During the early years of the 1960s, the British film industry was in flux. Directors that had enjoyed success in the previous decade were increasingly seen as irrelevant; their preoccupations were not in keeping with the new mood of reinvigoration and rebellion that was, in part, spearheaded by soon-to-be cultural icons such as The Beatles. In fact, ‘Swinging London’ was the setting for many of the decade’s most successful, youthful and progressive films, including Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), Georgy Girl (Silvio Narrizano, 1966), The Ipcress File (Sidney J. Furie, 1965) and Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966). But set against these smaller budget explorations into realism was one prolific director: David Lean. Although he released just two films during the decade, both were epic, in terms of scale, vision and subject matter.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Lean’s first 1960s success story was a direct result of the Bridge over the River Kwai (1957). Prior to Lean’s adaptation, all attempts to bring T. E. Lawrence’s life – in all its adventure, spectacle and flawed heroics – to screen had been a disappointment. Kwai, which combined human interest and adventure, put Lean’s name back in the frame – no doubt aided by the seven Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) the film garnered. Lean stepped up to the task with aplomb, creating a visually-stunning epic that swept across history but also considered the details – an expanding sun during a desperate desert walk, an extinguished match that fades into the burning sun. When it repeated Kwai’s seven Oscar sweep, Lean’s reputation as the go-to director for sweeping epics was sealed. MGM were also particularly grateful to Lean for financial reasons: although the studio were turning a profit it was significantly reduced compared to previous years and would likely have been even less were it not for Lean’s contribution.
As a result, Lean was given carte blanche on Doctor Zhivago (1965), an adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s largely autobiographical novel that had been published in Italy in 1957. The novel had been smuggled out of the country by its publisher Giacomo Feltrinelli and would not be widely available in the Soviet Union until the 1980s. The director re-employed many of the cast and crew that had been integral to Lawrence of Arabia’s success, including actors Omar Sharif and Alec Guinness, composer Maurice Jarre, production designer John Box, costume designer Phyllis Dalton and screenwriter Robert Bolt. Faced with the unenviable task of recreating revolution-era Russia, Lean shot mostly in Spain and Canada. These landscapes, combined with the talents of Box, allowed Lean to indulge in nature’s beauty: one scene, where Zhivago (Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) enter the frost-covered interior of the abandoned dacha is breath-taking. Nature also reappears as a motif – frost-covered windows, although pretty, obscure the view – both literally and figuratively. Both realistic and seductive, these idealised scenes of Russia are a wonderful example of film craftsmanship, a triumph of production design.
But the effect of all this beauty – and indeed the love story that obscures political upheavals – is a ‘chocolate box film’, one that favours rumination and languor over action. When Zhivago was released, many critics, including Bosley Crowther at The New York Times, were dismissive of the film, notably its duration (over three hours) and the emphasis on sentimentality and personal drama (‘closer to Hollywood than to the steppes.’). Indeed, the plot is somewhat unsubstantial, and despite the film’s length, ‘action’ is limited, interspersed with languid, borderline indulgent, scenes. Although it’s made clear from the outset that Zhivago and Lara will become lovers, the two don’t actually speak until 80 minutes in.
Their love story is the framework around which the narrative is built. Pasternak’s book runs to almost 600 pages, so required considerable simplification for a film adaptation. By choosing to focus on Zhivago and Lara’s relationship, the historical events (including WWI and the start of the Russian Revolution) act more as footnotes. They shape (in)action, but are rarely explicitly referred to; instead the viewer is left to make assumptions as to the scale of the upheaval. Of course, politics do affect the individual, but its the understanding of the scale of the problem that the biggest omission. When they are introduced – the Czar’s horses bearing down of peacefully protesting students, Strelnikov (Tom Courtney) surveying the Russian countryside from a speeding train – Zhivago takes on a new level of realism. Accusations of shallowness feel overblown compared to contemporary blockbusters’ common disregard for the truth, but Zhivago as a metaphor feels lazy and unsubstantial. Just as he is torn between two women, his country is torn between two futures.
Sharif’s performance as Zhivago is perhaps the crux of the problem. By overplaying the physician’s sensitivity, solemnity and idealistic wistfulness, he fails to create a character that seems a credible threat to the revolution and often seems bewildered by what’s going on. He’s introduced as a poet in the opening scene by Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago (Alec Guinness) but the audience is provided with scant evidence of his incendiary verse. In fact, the only time he’s shown on screen writing is when he writes verse about and for Lara, in turn reinforcing the perception that he’s a romantic dreamer.
The intensity for which Sharif was well-known also impedes the character development – Zhivago gazes across fields of daffodils or through frozen panes of glass with wounded, puppy-dog eyes. This is not a man of action, rather a thoughtful individual who seems to be cursed with the misfortune to always be in the wrong place at the right time. Although Zhivago can be cold (most notably in his dealings with Komarovsky) it never seems to ring true. Maybe Lean and MGM were too concerned with box office returns to mess with Sharif’s leading man looks, but the film is poorer for it. In an interview to mark the 50th anniversary of Lawrence of Arabia, the actor himself observed: “”I think it is a great film, but I am not very good in it.” The same assessment could be extended to Zhivago.
Of course, Sharif shouldn’t be considered too harshly. In truth, neither of the romantic leads are given very much room to play with their characters. The beautiful Lara always seems to be (directly or indirectly) controlled by men – from first love turned dictator Pasha/Strelnikov to Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) and finally Zhivago. Her life is not her own. By turns sad and brave, she never seems in control of her own destiny, making choices based on other character’s actions. In the final scenes, when Komarovsky offers to save the life of her and her child and Lara refuses – but it’s not a refusal born from a strong moral code, but is simply the result of her desire to stay with Zhivago.
It is the supporting cast, particularly Pasha/Strelnikov and Komarovsky who shine. The former evolves from an idealistic party member to a thin-lipped, principled revolutionary with little mercy. At the outset, he is honest and warm, in a chilling evolution this swiftly evolves into a cold-hearted anger that, whilst unlikeable, is understandable. The war, and the revolution have direct implications on both his life and his personality. In contrast, the callous Komarovsky, who has friends in high places on both sides of the revolution and is an adept manipulator becomes more human and develops something close to a conscience. His realisation that he treated Lara unfairly is what prompts him to protect her; in doing so he becomes the most realistic figure in Doctor Zhivago.
Despite Lean’s reputation, the film was not an overnight success. Mixed reviews, and the audience’s inability to pronounce the film’s name, led to a poor opening month. The movie was only rescued by word-of-mouth reviews, and it eventually became the MGM’s second biggest moneymaker, ranking between Gone With The Wind and Ben-Hur with returns approaching $100 million. On paper, Doctor Zhivago is a success. But for the viewer, it’s a challenge that, whilst rewarding, isn’t exactly fulfilling. Emotion and romance is overplayed at the expense of realism and – although cinema encourages the suspension of belief – doesn’t quite add up when viewed through a contemporary lens.