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Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a recently married Moscow physician who is conscripted into the medical corps during World War 1, meets and falls in love with army nurse Lara (Julie Christie) as they attend to wounded soldiers returning from the front. Back in the capital, Zhivago is reunited with his patient wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) but Lara, who is married to the fierce activist Pasha (Tom Courtenay), remains constantly in his thoughts. Lara inspires him poetically but as the Russian Revolution gathers momentum, his more serious writings increasingly incur the wrath of the state.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
David Lean’s lush Russian epic was lampooned by the critics but loved by the public and there’s nothing very unusual about that, given that the two factions have been at war without peace with each over for over a century. But trust me: those who fell in love with the film were madly in love with Lara, or were seduced by her insipid love theme, with that plunking balalaika that brings mucus to the ears. Those same heartsick romantics have seen very few good movies, methinks, and they were certainly not in love, or had never read Boris Pasternak’s vivid Nobel Prize-winning bestseller about the Russian Revolution, which was reduced by the grandiloquent Brit into more than three hours of tedious toings-and-froings, sentimental sufferings and flashbacks. 

Under Lean’s wasteful direction the original $5 million budget blew out to $15 million, consumed over 31 hours of film and resulted in a ham-fisted hatchet job that turns priceless passages of Pasternak into lumpy porridge. Screenwriter Robert Bolt rescued Lawrence Of Arabia for Lean three years before, but whatever miracles he might have performed with Zhivago were mashed and shredded, diminishing significant events and consigning dominant themes in the novel to the cutting-room floor. As if to echo the voice of his harshest critic, David Thomson (“he became lost in the sense of his own political grandeur”) 

Lean pondered long on spectacle and short on substance. “The story is very simple;” he said patronisingly, “a man is married to one woman and loves another. The trick is in not having the audience condemn the lovers.” If Lean wanted something more stately than studied he achieved just that. Beauty is inherent in the glistening snow-scapes of Finland and Spain (where truckloads of marble dust filled-in for the no-snow) and lens-man Fred Young deservedly won an Oscar for his troubles. But there can be no sense of passionate politics amid seething change when the banalities of a doomed love affair are thrust into the foreground. 

Unforgettable scenes include the slaughter of socialist demonstrators in the streets of Moscow and most powerfully, Yuri watching sadly from a train as it passes scorched villages and swarms of desperate exiles in their great exodus from the capital. But the film has an imperial bearing that also translates into something pompous and dull…a thing so portentous that MGM issued a directive to its minions that under no circumstances should the title “Doctor” be reduced to “Dr.” From the noble and handsome Arab of Lawrence, Omar Sharif is a solemn, submissive Russian, exiled for purpling his poetic pieces but with precious little to do except seem moist-eyed, profound and contemplative. 

His story is revealed in flashback by his bleak commissar half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) but in a dramatic sense Sharif is overwhelmed by Rod Steiger as the sinister bureaucrat Komarovsky, who lusts after the lacklustre Lara, but can’t quite match Omar in the looks department. It could have been worse, of course. Lean originally wanted Peter O’Toole for the title role but after three years in the desert with Lean he couldn’t endure another year in the snow. Marlon Brando was offered Komarovsky, but never returned Lean’s call; producer Carlo Ponti wanted a part for his wife Sophia Loren, but Lean couldn’t see her being very convincing as 17-year-old virgin. 

The second most profitable film in MGM’s history (after Gone With The Wind) was clearly no disaster, but Lean was so deeply peeved by the critical avalanche (Thomson, dismissed it as a “syrupy romance, without poetry or plausibility”) that he swore he would never make another film. You see, typical of artists who are all pomp and no circumstance, he didn’t stick to his promise and botched Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage To India as well.

Published May 13, 2004

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(US, 1965)

CAST: Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif

DIRECTOR: David Lean

SCRIPT: Robert Bolt

RUNNING TIME: 197 minutes




DVD RELEASE: April 21, 2004

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