gone to a great deal of trouble to create one of the most remarkable sets ever constructed for a movie. Lean demanded the creation of two Moscow streets, one cramped and narrow for the poor, one wide and spacious for the rich. Many of the houses on each street were what movie people call "practical" sets that allowed Lean to present a lively exterior in the background as people inside conversed within fully outfitted interiors. This approach adds a great deal to the film's verisimilitude, especially if you like shots in which someone like Omar Sharif walks down a street, goes through a door, tosses his hat on a credenza, and rushes upstairs to another room.

It's a great idea, but unfortunately the sets aren't shot all that well. Lean went to a great deal of trouble to find real Russian things to pepper his sets with, but the way they are shot (by Freddie Young) too often makes them look like typically over-lit and cluttered Universal Television detective programs from the '60s.

Meanwhile, the exteriors are beautiful and lush, even as downtrodden, freezing people huddled in the back of wagons are transported across the bleak, empty landscapes as balalaikas play gently in the background the distinctly non-Russian "Lara's Theme." Apparently, Lean intended the beauty of the broad canvas to contrast with the horror of the events, while having the "beautiful" love story take place in squalid spaces.

The disjuncture between internal looks of the film is due to its place in cinema chronology. The year 1965 is a key transitional moment in the history of cinema. It exists on the cusp of great change. The studios were changing. New filmmakers were coming along. Conventional mores were questioned by a new type of cinema, that included that year both Help! and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. At the same Oscar ceremony that gave Zhivago several minor awards, the film that won Best Picture was The Sound of Music. You could take this as perhaps the last gasp of Ye Olde Hollywood. It's probably safe to say that most of the color films released in 1965 didn't look all that good; color film technology had not caught up with the new realism and the new goofiness. To contemporary reviewers Zhivago must have looked as old fashioned as an MGM musical. No matter; the studio spent a lot of money on advertising and refuted the critical consensus, a lesson for future studio moguls.

*          *          *

As is well known, Doctor Zhivago is about a Russian poet-doctor (Omar Sharif) who lives through World War I, the fall of the Czar, and the beginnings of the new Soviet state (which looks borrowed from Ninotchka). Along the way he marries the daughter (Geraldine Chaplin) of his adoptive parents (Ralph Richardson, Siobhan McKenna). Meanwhile, there's Lara (Julie Christie), whom the good doctor almost meets on several occasions. She starts out as a virginal 17-year-old student engaged to her radical boyfriend (Tom Courtenay) but seduced by her mother's prominent lover (Rod Steiger). During WWI she is a nurse and finally meets Zhivago. They fall in love but don't act on it. Later, Zhivago and his wife and child flee Moscow during the early days of the revolution for their country estate. In the nearby village he discovers Lara again and commences an affair. More separations and losses occur, and then Lara and Zhivago end up back at the estate, covered and filled with ice and snow. Steiger re-enters the picture to provide the impetus for the final unhappy ending. The whole movie is framed by Zhivago's supposed half-brother (Alec Guinness), who is interviewing a girl who may be Zhivago's illegitimate daughter (Rita Tushingham).

In Zhivago, the political backdrop is a ruse. This is soap opera stuff, given urgency by the occasional explosion. Warren Beatty actually captured the times and the places much better in Reds. It's a big bloated movie that is, paradoxically, very well written by Robert Bolt, or at least as well written as something derived from the complicated, almost incoherent source novel can be. Maurice Jarre provides Lean with another humable theme and score, and Julie Christie is a delight to see and hear. Nevertheless, the superficiality, or political confusion, is summarized by Klaus Kinski's incoherent cameo as a disaffected radical; the film doesn't make clear what has disappointed him.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video has done an adequate job of putting together a DVD package to celebrate Doctor Zhivago, one of the AFI's 100 greatest films. It's a two-platter set with the film on a double-sided Disc One and supplemental material on Disc Two, most of which seems derived from the Laserdisc release.

Disc One's movie comes in a good presentation that the box says is a 2001 transfer from restored elements, not just the 1995 Laserdisc restoration, and with a remastered soundtrack. The anamorphic image (2.35:1) shows no speckles, rubbings, markings, or even reel-change marks. If it shows off Freddie Young's exterior photography, but unfortunately it also reveals how artificial many of the interiors look. One wonders how more realistic and exotic, indeed progressive and anticipatory of '70s cinema, the film might have looked if Lean had not fired DP Nicolas Roeg after two weeks in favor of getting back his Lawrence of Arabia cinematographer. The remastered soundtrack comes in English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Included is an audio commentary with Omar Sharif and Lean's widow Sandra, interspersed with one from Rod Steiger, recorded at a different time. The chat is intermittent; Steiger has a tendency to remind us that he has more hair and less avoirdupois at the time; Sharif and Sandra Lean tell familiar tales. In addition, Sandra Lean was not married to Lean at the time and her anecdotes are all second-hand. Carried over from the Laserdisc is an overlit, and rather unnecessary, introduction by Omar Sharif (1:30). Much more helpful is a music-only track highlighting Jarre's cues, a feature that seems to have fallen into disuse of late. The static, musical menu offers 61-chapter scene-selection over the disc's two sides.

Disc Two's main feature is a one-hour documentary, again made for the '95 LD, called Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic. Scott Benson's film doesn't have the flair of some of Laurent Bouzereau's documentaries on many Universal discs, but it adequately summarizes Zhivago's production history, cannibalizing a lot of material from the "vintage documentaries" on the rest of the disc. The doc is full frame (1.33:1). This single-sided, single-layered disc (SS-SL) comes in Dolby Digital English 2.0 with English subtitles and close captioning. A static, musical menu offers 21-chapter scene selection for this documentary.

The rest of the second disc is filled with more material from the Laserdisc. There is a long series of contemporaneous promotional shorts, beginning with "Zhivago: Behind the Camera with David Lean," at 10 minutes the longest; basically it is a shorter version of Benson's film. Next is "David Lean's Film of Doctor Zhivago," a seven-minute promotional film. It's followed by "Moscow in Madrid," five minutes on the building of the sets; "Pasternak," eight minutes about the author of the source novel; "New York Press interviews with Julie Christie," 10 painful minutes of black and white footage of an uncomfortable Christie fielding inane questions from two reporters; "New York Press interviews with Omar Sharif," 19 minutes of black and white footage of a smooth Sharif handling the media well; "Geraldine Chaplin Screen Test," three minutes of footage that Lean saw more in than perhaps anyone else; "This is Julie Christie" (1 min.); "This is Geraldine Chaplin" (1 min.); "Chaplin in New York" (1 min.); and "This is Omar Sharif" (2 min.). What's missing from this seeminly lavish presentation is costume photos and analysis, and blueprints, photos, and layouts of the remarkable set that Lean had built in Spain.

Finally, there is the general release theatrical trailer, released after the movie had won several Oscars, as well as credits for seven cast members and director Lean, plus a list of the awards the film garnered.

— D. K. Holm

Disc One

Disc Two

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© 2001, The DVD Journal