David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” remains as problematic a picture as on its first release 36 years ago — a movie of great moments but deep flaws that’s better in the remembering than in the actual viewing. And like the film itself, Warner Home Video’s sparkling DVD transfer, though sharp as a saber and chockful of extras (all from MGM/UA’s 1995 laser disc), still needs a bit more surgery.
Whereas Lean’s previous pic, “Lawrence of Arabia” was grounded in a ’50s look and a moral universe, “Zhivago” was infused by ’60s values and appeal, from its youth-centered casting to its glossy, poster-color production values.
It’s those elements that now seem weakest: from Julie Christie’s gushy performance as Lara (more “King’s Road Chelsea than Nevsky Prospect,” as scripter Robert Bolt wrote to Lean), through Tom Courtenay’s designer revolutionary to Omar Sharif’s dewy-eyed Zhivago, a character who remains a helpless observer in his own movie. Maurice Jarre’s decorative score doesn’t clarify the drama and makes the pic appear blander than it actually is.
However, the main problem remains the script by Bolt, who was clearly more interested in making a movie about the Russian Revolution, while Lean wanted to make an epic love story. It’s notable the dialogue rises to the sustained heights of “Lawrence” only when politics and the human compromises forced by history are under discussion. Such exchanges happen only among the older actors, such as Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson and — in a perf that seems stronger over the years — Rod Steiger.
Little that’s new is touched on in the DVD’s sole new element, a commentary track by Sharif, helmer’s widow Sandra Lean and (occasionally) Steiger. Sharif makes a likable audio companion but too often recycles stories already in Scott Benson’s solid, hourlong making-of docu included in the extras. Steiger largely spends time defending the behavior of his character, Komarovsky; and Sandra Lean, who knew the director only during the last couple years of his life, has almost nothing of interest to say. (She also, wrongly, claims Sharif was first choice for Zhivago; in fact, Lean and Bolt originally approached Peter O’Toole.)
Conspicuously absent are people who could have commented on the physical production, such as production director John Box, Lean’s trusted associate Eddie Fowlie, or surviving thesps such as Geraldine Chaplin and Courtenay, or Lean scholars like Kevin Brownlow and Adrian Turner. The role of director of photography Nicolas Roeg, who shot roughly a third of the movie uncredited before falling out with Lean over the pic’s look, is briefly noted, but not detailed in any meaningful way. (For a start, it was Roeg who, crucially, persuaded Lean to shoot on 35mm rather than 65mm.)
The 30th anni laser disc set no longer bears visual comparison with the DVD’s rich, firm colors; but it still remains sonically more vibrant — the DVD even appears to clip the start of the Overture. Shamefully, too, the present transfer provides only a cropped, 2.15:1 widescreen image rather than the full 2.35:1 Panavision aspect ratio on the LD.