Runtime: 3 Hours
and 17 Minutes
David Lean has a power that few filmmakers possess. You may think
to yourself, "I'm only going to watch a half hour of this and
then off to bed" or "I'll watch half tonight and then half
tomorrow". Simple, you think. No problem. But then you pop in
the DVD or (poor saps) videocassette and before you know it you have
succumbed to Lean's storytelling power. You sit powerless before the
screen of your television and every ounce of your being will not let
you avert your eyes until you have seen how it all turns out. I first
noticed this bizarre phenomenon during "Lawrence
of Arabia", a film I had no intention of finishing that night.
Even "Summertime" kept me enraptured for its entire running
time, despite the fact that it was about nothing more important than
Katherine Hepburn enjoying a holiday in Venice. And now, I have spent
the entire night doing nothing but watching "Doctor Zhivago"
for the second time in my life. I am sure that it is far from the
"Zhivago" has been described as an epic love story, but
I believe that it is far more than that.
Dismissing it as a love story, comparing it to "Gone With the
Wind", these things diminish the power of the film. It is the
story of a man dealing with the changes of his country. It is the
story of a man whose way of life is suddenly swept away. It is the
story of a man facing difficult choices. And, yes, it is the story
of a married man falling head over heels for another woman. A woman
who stirs his soul like no other ever has.
Any description of the plot of this film would be rather pointless.
How can I describe it accurately? The film simply flows the way that
a novel or even reality does. There is no Act One, Scene Three, Conflict
Arises moment that you may find outlined in a Screenwriting Manual.
Or, if there is, it is so cleverly concealed that I was unable to
find it. The film flows from one fascinating event to another, with
the main character of Yuri Zhivago borne upon its back like a branch
floating down a river. During the course of his lifetime, the entire
social and political atmosphere of Russia changes and he is simply
struggling to keep up. His country is never at a calm moment during
the three hours we see him. I have never seen a film so accurately
catalogue the events of an entire country through only a few select
characters. It is truly masterful. You truly get a sense of the struggles
and upheavals that Russia has been through and, I don't want to sound
the America bullhorn yet again but, it does make you appreciate your
own life and the country that we live in. You really feel sorry for
the Russians. And you really get a sense of why Communism is such
a bad idea.
Yet you also get a sense of the healing power of love. During many
of the film's events, it is only Zhivago's undying love for Lara and
even Tonya that keeps him going. There seems no end to the problems
which await this man for much of the film's running time. And you
wouldn't care so much about the passion of these two people (especially
with revolutions going on and madmen traveling the country by train)
if it were not for the simple, understated and genuine-seeming performances
of both Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. If you think Omar was a revelation
in "Lawrence of Arabia",
then his portrayal of Yuri will leave you utterly breathless. And
Julie Christie's work as Lara will simply floor you. I must also make
mention of Geraldine Chaplin's performance as Tonya, Yuri's wife.
You see where she's coming from also, and it makes things much more
interesting since Yuri does not have a simple choice to make. In most
films like this, it's easy: wife is a bitch, boyfriend is an asshole,
other woman or man is a saint. But in this film Tonya is the saint
if anything. It's very complex and fascinating.
And Omar wears the inner turmoil and frustration of his character
in his eyes, on his face, in his posture.
Unlike most epics, this is a subtle film. It is confident enough to
let you figure many things out for yourself. It takes the time to
breathe. It also has a dense visual poetry. The emotions of the characters
are often reflected in something as simple as the melting of frost
on a window or the wilting of a vase of flowers. The characters do
not throw fits. They do not scream and hurl insults. They keep their
feelings largely bottled and until they can stand it no more and then
they only spill out a little bit, just enough to gain our sympathy
and respect. This movie has a quiet dignity and a simple power. The
cinematography by Freddie Francis is awesome.
Many of the images are indelible. A train dwarfed by the mountains
and the endless fields of snow. The ice castle of Varyniko. A single
set of hoofprints through a snowy field. Ice cracking beneath the
feet of walking soldiers. The atmosphere of the film is also magnificently
established. You may want to keep a blanket handy during this film.
The cold is almost a tangible thing. It is a character in the film,
much like the shark in "Jaws" or the wave in "The Perfect
Storm" (by the way, the wave was probably the most compelling
character in that entire film). David Lean's skill with the actors
and environments and camera was surpassed only by "Lawrence
I must also give notice to the great acting of Alec Guinness (yet
more proof that this man should be remembered for far more than just
his work as Obi Wan Kenobi), Rod Steiger, and Ralph Richardson. I
also must credit the set designs, the beautiful score of Maurice Jarre,
and pretty much every other aspect of the film. The movie stirs with
the magical power of love, the hypnotic imagery, and the poetry which
seems to run through its veins.
"Doctor Zhivago" is amazing. I can't think of any other
way to describe it. And I can think of no better reason for you to
get yourself addicted to it.