Falling in Love with Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Melanie Williams


Fifty years since its first appearance, David Lean’s epic Doctor Zhivago is once again winning admiration as it gets a nationwide re-release in a 4K digital restoration as the cornerstone of the BFI’s ‘Love’ season. As Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw suggests, it’s a film of ‘panoptic’ scale, demanding that its viewer is ‘swept up and carried along’ by its expansive narrative of thwarted romance in revolutionary Russia, based on Boris Pasternak’s novel. Doctor Zhivago was a huge box-office hit back in the 1960s, topped only by The Sound of Music in that decade, and still remains one of the highest grossing films of all time. It was also one of the films that I was particularly keen to investigate and analyse in my book on David Lean, published last year, not only because of its remarkable popularity (in spite of a lukewarm critical response) but also because it was a personal favourite of mine. When I first saw it, I had been expecting a piece of high-sixties romantic slush, chocolate-box-pretty but essentially superficial. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, Julie Christie as Lara and Omar Sharif as Zhivago are fabulously photographed at the height of their gorgeousness, and there is that love-struck ‘flower power’ scene where Zhivago is overcome by a romantic vision of Lara among a host of golden daffodils. And of course there’s that famous theme music, destined to be played on a million music boxes and in a million lifts and, as critic Raymond Durgnat observed, perhaps slightly more ‘evocative of Venice, gondolas and pizza pie’ than Moscow or the Urals. No matter. There is far more light and shade, and depth and complexity, to this great romantic drama than its kitschy reputation allows for.

The film’s opening moments set the tone, in which Yevgraf (Alec Guinness) offers a summary of the Revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union which simultaneously evokes remarkable progress – ‘We’ve come very far very fast’ –but also its terrifying undertow: ‘do you know what it cost? There were children in those days who lived off human flesh. Did you know that?’ No romantic soft-pedalling there. Likewise, the Eastbound train journey of Zhivago and his family away from the dangers of Moscow later in the film presents a cross-section of humanity crowded into a dirty freight wagon, among them Kostoyed (the remarkable Klaus Kinski), an anarchist intellectual being extradited as forced labour but still railing against his guard and the society bent on destroying him: ‘I am a free man, lickspittle and there’s nothing you can do about it. I am the only free man on this train. The rest of you are cattle!’ We’re in a dark, dangerous world a long way from the interwar English suburbs and the civilized train journeys that punctuated the romance between another doctor and married woman in Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). But in some respects, the distance isn’t so huge. Both films are about personal relationships which are shaped and ultimately stymied by social forces beyond any individual’s control. Both dr-zhivago-largemake a powerful case for the transcendence of romantic love even while – or perhaps precisely because – its full realization remains an impossibility.

Doctor Zhivago is a remarkable achievement on several fronts: a sensitive and skilful adaptation by Robert Bolt of a novel of such delicacy and complexity that he likened the task to ‘straightening cobwebs’; a goldmine of stunning cinematography from first Nicolas Roeg then Freddie Young (‘not realistic. Magic’ is how Lean described Young’s visual style); astonishing production design by John Box, including the creation of an ice palace for the lovers in an abandoned dacha; sumptuous and eloquent costumes from Phyllis Dalton that had a major influence on sixties fashion; a lush enveloping score from Maurice Jarre; and resonant performances from a large, diverse cast, particularly Tom Courtenay as Pasha and Rod Steiger as Komarovsky, young zealot and middle-aged pragmatist respectively, Geraldine Chaplin as Zhivago’s sweet patient wife Tonya, and Rita Tushingham as Zhivago’s possible descendant, scarred by her childhood trauma.

Director Luchino Visconti’s alleged comments after having seen Doctor Zhivago – ‘Let’s see it round again. But don’t tell anyone!’– suggest that the film may have had the misfortune of becoming a guilty pleasure, one that couldn’t be openly admitted among the cognoscenti. But it had some fans in high places. After Bosley Crowther’s harsh review which accused the film of reducing ‘the vast upheaval of the Russian Revolution to the banalities of a doomed romance’, Alexandra Tolstoy wrote a personal letter to Lean to say many of my friends and I do not agree with the criticism of New York Times … I consider that the film was excellent and I, as Leo Tolstoy’s daughter with whom the Pasternaks were very friendly, as a Russian – thank you for the brilliant job you have achieved.’ The response of theatrical agent Peggy Ramsay to the film when she went to see it at the cinema, according to her client Robert Bolt, was to repeatedly utter in a stage whisper, ‘But it’s overwhelming! One is overwhelmed!’ That seems like the most fitting epithet for a film that now has an opportunity to overwhelm a whole new set of cinema audiences.


Read more from Melanie Williams on Doctor Zhivago , and Lean’s subsequent films Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India, here: https://www.academia.edu/19346841/David_Lean

Melanie will be introducing a screening of Doctor Zhivago at Cinema City on Sunday 6th December.

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