David Lean had already completed two of his most highly regarded and well-respected movies of his prestigious career. With 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai and 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, Lean basically defined how a director should make a gigantic film epic. So some three years later, he followed up with 1965's Doctor Zhivago, a film I'm still digesting -- for good and bad -- some three days later.
A doctoral student who grew up with an adopted family of sorts, Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is an aspiring poet in the early 1910s in Russia. He marries childhood friend and longtime love, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and starts a family. Growing up with a single mother, Lara (Julie Christie) goes through some harsh teenage years as she deals with a troubled single mother. As Russia is thrust into World War I -- the fighting eventually turning into the Russian Revolution -- Yuri (working as a doctor) and Lara (as a nurse) meet amongst the aftermath of a battle. They are instantly drawn to each other as they work side-by-side, but as the conflict escalates, this is a relationship that seems doomed to failure.
Wow, I'm not proud of that plot synopsis. It sounds like I'm reading a cheesy romance novel. Anyways, onto bigger, better and more on-point things. This is a GIGANTIC movie as one would come to expect from a David Lean epic. With locations in Spain, Canada and Finland, the scale is a pleasure to watch. Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young shoot each scene -- the snow-capped mountains, the desolate wastelands, the flower-covered plains -- like a Renaissance painting. It is a stunningly gorgeous film, one you can just sit back and experience. Composer Maurice Jarre's score won the Oscar -- rightfully so -- with Lara's Theme (listen HERE) an instantly recognizable, beautiful tune, one that you'll be humming for days. The sets are expansive, the cast numbering in the thousands with extras, and the story covers a time in history (Russia in the 1910s/1920s) that is rich with depth.
So what happens then? Why do I feel conflicted about this Lean-directed epic? In a 200-minute movie, there exists little to no story. It moves from location to location and time to time with transitions that can be jarring at times. My lack of knowledge about Russian history certainly did NOT help my enjoyment and/or appreciation of what was going on. I don't think lyrical is the right description, but it's all I'm coming up with. Story is also a word I use lightly. It isn't really a story so much as a budding relationship that develops over many years and all the people caught up and effected by it. We see snippets of a time/conflict/place, and then zip to another spot. Because of that, I never felt in tune with what was going on, feeling at times very disconnected from the plot.
And onto the cast, much easier to decipher. For one of the all-time great love stories, I didn't think much of the chemistry (or lack of) between Sharif and Christie. Omar Sharif is a very talented actor, and he does a fine job as Yuri Zhivago showing a man's flaws, imperfections and talents. Christie too as Lara is an interesting character, neither individual perfect by any means. I appreciated that. We're watching human beings, not immaculate individuals, but in terms of on-screen chemistry I was not buying Sharif and Christie as a couple that is drawn to each other in an unexplained way, not letting time or circumstances tear them apart. Christie is stunningly beautiful as Lara with Lean electing to photograph her like an angel, especially her blue, blue, BLUE eyes.
The name recognition from the supporting cast will draw in many film fans and understandably so. You don't put a cast together with the likes of Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Chaplin, Klaus Kinski and Ralph Richardson together without causing a stir in the acting department. Among that group, there isn't a weak link in the bunch. Some are more impressive than others -- Steiger, Guinness, Chaplin and Kinski -- but the lack of a true, developing story hurts all of the performances. Steiger and Courtenay disappear for long stretches, only to reappear as the story requires. I just don't know how to describe this. I enjoyed the actors, enjoyed seeing their performances, but something just didn't click.
There are moments of near perfection amidst some of the rather leisurely 200-minute running time. After a sluggish first 45-60 minutes, things get flowing at a quicker, more enjoyable pace. Not surprisingly, the high points are several chaotic, impressively staged action sequences. One especially, Bolshevik cavalry charging across an ice-covered lake, stands out. An encounter between Russian replacements and Russian deserters on a wayward, desolate plain is simple in its brutality. Much of the success in these moments come from the visual that Lean and Young created. A framing device at the beginning and end with Guinness (a veteran Communist officer) interviewing a young woman (Rita Tushingham) who could be Yuri and Lara's daughter too is especially effective. The ending too goes right for the jugular, a heart-breaking ending for Yuri and Lara.
I'm torn on what to do here. I can appreciate why so many film fans adore this movie. I can also easily appreciate why some struggle to go along for the ride. Not to use a cop out, but I fall somewhere in between. I loved parts of it, liked others and struggled to go along for other portions. I love both 'River Kwai' and 'Lawrence' so Zhivago had some big shoes to fill in the expectations department, but it never quite lived up to them. Still a must-see film just for the scale and talent involved, but not the classic I was hoping it to be.
Doctor Zhivago <---trailer (1965): ** 1/2 /****