Doctor Zhivago: Omar Sharif excels as the titular romantic pacifist in David Lean’s epic tale of Love, War and Russian Revolution

Sir David Lean’s classic romantic-war epic, Doctor Zhivago(1965), is adapted from Boris Pasternak’s novel by the great writer, Robert Bolt. The film boasting an all-star cast comprising of Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Julie Christie etc. explored love and loss in the background of the first World War and the Russian Revolution.

I think people remember pictures not dialogue. That’s why I like pictures.

David Lean

Nobody can tell a story through pictures better than David Lean. Nobody can cut from one image to the next as seamlessly as Lean, His pictures, as magnificent, beautiful and moving they are, are not shallow. They are backed by strong emotion and thematic depth; they are refined, sophisticated, minimalist and done with good taste. Maybe too much good taste, which may be the reason a lot of contemporary film critics find it easy to dismiss him as a pretentious maker of pretty picture postcards. But in today’s world, where nothing exceeds like excess in visual pyrotechnics; where filmmakers revel in throwing the rawest, crudest images (particularly of violence) done in the most darkest, monochromatic color tones  at the audience in the name of great art, there is nothing more i wish for than those vivid, emotionally rich, painterly images of an epic David Lean Motion picture. I love the gritty movies of a Scorsese or De Palma as anybody else, but i firmly believe that an old-fashioned, classical narrative of a John Ford or David Lean has as much place in the world of great cinematic art as the modern Masters. David Lean passed away in 1991 and his last film, A Passage to India, hit cinemas in 1984, but his loss is felt more than ever today when movies are fighting for their survival against the onslaught of streaming services and Television Series; a situation Lean himself had predicted in a speech while receiving his AFI lifetime achievement honor. It was back in 1989, and he had warned that the (already) repetitive nature of cinema with its sequels and spin-offs would soon drive the audience away and television would take over. Lean’s Doctor Zhivago is a film that encompasses a profound sense of loss; loss of loved ones, loss of a way of life, loss of ideologies ,…., . Even Outside the film, Doctor Zhivago represents the last of its kind; a three hour plus epic roadshow theatrical presentation with an overture, intermission and Exit Music. Films of such mammoth scope and ambition are not made anymore; a film that is shot in multiple countries around the world, with real people, in real locations- no CGI, no green screen- that would consume about half a decade of a filmmaker’s life . A kind of film that makers today cannot even dream of making, leave alone making a good or bad one. A reminder of a time when making movies and watching movies was a big deal; Unfortunately, that culture is lost forever.

Apropos to the opening quote by Lean, there is always one great image that we take away from every Lean film. For me, in Doctor Zhivago, it’s the scene just after the intermission. There’s pitch darkness on screen; on the soundtrack, we hear sounds of an approaching train that gets louder and louder, but on screen it’s still darkness; the kind of irritating darkness that makes the audience scream at the projectionist, thinking that the projector has broken down. Then we see a ray of light in the darkness and the light gets bigger and bigger, until it swiftly moves into a magnificent image of snow capped mountains. Then Lean cuts to a shot of a train coming out of a tunnel, and we realize that what we have been seeing was from the perspective of  (passengers in) the train swiftly moving through the tunnel. This shot is not a gimmick, or just there for the effect of it. First foremost, since it’s the beginning of the film after the intermission, the  scene is specifically designed to bring the audiences back into the film. But more importantly, it showcases the emotional state of  Yuri Zhivago(Omar Sharif) and his family travelling in the train: they have left- or forced to leave – the darkness and bitter cold (and even dark and bitter political) climate of Moscow and now they are going to the interiors of Varykino, where there is warm sunlight and lush greenery, to start  a new life. This conflict between disparate elements: darkness and light, intimate and the epic, war and peace, personal and political, individual and the state, upper class and working class, Romance and revolution, right down to wife and mistress, is at the core of the film. It’s a fascinating juggling act that Lean and writer Robert Bolt does in staging these conflicts (in the course of a series of scenes or within a scene itself), starting with the character of the titular Doctor Yuri Zhivago. Yuri is both a poet and a doctor, which means that his psyche is split right down the middle into a realist and romanticist. His physical self will be possessed, first by his traditional, upper class wife Tonya(Geraldine Chaplin) and then by the fiery, working class mistress Lara(Julie Christie).  In many ways, Yuri represents the turn of the (20th) century Russia grappling with its twin destinies of the continuing upper class dominated Monarchy and the oncoming working class communism.

Doctor Zhivago begins on a highly romantic note. On the soundtrack, we hear the lush, hauntingly beautiful Lara theme composed by Maurice Jarre. On screen, we see beautiful paintings of the Russian Landscape. These initial moments assures us that we are in for a dreamy romance set in the most beautiful locations. But the moments immediately succeeding this title sequence set a very different mood for the film; it shows very monochromatic, documentary style images of workers coming out of a Soviet hydroelectric dam site . Grey-uniformed workers marching like ants out of the piercing light of a tunnel crested by a single red star; the only sign of color on the screen, with the towering figure of a  Russian General looking down at them from the nearby office building. He comes across as a giant statue, a relic of Russia’s past. The general, Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago(Alec Guinness), is talking with an engineer about the history of Russia and its current socio-political situation. Soon the conversation turns personal, as they start talking about the general’s late (half) brother, Yuri Zhivago, an acclaimed poet whose works were banned during his lifetime, since they were considered personal and self indulgent in a communist state, but is now made accessible to the public. Yevgraf is here because he is looking for the missing daughter of Yuri and Lara – Yuri’s mistress and muse and the main subject of most of his poems. Yevgraf believes that one of the girls working there must be his niece. The  girl, Tanya, one in a huge mass of humans that we saw at the beginning of the film, is brought to the office to meet the  general, thus giving her an individuality separate from the other nameless masses toiling for the state. As the (would be) uncle and niece get talking about her history, the film, that started out on a romantic note and then drifted to a more socio-political note has now acquired a very intimate, personal dimension. Yevgraf sits down to narrate the life story of his brother, Yuri, to Tanya, and in effect, he will be  narrating the history of Russia in the first quarter of the 20th century.

Then we get, what can be referred to as, the quintessential David Lean cut: where the film cuts from the face of a character to a vast landscape; and we finally get a glimpse of the beautiful vastness of the Russian steppe that was promised in the title sequence. But then again, this is no romantic image; this is a funeral procession with an orphaned Yuri walking along with his mother’s corpse to her final resting place. Instead of the intimidating image of the red star in the earlier scene, we get a silhouette of a single, three-bar Orthodox cross, signifying a transformation from the current atheistic communist dispensation to the orthodox religious past of the country.  Even as his mother’s body is placed into the coffin, Yuri’s poet’s mind is  mesmerized by the sounds and sights of nature, and by the time his gaze returns to his mother, her face is close shut in the coffin. We see the pain of the lose on his face. The image of Yuri’s face in pain will become a recurring motif in the film. The moment immediately establishes Yuri’s character as a more passive observer. He stands and watches, and by watching, absorbs the world. He is a witness to life and to the life altering events that’s going to unfold in the course of the film. That face would become the mirror on which all the horrors of the pre and post revolutionary Russia will be reflected on. And those poet’s imagination would find beauty in almost everything, including small microbes seen through a microscope or a layer of mist stuck on the window pane. And perhaps only for him would a woman like Lara would turn out to be the ultimate fantasy object. Lara, in the form of the breathtakingly beautiful Julie Christie, is of course a knockout , but her background hardly makes her an ideal fantasy woman, especially for someone who fully knows that background. She had an affair with her mother’s rich, upper class lover Komarovsky(Rod Steiger) who sexually abuses her and abandons her. She then gets into an unhappy marriage with the firebrand revolutionary Pasha(Tom Courtney) . But he too abandons her, as he pursues his revolutionary ambitions. Now the single mother of a daughter, serving as a nurse on the Ukrainian front during World War I,  and searching for her lost husband, she runs into the much married Yuri, and sparks fly. At first, they try their best not to get involved, but in time, they give into their passions and starts having a passionate adulterous affair.

Of course, this was not the first time they had a brush with each other. There was an earlier one , unknown to them, in the sparking streetcar terminal, when Yuri and his still-unknown, future lover, Lara,  would brush against each other as both of them are returning home from their studies. The first hour of the film works like clockwork, where Lean sets up both the class conflicts and romantic conflicts beautifully. Through seamless editing, fluid cinematography and fantastic production design, we see the contrasting lifestyles and life progressions of Yuri and Lara, unfolding as  part of the same tableau. We also realize why the revolution was inevitable in Russia. Lara is the representative of the weak, gullible working class that has been systematically used, abused and abandoned at pleasure by the upper  classes represented by Komarovsky. We see the first time Komarovsky forces himself on a young, virginal Lara is at the same moment as the Czar’s dragoons assault the unarmed peaceful demonstrators with swords. Lara later takes revenge for her sexual abuse by violently shooting Komarovsky with Pasha’s gun, much like the working class would soon seek redressal to their grievances through the violent revolution. You see Pasha escorting Lara away after the shooting, supporting her in the moment of crisis but, Pasha , the revolutionary and the champion of the working class, would soon get so blinded and obsessed with his idealism that he ends up becoming a despot and will be hunted down by his own men: a sort of metaphor for what happened with communism in Russia.  Earlier, we see the horrors of the dragoon attack reflected on Yuri’s face; all he could do is to give medical aid to the survivors of the attack. Similarly, he would administer aid to Komarovsky after been shot by Lara. He knows Komarovsky’s history with Lara. Komarovsky was also his father’s business partner once and had stolen Yuri’s inheritance, and in the end, Komarovsky would return to steal the love of his life. But Like Russia, Yuri just watches as people battle over his destiny, and he provides a healing touch to everyone, irrespective of their ideology. He is an intensely good person (and so are most of the characters in the film), and in his eyes there is no such thing as the sordid or the banal.

But, this extreme ‘goodness’ of the character(s) will lead to much of the problems in the film. Such good , passive characters are not what you can easily hang a 3 hr. plus epic film set during one of the most tumultuous periods in history. You need characters that are a little mad, flawed and brittle for that; characters like Col. Nicholson or T.E. Lawrence. In the case of Doctor Zhivago, the lead characters of Yuri, Tonya and Lara, though passionately in love with each other, are very ordinary, normal, self-aware people; it’s the world around them that has gone mad.  The film works really well as long as Lean and Bolt are juggling the political and the romantic conflicts effectively. but once the film gets confined to just Yuri and Lara in that Ice castle (straight out of a fairy tale) the film loses its momentum. It also loses its epic scope and becomes just an adulterous tale of a married doctor getting together with a married nurse in a winter castle; that’s the stuff that soap operas are made of and the film does acquire a soapy feel by the end that makes this film inferior to Lean’s previous two masterpieces: Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, which are both close to perfection for me .Zhivago also has a more episodic narrative and does not posses that linear, organic energy of the other two. The emotional through-line is broken at times, especially before and after Yuri’s death  and Lara’s return. It cuts back and forth more frequently with Guinness’ narrator being involved much more. Of course, these are all quibbles only in relation to Lean’s superior pictures.

The film also faces a huge disadvantage due to its downbeat subject matter in relation to Lean’s previous movies. In Zhivago, the characters are basically losers as opposed to the all conquering Lawrence. They all start out losing; like Yuri losing his mother, Lara loosing her innocence, Pasha loosing his idealism and they continue on their loosing streak until the end where they loose their lives in the most non-heroic manner. Yuri dying on the street chasing a mirage of Lara; Pasha killing himself and Lara probably sent to a camp and forgotten. In Lawrence of Arabia the greatest images showcased the  meeting and bonding of characters; like the iconic introduction scene of Omar Sharif in that film where he rides in from the horizon towards us and Lawrence with whom he would form a brotherhood.. Here, we get a reverse image in the scene where Yuri and Lara part, with Yuri’s eye straining to catch the last glimpse of his loved one moving away and disappearing into the horizon.

But then again, there is still David Lean, the great visual artist, poet, naturalist who conjures up some extraordinary images. His painterly use of color is specially to be mentioned. Color lends significance to a historical moment where “Whites” battled the “Reds”. Lara is represented by yellow signifying adventure and imagination: there are the sunflowers that weep in an abandoned hospital, and the glow of the daffodils in spring that morphs into Lara’s face. Tonya is represented by lush green signifying life and reality. For Komarovsky, its black and red. We see Komarovsky  drown Lara in a red dress; we see him seduce her by taking her to a dreadfully expensive hotel all covered in Red; and in the end, Komarovsky  join hands with the reds and come to take Lara away from Yuri. There are also some great shot conceptions by Lean; one instance is where Lara’s mother tries to commit suicide suspecting that her daughter and lover are having an illicit affair. Lean shows the mother’s suffering and Komarovsky’s panic in a one continuous, wordless, panning shot without any cuts and a tense background score in which Komarovsky is seen running from room to room writing a letter to a doctor and giving it to his carriage driver. Another instance is where Pasha comes to know about Lara’s relationship with Komarovsky; we see a candle burn a circle into a frosty window pane. and as the circle expands in size we see Pasha reading Lara’s ‘confession’ as Lara watches him. The circle becomes a metaphor for the circle of life in which all his idealism, all his exalted feelings for his beloved is burnt away. Finally, we see them locked in an uneasy reconciliation and the camera pans down from their window to the street below in which Yuri and Tonya are riding in a carriage. Interestingly, they are discussing about Lara who had just shot Komarovsky at the party. Lean implicitly indicating here that the dissolution of Lara-Pasha relationship is going to affect the marriage of Yuri and Tonya in the future. Then there is the famous train sequence that occupy a major chunk of the film, with people stuffed into the carriages like cattle. Lean presents this as a contrast to the earlier scenes of Yuri riding the streetcar, or Tonya returning from Paris in a luxury coach: they were individuals before, now their individuality is totally crushed in the service of the state. The beginning of this scene finds the passengers scattered on the railway station under a towering image of Lenin, which is a throwback to an earlier scene where soldiers where seen marching holding huge images of the Czar. In an earlier scene, one of the inhabitants of the frontier hospital had asked: ‘Is this Lenin going to be the new Czar?’ and he is quickly corrected by a fellow revolutionary that there will be no more Czars , only workers in a worker state. Alas! that just remains a fantasy or perhaps the fantasy has turned into a nightmare. According to Lean, Lenin has indeed become the new Czar.

So, after almost 190 minutes of deeply moving intimate moments and  spectacular images, of Yuri trekking through the Russian Landscape (on foot, by train, by carriage), exquisitely choreographed movements of people in mass, cavalry charges on frozen lakes, etc., Lean  ends the film at the dam site where he began, though we are not sure till the end whether the girl picked out from the masses is actually Yuri and Lara’s child. She does play the balalaika like Yuri’s mother which Yevgraf terms as a gift, something we heard someone say about Yuri’s mother in the beginning.  The final images of the film also has Maurice Jarre’s Oscar winning score playing in the background, but this time, instead of paintings of landscapes, we get real pictures of the hydroelectric dam, a marvel of modern technology.

On its release, Doctor Zhivago was a blockbuster, and its influences can be found in movies like Out Of Africa, The English Patient, Titanic, Cold Mountain, atonement, etc…..  But still, David Lean remains a divisive figure in the film critic community. Contrary to what critics like Andrew Sarris say, Lean’s oeuvre presents a consistent style, world-view and thematic continuum as any auteur. He was a total filmmaker who put his stamp on every department of film making. What is unique to Lean is his visual style, or a mixture of visual style and a well crafted screenplay with some trademark characters and dialogues; one that showcases story and characters through pictures, something that is abundantly demonstrated by Doctor Zhivago. Lean got good notices for “River Kwai” and “Lawrence” from critics, but Zhivago had a mixed reaction. Even worse reception was in store for his next film, Ryan’s Daughter, which was universally panned. This devastated  Lean and drove him away from direction for almost 14 years. But then he came roaring back to form in 1984 with A Passage to India, which sadly turned out to be his last film. Post-“Passage”, Lean was working on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. He had assembled the required financing and an all-star cast for the film. But he passed away just weeks before shooting was to start. I always wish he  had made more movies. He  made Just 5 movies in the last 35 years of his life, a real pity!. Cinema would have been so much richer with a few more David Lean movies.


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