After watching Lawrence of Arabia for this column, I fell head over heels in love with it. I believe a large part of that was because of director Sir David Lean. He was such a major influence on the directors I grew up watching, Spielberg most notably, that watching Lawrence of Arabia triggered a sort of sense memory. Parts of my style as a filmmaker are inspired by Spielberg and his style inspired by Lean, so it feels like an auteurist genealogy. So obviously I had to watch another Lean film.
And that film is Doctor Zhivago (1965), based on the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak. The story begins with Dr. Zhivago’s brother (Alec Guinness) searching for his orphaned niece. Once he finds a girl he believes to be her, he tells the story of her parents. The film follows poet Dr. Yuri Zhivago and daughter of a dressmaker and war nurse Lara Guishar as their lives intertwine and diverge over the course of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Civil War.
The movie is very long, clocking in at 3 hours and 17 minutes. But don’t worry, there is an intermission! This is a normal runtime for a film of this scope in the early to mid-60s, however. And it certainly does feel like a book made into a movie, as the beats and overall plot of the film don’t fit into a formula we use very often anymore.
But where it is so very easy to make a three-plus hour movie boring as heck, this movie never completely lost my attention. It threatened to, at times, like so many other classic films of this scope tend to do. That’s part of the brilliance of Lean’s work, however. He was using cinematography and framing in such a way that it held my interest, even in the bits that would have been boring otherwise. His use of space, depth and color within the frame made the film feel modern in its cinematography.
What I found interesting is that the entire first half the film mostly focused not on Dr. Yuri Zhivago, the title character, but on Lara (Julie Christie). Total disclosure, Lara does experience a sexual assault at the hands of a very sleazy older man (who also happens to be her mother’s lover). Since it was made in the mid-60s it isn’t the most explicit thing ever filmed but it is clear what is about to happen. Afterwards, Lara goes to seek her revenge and dammit if I wasn’t rooting for her. It’s at that very public confrontation that Lara is actually ever in the same room with Zhivago, who will pop in and out of her life as time goes by.
I am endlessly fascinated with the casting decision for Dr. Zhivago himself. He is played by Omar Sharif. The character is a sweet man who always seems to have some kind of dreamy smile on his face (a far cry from Sharif’s character in Lawrence of Arabia). But wait, you say, isn’t Omar Sharif a middle eastern actor? Isn’t the lead character a Russian man? Yes, he is and yes he is. Can you even believe that they cast a nonwhite actor to play a white character… in 1965?! It’s like the opposite of what they did with Alec Guinness playing a Middle Eastern Prince in Lawrence of Arabia! That’s nuts to me. A lot of people who like to play Devil’s Advocate in discussions about whitewashing in film (ya know, nimrods) like to cite this movie as an example of some kind of reverse whitewashing. The one instance in major film history where it happened and I’m sure there were plenty more white roles to go around. PLENTY.
I also have a huge crush on Omar Sharif now.
Overall, this movie looked to explore how idealism (found in Zhivago) can survive between two warring and extreme beliefs. It’s a story of two people always managing to miss each other during a horrific historical era. Lara even comments on what a terrible time it is to be alive, but Zhivago, in all his idealism, tells her it’s always good to be alive, at any time.
While this movie wasn’t as life affecting to me as Lawrence of Arabia was, it was still a very visually stimulating film as well as an interesting look at the lives a couple surviving a nigh unsurvivable time. So if you have an interest in political idealism, historical dramas, or Omar Sharif’s big brown peepers, I recommend taking a rainy afternoon to watch Doctor Zhivago.
4 out of 5 recommendation.