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Doctor Zhivago

The sweep and scope of the Russian revolution, as reflected in the personalities of those who either adapted or were crushed, has been captured by David Lean in "Doctor Zhivago," frequently with soaring dramatic intensity. Director has accomplished one of the most meticulously designed and executed films--superior in several visual respects to his "Lawrence of Arabia."

Rod Steiger and Omar Sharif

The sweep and scope of the Russian revolution, as reflected in the personalities of those who either adapted or were crushed, has been captured by David Lean in “Doctor Zhivago,” frequently with soaring dramatic intensity. Director has accomplished one of the most meticulously designed and executed films–superior in several visual respects to his “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Some finely etched performances by an international cast illuminate the diverse characters from the novel for which Boris Pasternak won but did not accept the Nobel Prize. Carlo Ponti production is an excellent achievement in filmmaking and seems destined for good hardticket action. Word of mouth, the burgeoning b.o. appeal of younger featured players, and the Lean reputation suggest even brighter prospects for later Metro release in general situations.

Robert Bolt, whose screenplay is itself a 224-page book just published by Random House, faced a major challenge in adaptation. The Pasternak novel turns on an introspective medic-poet who essentially reacts to the people and events before, during and after the Bolshevik takeover. The capacity, indeed the insistence, of the human spirit to survive and retain some measure of individuality is an essential story factor which must be cleverly balanced with and related to impersonal events. Bolt’s adaptation is an effective blend.

At the center of a universe of nine basic characters is Omar Sharif as Zhivago, the sensitive man who strikes different people in different ways. To childhood sweetheart Geraldine Chaplin he is a devoted (if cheating) husband; to Julie Christie, with whom he is thrown together by war, he is a passionate lover; to Tom Courtenay, once an intellectual but later a heartless Red general, he’s a symbol of the personal life which revolution has supposedly killed; to lecherous, political log-roller Rod Steiger he’s the epitome of ‘rarefied selfishness’; and to half-brother Alec Guinness, the cold secret police official, he’s a man who must be saved from himself.

Sharif, largely through expressions of indignation, compassion and tenderness, makes the character very believable. Miss Chaplin, in her English-language film debut (She previously made an unreleased French film) will be a “conversation piece” of casting.

Miss Christie is outstanding in a sensitive, yet earthy and full-blooded portrayal of a girl who, while not yet a woman, is used and discarded by Steiger, then marries Courtenay only to lose him to his cause. Her happiness with Zhivago (under the cloud of their adultery) also ends by his refusal to leave Russia.

Steiger, whose early lechery for Miss Christie later becomes a distant love and respect (a factor which precipitates the downbeat ending), capably handles a role which requires him to be callous and expedient without losing all warmth, and thereby, sympathy. Ralph Richardson and Siobhan McKenna are effective reps of the older generation which views the crumbling world of mannered society with quiet regret and considerable disgust.

Courtenay is an example of the “idealistic” liberal who will not compromise his principles, thus becoming cruel and vicious, totally dedicated to a philosophy which in time will no longer condone his excesses. His dress and manner in early scenes is immediately reminiscent of the student in Serge Eisenstein’s “Potemkin,” from which Lean drew a partial inspiration for a street massacre which is the first of many effective shock sequences. Lean also turns some familiar time transitions (swirling leaves, etc.) into artful, pictoral passages of high quality.

Guinness functions as occasional narrator for the bulk of the film, although the story is told in flashback as he gently questions Rita Tushingham, believed to be the daughter of Sharif and Miss Christie and whom he is seeking. Miss Tushingham gives appropriate childlike simplicity to her role, and plays well opposite Guinness who neatly portrays a sometimes benevolent, always Party-line policeman. Effect of his underplaying is chilling.

On this, his third film in a decade, director Lean has devoted as much care to physical values as he has to his players. With John Box’s terrif production design and Freddie Young’s outstanding Panavision-Metrocolor camera, he has succeeded admirably in drawing the audience into the action. The bitter cold of winter (only section of film made out of Spain, these Finland settings are beautiful and foreboding at once), the grime of Moscow, the lush countryside, the drabness of life in a dictatorship, the brutality of war, and the fool’s paradise of the declining Czarist era are forcefully conveyed in full use of camera, color, sound and silence.

His sure directorial hand appears to have slipped in the re-entry of Steiger into the final action. Pace needs quickening at that point, but the mysterious stranger gambit, running for two minutes, in blinding snow far from civilization is on the meller side.

Effective symbolism–the gigantic hydroelectric plant, a supreme achievement of a materialistic society, and the ant-like laborers who toll thereon, also the baying wolves who precede the arrival of politico-military wolves at the door of Sharif and Miss Christie–complement the stark visual and aural contrasts. When the Moscow refugees, packed into freight cars like cattle, sweep the filthy straw from a moving train towards the camera, there is an instinctive drawing back by the viewer.

Maurice Jarre has composed and conducted a score which ranges from the brassy clash of men and ideas, to the intimate balalaika love theme, overall a first-rate achievement. His four-minute overture is stirring. Norman Savage supervised the sharp editing, and film runs (without intermission and overture) 197 minutes. Pic breaks at the 115-minute mark. (Time was shortened 15 mins. immediately following N.Y. showing.) Second part has less action, and could be tightened up here and there to accelerate the climax, since characterizations have already been well established.

Stereo sound recording and editing is crisp, but ran too loud at trade show; exhibs should watch the volume–its dramatic effect will not be lessened by lower decibels. Second unit director Roy Rossotti and his lenser Manuel Berenguer contributed solid support. All other technical work is top quality.


1965: Best Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction, Original Musical Score, Color Costume Design.

Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actor (Tom Courtenay), Editing, Sound

Doctor Zhivago

  • Production: M-G-M. Director David Lean; Producer Carlo Ponti; Screenplay Robert Bolt; Camera Freddie Young, [Nicolas Roeg]; Editor Norman Savage; Music Maurice Jarre; Art Director John Box. Reviewed at Hollywood Paramount Theatre, L.A., Dec. 21, '65.
  • Crew: (Color) Widescreen. Available on VHS, DVD. Original review text from 1965. Running time: 193 MIN.
  • With: Tonya - Geraldine Chaplin Lara - Julie Christie Pasha/Streinikoff - Tom Courtenay Yevgraf - Alec Guinness Anna - Siobhan McKenna Alexander - Ralph Richardson Yuri Zhivago - Omar Sharif Komarovsky - Rod Steiger Girl - Rita Tushingham Sasha - Jeffrey Rockland Yuri at age 8 - Tarek Sharif Boishevik - Bernard Kay Kostoyed - Klaus Kinski Liberius - Gerard Tichy Razin - Noel Willman Medical professor - Geoffrey Keen Amelia - Adrienne Corri Petya - Jack MacGowran Dam engineer - Mark Eden Old soldier - Erik Chitty Beef-faced colonel - Roger Maxwell Delegate - Wolf Frees Female janitor - Gwen Nelson Katya - Lucy Westmore Train jumper - Lili Murati Political officer - Peter Madden