Through Frosted Glass: David Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’ (1965)

Strangers on a tram: Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) coincide for the first time.

A young man runs after a streetcar along a snowy Moscow street. Seen through the rear window of the moving car, he struggles to catch up but is determined to do so. He jumps on and finds a seat behind a woman whose face is mostly concealed by a thick black scarf, revealing only her piercing blue eyes. Their gazes, which do not converge, turn in unison to watch a child running by in the street below – he smiles with his mouth, she with her eyes. As they each stand to get off the car they brush past one another, the camera cuts to power lines above where sparks fly, they go their separate ways.

This early scene in Doctor Zhivago is representative of the level of David Lean’s craftsmanship and recounts the moment at which our eponymous tragic hero, played by Omar Sharif, and the great, romantic love of his life, Lara (Julie Christie), meet for the first time. Over the course of three monumental hours, the director – famed for his ability to tell grandiose tales across vast timespans and landscapes – charts the course of two fates that are forever intertwined after this chance meeting.

Boris Pasternak: 1890 – 1960

Trusted screenwriter Robert Bolt – who worked with Lean on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – was responsible for adapting Russian novelist Boris Pasternak’s book for the big screen. Banned in Russia at the time, it would not be published until 1988 and the film not shown in the country it depicts until 1994, nearly 30 years after its release. Smuggled out of the USSR by Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the source material would find its way into the hands of Carlo Ponti. The renowned producer saw the English director as the man for the job, his experience in the deserts of Africa, and jungles of Japan (The Bridge on the River Kwai – 1957) standing him in good stead to direct a sweeping epic across the frozen Russian steppes with a mighty $15million budget at his disposal.  

In choosing to foreground the personal viewpoint of Pasternak’s story, Lean sets two of the twentieth century’s most significant events – the First World War and Russian Revolution – and the seismic shifts each engendered, as its backdrop. At the time of Zhivago’s release, the superbly named Bosley Crowther – film critic for the New York Times for more than 25 years – took objection to this focus, which he saw as neglecting the socio-historical elements of the novel.  

This sad love affair […] is the matter upon which Mr. Bolt has chosen to settle all the tensions of spiritual conflict and personal tragedy that are packed in the Pasternak novel. And this is the weakness of the film. Mr. Bolt has reduced the vast upheaval of the Russian Revolution to the banalities of a doomed romance.

                                             – B. Crowther: December 23rd, 1965.

Notwithstanding the obvious challenges of making a film at the height of the Cold War which glorifies the great Russian literary tradition and highlights a country making its transition to a communist state, I do agree with Mr. Crowther’s reservations over the muted political aspect of the film’s temporal setting.  

A young Tom Courtenay plays Pasha, an idealistic student who devotes himself to the Revolution above all else, including his proposed nuptials with Lara – long before her involvement with Yuri. His performance burns with the intensity of unquestioning belief and arcs to the hardened bitterness of a revolutionary as peaceful means fail him. His transition follows the course of Russia’s political landscape and his marginalisation as a character is one of the aforementioned weaknesses of the film’s narrative.  

In spite of the director’s patience (Lean would wait interminably for the perfect sunset – evinced by some of the film’s most stunning images) and meticulous eye for detail on an aesthetic level, there are a number of holes in Zhivago which chip away at the integrity of the whole. Yevgraf (Alec Guinness – a sage and watchful eye whose appearance bookends the entire film) and Yuri (Zhivago) are half-brothers; they meet for the first time in middle age and no explanation is proffered as to why this is the case or who their parents are. Later in the film the ease with which Yuri’s charming wife, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), accepts Yuri’s extra-marital digressions is dumbfounding. 

All who come across Zhivago know him as one of the most gifted writers in Russia and yet at no point do we hear a word of his work – this is perhaps not surprising given that he is an embodiment of Pasternak whose writings had been banned since the 1930’s but it is, nonetheless, a bemusing omission. Sharif, whose enormous brown eyes are deep, dark pools of sorrow, is frustratingly apathetic as Zhivago. As a doctor and a poet he seemingly transcends politics but reacts to events around him rather than compelling them, more interested with dreamily staring at falling leaves than the plight of man.

With all that said, there is a great deal to marvel at. Though he may be despicable, Rod Steiger gives one of the performances of his career as the villain of the piece, Komarovsky. An unscrupulous, scheming monster who describes himself as “an ignoble Caliban”, he is the best equipped to deal with the harshest of times and the most memorable of a strong cast.

An entire essay could be written on Freddie Young’s photography; particularly in shooting through icy panes of glass, intruding on the private lives and loves of Lean’s characters whilst at the same time maintaining a certain detachment – a characteristic for which director Lean was known – as candles burn in windows and winter frost melts to spring blooms which in turn transform into the eyes of  Yuri’s beloved. The reds of Lara’s dress, the Party flags, the interior of the restaurant, the front of Strelnikov’s train; the yellows of the daffodils and weeping sunflowers. Without being too effusive some of the editing and mise-en-scène is as close to perfection as filmmaking comes.

By way of conclusion I will offer the following unusual association: I have long railed against Avatar as a nonsensical, hollow remake of Pocahontas that is all style and no substance. It is unlikely that a comparison between James Cameron’s blockbuster and Lean’s gargantuan epic has ever been made but bear with me. There is no question that Doctor Zhivago demonstrates unspeakably masterful filmmaking, made with 35mm cameras well before the gimmickry of 3D and CGI, but it lacks a consistent level of storytelling to reinforce the breathtaking visuals and technical skill on show throughout.

Each film is a big budget picture which broke the boundaries of the kind of spectacle an audience could experience in the darkness of a cinema but one stands head and shoulders above the other. With the sad passing of Omar Sharif this year, David Lean’s film marks its half century and is still well worth the price of admission and an ice cream during the Intermission; I doubt we’ll be saying the same about Avatar in 2059. They just don’t make ’em like this any more. 

Doctor Zhivago is this month’s classic film at The Bookshelf cinema. Don’t miss seeing it in all its glory on the big screen.