On Dec. 22, 1965, the 197-minute Russian epic Doctor Zhivago held its world premiere at the Loew's Capitol Theatre in New York. The David Lean classic went on to win five Oscars at the 38th Academy Awards, including cinematography. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
Doctor Zhivago is the first comprehensive attempt by the west to tell the story of the most convulsive event of the century, one of the most important in man's history, with its still unfolding results and residue — the Russian Revolution. David Lean's film does it in human terms and in the broad and flashing pageantry of historical inevitability. Carlo Pont's production for MGM is a majestic, magnificent picture of war and peace, on a national scale and scaled down to the personal. It has every element that makes a smash, long-run box-office hit.
Essentially, Zhivago is a story about the clash between man and the state, the imperishable, resilient individual refusing to be patterned or flattened. "The individual means nothing, comrade," says one of the new commissars to Zhivago, in a moment of the Revolution's violent birth. The picture records the Soviet attempt to obliterate the individual, to make him part of the machinery of the state.
The picture covers about 30 years of Russian history, from just before the Revolution into the '30s. It tampers somewhat with history to make its point. The film's last line is "It's a gift," and the gift is the instinct or talent for individuality. The thaw has begun in Russia. It is possible again for human beings to be themselves, different, distinctive, not self-effacing for the state. This anticipates history, but it is a most important point and universal in application.
The hero of the story is both a doctor and a poet. These are fields of individual decision and creation. A doctor may not choose his patients for their political beliefs. A poet may versify for the state but it will not be poetry, the clarion song of indomitable man. Zhivago's story, from Czarist Russia through the debacle of Russia's part in World War I, and the murderous terror of the early Soviet state to the period beyond, when a secure government could afford to be more human, or, at any rate, less inhuman. That, at least, is the premise.
Zhivago is not one of the earth shakers. His is the kind who preserves and observes. He is the eye of the camera for the spectator, his is the heart of the spectator responding to events: the cruelties of the Czar's regime in the name of the divine right of kings; the idealistic hopes of those who overthrew the despot; the conversion of the idealists into new oppressors of the people, this time in the people's name.
Zhivago, played by Omar Sharif, is neither imperialist nor socialist. Although orphaned, he is raised in a happy, prosperous household. His foster parents are Ralph Richardson and Siobhan McKenna. Their daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, grows up with him. They grow to love one another and are married.
Their lives have been touched only tangentially by the subterranean rumblings and muffled explosions that have begun to shatter the flawed facade of Romanov Russia. Others have been more intimately involved. Julie Christie is seduced by her mother's lover, the cynical and opportunistic Rod Steiger. She recoils from that experience to marry the idealistic young revolutionary Tom Courtenay. At first all these lives are separately seen, and only come together as the struggle gains intensity. The whole story is told in retrospect, in flashback. Alec Guinness, who has survived all the tergiversations of Csarist-Soviet Russia, seeks out the daughter of Sharif and Miss Christie, to make her aware of her heritage. She is played by Rita Tushingham.
Through genuine ignorance or an instinct for survival in the Soviet state, Miss Tushingham at first denies knowledge of her mother and father. Guinness finally establishes it when he discovers that Miss Tushingham is a gifted musician as was her father. It is then he makes the enigmatic final statement of the film. "It's a gift," he says, referring to her musical talent, or possibly the gift for individuality and personality, the human elements stronger in some than in others, that the Soviet state has tried to repress and delete. It has sprung up again in the new generation. The state must back off and accommodate to it.
Zhivago is not a film that attempts to evaluate the communist theory and practice in Russia. It records the Czarist oppression that produced the revolution. It points out some of the situations that occasioned the Soviet tyrannies. In its treatment of modern Russia it does not seem, in the Soviet lexicon, "provocative." Robert Bolt's screenplay of Boris Pasternak's novel, and David Lean's direction of it, have made the political tides as inexorable as the vast Russian landscape, and its climatic weathers as important as the ideological temperatures.
Lean, filming in Spain and Finland, creates the immensity of Russia, the loneliness such vastness imparts to its people. There is a deep melancholy underlying much of the spirit, the sadness of people not only oppressed but chronically isolated. This explains and excuses. Sharif, happily married to Miss Chaplin, is irresistibly drawn to Miss Christie, unhappily married to Courtenay. The chaos of the post-revolution separates Sharif and Miss Chaplin. In the end he dies only a few yards away from Miss Christie, a fact unknown to her. Yet their lives have meaning in his poems and in their child.
Lean finds something of the same physical values in Zhivago as he did in Lawrence of Arabia. He and his cameraman, Fred A. Young, go for some of the same effects. Particularly striking are the tremendous long shots, of snow-covered Urals; the trackless, icy marshes and lakes; the beauty of the forests and steppes in spring and summer. Production designer John Box has faithfully created a corner of Moscow for the city action, for the feeling of life before the Revolution, with its upper class gaiety and its lower class despair.
Sharif must create a man who is outside the great upheaval but not insensitive to its causes and results. His special quality of projecting mysticism has never served him better. He has the doctor's compassion and the poet's sympathy, and a handsome man's irresistible appeal to women. Miss Chaplin makes an appealing debut as his sweet and innocent wife. She bears a startling resemblance to her father, especially in her smile. She is not called on for strong displays of emotion. Within the limits of her role, she is winsome.
Julie Christie, as the child of turbulence, who must meet some of life's cruelest situations and retain her intrinsic freshness and beauty, is superb. Miss Christie has already indicated that she is one of the most important young film stars, and she reinforces that position with this portrayal. She gives an indelible performance as the young woman who is inspiration for Zhivago's poetry and for life. She must make both inspirations unalterably compelling, and she does.
Alec Guinness, who ties the film together with the opening and closing scenes, and occasionally with bits of narration, is able to suggest a family tenderness as Zhivago's half-brother, and implacable officialdom as the Soviet general he becomes. Siobhan McKenna is effective as Zhivago's foster mother, and Ralph Richardson delightful as his foster-father. He makes his role humanistic, amiable and endearing.
Tom Courtenay moulds a modern Machiavelli of his young idealist, brutalized by his oppressors, the Czar's Cossacks and the heedless ruling class, into a cold killer in the name of human freedom. Courtenay has an abrupt character transition to make, and he achieves it with finesse and complete credibility. Rod Steiger gives his finest movie performance as the opportunistic lawyer who cheerfully robs Zhivago of his inheritance, Miss Christie of her virtue, and always seems to remain on top, a success with royalists or communists. He is a heartless blackguard but possessed of an infestious life force that is engaging if not commendable. Miss Tushingham, with very few lines of dialogue, imparts the importance to her role that it demands, with her odd little face, expressive as an unspoiled child, and her great, deep eyes.
There is a huge cast supporting, and Lean creates dozens of vignettes from among its members. There is Miss Christie's mother, played by Adrienne Corri; there are others less easily identified. The grim house commissars who take over the Richardson mansion, the general who dies leading his troops to the front as other Russian soldiers revolt and desert, Miss Tushingham's young man. And many others. Sharif's son, Tarek, is wonderfully appealing as the child who is father to the man.
To create history as it was, to show the people involved as they might have been, through a medium both realistic and impressionistic, requires a continuous flow of imagination. Lean uses the medium both ways. He quite often employs wordless passages for transition or to highlight an emotional experience. It is a splendid way to capture the spirit of Russia, this strange, moody and elusive country.
Zhivago has been recorded on film in Panavision and Metrocolor, and never has the Panavision depth of focus been more ably exploited. The long shots, particularly, black figures against white mountains, etch themselves in the mind as background for the more intimate, colorful scenes that follow; double-imaging, it is, in a subtle corrosive process.
Maurice Jarre's score is melodic interpretation of the Zhivago spirit, with restatement of a lyric theme, as the poet doctor slogs through despondency and tragedy. Despite the grim and brooding background, Zhivago has a surging buoyant spirit that is unquenchable. Doctor Zhivago is more than a masterful motion picture; it is a life experience. — James Powers, originally published Dec. 23, 1965