David Lean experienced an amazing run from 1957 to 1965. Over that period, he produced three movies that all made the AFI Top 100 list: 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (#13), 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia (#5), and 1965’s Doctor Zhivago. Alone, this feat seems less significant. To my surprise, I discovered that 10 other directors have at least three films in the AFI 100: in addition to Lean, we find that many offerings from Steven Spielberg, Billy Wilder, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, John Huston, George Stevens, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, William Wyler and Frank Capra.
Amazingly, those 11 directors account for 37 percent of the 100 movies. Most of them placed three entries, but Wilder and Hitchcock tallied four apiece, while Spielberg landed a whopping five of the 100. Based on that viewpoint, Lean’s accomplishments seem almost commonplace.
However, Lean deserves notice for a couple of reasons. Most interestingly, his string of three all came in a row. He released no films in that eight-year period other than the three that made the list. I should note that Hitchcock knocked out three of his four consecutively; although he did some TV work over the period, in regard to his theatrical material, 1958’s Vertigo, 1959’s North By Northwest, and 1960’s Psycho all came one after another. (His fourth entry, 1954’s Rear Window, is separated from Vertigo by four subsequent films.)
Spielberg earned the crown with the most entries, and he also almost nailed the longest consecutive string. He put out four of his five in a seven-year period. He started with 1975’s Jaws, moved to 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and later added 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark and 1982’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Unfortunately, 1979’s miserable 1941 - a film more likely to make a Lowest 100 list than a Top 100 chart - broke the string. Still, four out of five is pretty amazing.
The additional aspect of Lean’s run that makes it stand out relates to the recognition it received at the time. Spielberg had to wait for his fifth AFI title, 1993’s Schindler’s List, to finally snare Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards. (He also earned Best Director for 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, a movie that came out after the creation of the AFI list, but Shakespeare In Love beat it for Best Picture.) In his storied career, Hitchcock never won a Best Director Oscar. In fact, only one of his flicks, 1940’s Rebecca, took home a Best Picture. Unfortunately for Hitch, John Ford took home the BD award for another AFI 100 flick, The Grapes of Wrath.
This is what makes Lean’s run so special. Not only did he knock out three consecutive AFI 100 titles, but also each earned Best Picture and Best Director nods as well. Both Lawrence and Kwai grabbed each of those awards, but Zhivago came up short; it was shut out in both categories by Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music. In the end, Zhivago won for five of its 10 nominations.
That gave it the worst percentage of the three Lean films in question. Lawrence received seven awards for 10 nominations, while Bridge earned seven nods out of eight possibilities. Personally, I think there’s a good reason Zhivago fared worse at the Oscars: it’s not as good a film as its predecessors. While I generally enjoyed Zhivago, I thought it was only sporadically engaging; I respected it, but I wasn’t very fond of it.
Zhivago conducts most of its story through a flashback. At the start of the film, we meet General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness), a Soviet military official who searches for the daughter of his half-brother Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). He thinks he’s found her, and he proceeds to tell her the history of Yuri and Lara (Julie Christie), the couple that may or may not be her parents.
Mostly the film focuses on Yuri, as we see a little of his childhood and then follow him through adulthood. When his mother dies, young Yuri goes to live with family friend Alexander Gromeko (Ralph Richardson) and his seven-year-old daughter Tonya (played by Mercedes Ruiz as a child and Geraldine Chaplin as an adult). We soon fast-forward many years to the time right around the start of World War I and the subsequent Russian Revolution and find that Yuri’s now a young doctor (duh!) as well as a semi-noted poet and he’s hooked up with Tonya, something that still kind of creeps me out; no, they’re not related, but they were raised virtually as brother and sister.
Anyway, leading a parallel life is Lara, who lives in Moscow with her mother and who dates young revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay). Her mom has a thing going with important businessman Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) but he and Lara become an item, in a crude, nasty manner. This inspires despair in both mom and daughter; though the latter’s not aware Lara is the one with Komarovsky, she knows he’s bedding someone else and takes severe measures. As does Lara at one point, though she avoids punishment and eventually marries Pasha and heads out of town.
The paths of Lara and Yuri almost cross many times, but they don’t get to know each other until wartime duty calls. Yuri works as a doctor and Lara as a nurse, and they become very close during this period. Lara also thinks she’s been widowed, though that may not necessarily be true. Anyway, the two really hit it off, but Yuri returns to wife and child when discharged.
There he discovers a much less pleasant Moscow than the one he once knew. Gone is his lavish high-class lifestyle, as the Bolsheviks have partitioned the opulent house he shared with Gromeko and Tonya, and food shortages make life tough for everyone. Eventually they decide they can’t take it there any longer so they attempt to move to an old country estate. Unfortunately, the ruling revolutionaries have claimed it as well, so the three adults and the kid are left to live in a small shack on the property.
Nonetheless, they make the best of things, and Yuri really gets happy when he finds that Lara lives nearby. They start an affair but Yuri’s unable to cut the apron strings with Tonya, who really is a decent woman; her only fault is that she isn’t Lara. Anyway, this continues until Yuri’s literally grabbed off the street and drafted back into the military to doctor for the revolution. Eventually, he returns home but finds that Tonya and the others have left. Still, Lara’s there, so he hops onto her like a Russkie onto vodka!
At this point, I’ve probably given away more than I should, so I’ll leave the finale alone. However, I don’t think anyone will be surprised by most of these events, since the opening of the movie left no doubt that Yuri and Lara would eventually connect.
In any case, I likely could have simply summarized Doctor Zhivago as a love triangle set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Honestly, I’d have preferred a story about the Russian Revolution that featured a little bit of a love story. When the tale focused on the historical events, I thought it seemed very compelling and interesting. I’ve always felt that the world-shaking events are best viewed on a smaller, more personal level, which is why I thought so much of something like Sophie’s Choice, and when Zhivago dealt with that side of things, it worked quite well.
Lean was able to succinctly relate the events of the Revolution. They rarely received graphic exposition, but he brought out the important elements and let us see their impact on real people. Since Zhivago took the point of view of the privileged class, it might seem less valuable as an examination of the Revolution’s effects, but I think this approach actually made the alterations more visible; we saw a stronger impact, since the wealthier folks were hit harder by their fall.
Again, when Zhivago dealt with that side of the story, I found it to be intriguing and compelling. However, when it focused on the romantic elements, it did much less for me. Part of this may relate to the fact I’m just not much of a fan of stereotypical “chick flicks”. Occasionally I’ll like the love story parts of a tale; for example, I became surprisingly involved in those aspects of Titanic. However, such instances remain rare, and the love triangle of Zhivago really didn’t snare me.
Perhaps this was because Yuri came across as something of a jerk to me. No, there’s nothing in his portrayal that made him appear that way, as he remains the stalwart dream man for much of the movie. I can see why most women would give their eye teeth for a guy like this, as he virtually defines the fantasy man: a hunky doctor who’s a sensitive poet to boot! I suppose we’re meant to see his affair with Lara as “fate” and inevitable, for they’re destined to be together, if only for a short while. Frankly, I couldn’t understand what was so great about her that Yuri’d toss over the fairly-babely Tonya. Sure, Lara’s hot too, but I never saw anything about her that made her seem so irresistible.
Had Tonya displayed some problematic characteristics, the story would have worked better. In a way, I respect the fact that Zhivago made Tonya a good person, for that meant Yuri’s dilemma was bigger, and it allowed the drama to potentially be more heart-wrenching and realistic. It’s one thing to ditch your wife when she’s a shrew, but if she’s nice, smart and supportive, it’s not quite as simple.
Unfortunately, although this meant that Zhivago had some depth, those elements never really came to the surface, mainly because I didn’t think the connection between Lara and Yuri appeared that strong. It just looked like wartime hormones to me, and the manner in which Lean toyed with us prior to their connection felt manipulative. Lara and Yuri almost meet many times, and since we already know they’ll eventually connect, this element became tiresome. Eventually I just wanted to say “enough already” and have them get together; the endless tease was annoying and pointless since they never really appeared to be the couple of destiny intended.
On the positive side, Zhivago did present an epic in the appropriate manner. This is the kind of movie they really can’t make any more, as it showed the breadth and depth of the environments in a stunning manner. Zhivago is never less than impressive to watch.
The actors all fared pretty well, and I was especially impressed with Steiger. I always saw him as a very American performer, but he pulls off his accent well and he alters his demeanor to become more elegant and charismatic than I imagined. Actually, I didn’t even recognize him through much of the film, as it took me a while to realize it was him. The other actors vary from “fine” to “very good”, but Steiger stood out as the best.
In the end, however, I thought Doctor Zhivago represented a triumph of style over substance. Lavishly produced and gorgeously filmed, the movie consistently presented a lush and involving presence, but the characters at its heart did little for me. The film kept me adequately involved and interested through its conclusion, but despite the vaunted nature of its love story, I felt the romantic elements seemed somewhat flat and unimpressive. Zhivago had its moments, and I thought the movie offered a reasonably entertaining experience as a whole, but I didn’t think it was a great film. Like another overrated film called Gone With the Wind, this is a soap opera; it’s a pretty good soap opera, and I definitely prefer it to Wind, but it’s still just romantic melodrama.
Sidebar: is it just me, or did Julie Christie in Zhivago often look eerily like Peter O’Toole in Lawrence?
Doctor Zhivago appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this double-sided DVD-14; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though not without any concerns, as a whole I thought the picture of Zhivago was a true marvel, as it seemed amazingly strong.
Sharpness consistently appeared crisp and concise. At no time did I witness any signs of soft or fuzzy images, as the movie remained distinct and well defined throughout its running time; it really was a rock-solid presentation in that regard. I saw no examples of moiré effects, but some minor jagged edges appeared due to hat brims, and I also detected a smidgen of light edge enhancement. The latter wasn’t substantial, but it became a modest distraction at times.
In regard to print flaws, Zhivago looked virtually immaculate. Never could I find examples of grit, grain, speckles, debris, blotches, nicks, or any other form of defect. On a few occasions - mostly during the film’s early parts - I thought the frame seemed to slightly wobble from side to side, but that was a small concern that occurred infrequently. Overall, I thought the print looked fantastically clean and fresh.
Mostly due to its often lush costumes, Zhivago boasted a vivid and varied palette, and the DVD reproduced these tones to excellent effect. Throughout the film, colors looked amazingly vibrant and rich. Pinks and purples came across especially well, and reds were also solid and distinct. Really, the hues seemed absolutely gorgeous at all times. Black levels seemed equally terrific, as they consistently appeared dark and dense, while shadow detail looked appropriately heavy but never overly opaque.
The modest edge enhancement made me consider giving Doctor Zhivago a lower grade; after all, it was the main reason Citizen Kane got knocked down to a “B+” - but I just couldn’t do it. For one, the EE was less significant during Zhivago, but also I simply thought the rest of the image seemed too phenomenal that it deserved a strict “A”. Lose the edge enhancement and we’re talking an “A+” - Zhivago offered possibly the most attractive presentation of an older film that I’ve seen.
While the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Doctor Zhivago didn’t live up to that spectacular level, it still seemed quite good for its age. For the most part, the soundfield maintained a forward bias, and the center channel dominated the experience. However, quite a lot of audio emanated from the side speakers. A modicum of directional dialogue occurred, and Maurice Jarre’s score provided nice stereo separation. Effects tended toward general ambience, but at times I heard some elements that moved from side to side, and they blended together reasonably well.
As for the surrounds, they remained fairly subdued for much of the movie. The rear speakers mostly offered reinforcement of the music and effects, and they didn’t usually provide unique audio. Still, they contributed a nice layer of atmosphere to the presentation and they complemented the package reasonably well.
Audio quality seemed to be good for its era, though some areas fared better than others. Dialogue appeared generally distinct and acceptably natural. Though some brittleness accompanied the speech at times, I found no concerns related to intelligibility and I thought the words sounded fine for the age of the recording. Effects demonstrated similar tones, as those elements seemed decently clear and accurate, but they showed some thinness much of the time. Still, parts of the track such as the hoof beats of horses offered a nice rumble, and the effects always came across as clean and without distortion.
The score fared best. The music presented very good dynamics and clarity, and it always appeared rich and robust. I was quite impressed with the fidelity of Jarre’s work, and it created the true highlight of the mix. I noticed a little background hiss at times, but this wasn’t a major distraction. Ultimately, Doctor Zhivago provided a very satisfying soundtrack for its age.
In this two-DVD set created for Doctor Zhivago, we find a substantial roster of extras. As one might expect, most of these appear on DVD Two, but the first platter also provides some useful pieces. Most compelling is an audio commentary from actors Omar Sharif and Rod Steiger plus Sandra Lean, the director’s widow. Sharif and Lean were recorded together while Steiger was taped separately for this track.
Overall, I found this commentary to offer a lot of good information. The Sharif/Lean segments dominated the disc, and Sharif provided most of the notes during those segments; Steiger’s remarks cropped up mainly when his character appeared on screen. The tenor of the statements from all three participants seemed similar, as they largely focused on anecdotes from their experiences on the film. These provided a solid little overview of the production itself, as their information added many details about the shoot, with a particular emphasis on Lean himself.
If I had to complain about the commentary, I’d focus on the many empty spaces that occurred. Quite a lot of the film passed without any remarks; I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the percentage of blank spots, but they appeared frequently enough to be very noticeable. Nonetheless, due to the extreme length of the movie, I can forgive the pauses pretty easily, especially since the information presented seemed so good. The gaps made the commentary a little tedious at times, but the fine details meant that it definitely was worth a listen.
Another audio feature appears as well. We find a Music-Only Audio Track that isolates Maurice Jarre’s score. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, this version offers the music all on its own, without any interruptions, which I’m sure will make it very valuable for fans.
When you start to watch Doctor Zhivago, you initially encounter an Introduction from Omar Sharif. This 100-second snippet seems fairly worthless, as it mainly comes across as a sales pitch. By this point, you’ve already acquired the stupid DVD - you don’t need to be told how great and valuable the movie is. As with a similar intro found on the special edition of The Fugitive, the only way to start the movie and avoid this is to jump in from the “Scene Selections” menu. Annoyingly, you can’t even “chapter skip” past the introduction; it requires the use of the “fast forward” control. Considering the high quality of so much of this package, the bizarre inclusion of this irritating feature seems more grating.
That concludes DVD One, so we now move to the second disc and all of its extras. On DVD Two, after we go through some Cast and Crew filmographies, we find a documentary called The Making of a Russian Epic. Hosted by Sharif, this 60-minute and 20-second program combines a few very short movie clips as well as lots of archival film footage and stills plus mid-Nineties interviews with actors Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin and Steiger, set designer John Box, screenwriter Robert Bolt, composer Maurice Jarre, costumer Phyllis Dalton, as well as some 1993 comments from the “real Lara”, Olga Ivinskaya.
On the negative side, parts of “Epic” repeat stories heard during the commentary. Actually, I think Steiger’s statements come from the same interviews used for his commentary track, so his parts really repeat the prior data. Nonetheless, some of this repetition was inevitable, and it didn’t terribly interfere with my enjoyment of the piece.
Actually, “Epic” starts slowly but it becomes more interesting as it progresses. We learn the origin of the film and get some basics about the life of author Boris Pasternak, which is where we get the skinny from Ivinskaya. After that, we discover a lot of good anecdotes about the production and obtain a generally compelling overview of the making of the movie. Overall, the program seems entertaining and informative, and I liked it.
Also glimpsed briefly elsewhere, we find a Geraldine Chaplin Screen Test. This three-minute and 13-second clip shows two takes of the actress as she tries out with the scene in which she reads Yuri’s letter from the war. It’s a nice look behind the scenes and was very interesting.
Next we find a slew of Vintage Documentaries. 10 of these appear, though they don’t offer much of value. The first three feature very similar programs. We get “Zhivago: Behind the Camera With David Lean” (10 minutes and 10 seconds), “David Lean’s Film of Doctor Zhivago” (seven minutes and 10 seconds), and “Moscow In Madrid” (four minutes and 25 seconds). All of these essentially promote the film, though they had some minor variations. “Camera” includes a few shots of Lean as he addresses the camera, while “Film” features a few comments about the life of author Boris Pasternak. However, all three basically are glorified trailers that offer exceedingly little information about the movie, though they do toss in a few decent shots from the set.
Somewhat more substantial is “Pasternak”, an eight-minute and 50-second look at the life of the writer. It gives us a decent little view of his life and career, though it also sneaks in some of the same movie-related puffery that showed up in the prior featurettes. Still, it’s a nice basic biography that helps put Zhivago in perspective.
The best of the vintage bunch are two unedited interview pieces from the day before the movie’s premiere. “New York Press Interviews Julie Christie” lasts 10 minutes and five seconds, while “New York Press Interviews Omar Sharif” goes for 18 minutes and 50 seconds. Not a lot of strong information appears in these pieces, but they’re still very entertaining. Christie looks rather uncomfortable as she fields inane questions from the press, while Sharif appears much more at ease. He gets just as many dopey inquiries, but he seems much more tolerant of the silliness. In any case, I liked these little pieces of publicity.
Less compelling are the remaining brief promotional bits. “This Is Julie Christie” (64 seconds), “This Is Geraldine Chaplin” (67 seconds), and “This Is Omar Sharif” (96 seconds) do little more than introduce us to the actors and tell us how stunning they are. “Chaplin In New York” runs two minutes and 14 seconds and follows the same path. None of them do anything other than superficially tout the film and the performers, and they offer little of interest.
Finally, DVD Two provides the film’s “Original General Release Theatrical Trailer” as well as a text listing of “Awards” for which Zhivago was nominated and/or won. One confusing aspect of the DVD case’s credits: it mentions “vintage audio track interviews and December 1965 New York premiere coverage”. To me, this implies the disc tosses in some additional audio-only materials ala the radio broadcasts found on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but I could find no sign of such pieces. I believe the case refers to the press interviews discussed earlier, but I remain uncertain about that.
Although I appreciate the inclusion of all this archival information, I feel it makes the DVD’s content look more substantial than it is. A glance at the credits might let someone believe that they’ll get a tremendous amount of depth from all these featurettes, but the truth differs from that perception.
Nonetheless, Doctor Zhivago does provide a solid level of detail. The audio commentary and the documentary give us a decent overall look at the movie’s production, so though the rest may seem fairly insubstantial, they exist essentially as icing on the cake. My total impression is that the DVD includes a very fine examination of the film.
As a whole, Doctor Zhivago presented an epic with terrific production values and a number of interesting segments. However, my ultimate reaction to the film was that it left me a little cold. I found parts of it to be compelling, but the romantic triangle at its heart did little for me; frankly, I didn’t care much what happened to the lovers. While the movie left me unenthused, the DVD was a terrific piece of work. Despite a couple of minor flaws, the image seemed absolutely stunning overall, and sound quality also was quite solid for its age. Many of the extras were slight, but they provided enough good information to make this a good package as a whole. Doctor Zhivago definitely wasn’t David Lean’s best film, and I thought it was pretty good at best, but romance fans may be more fond of it than I was. Those who already have a fondness for the flick should be delighted with this terrific DVD set.