Doctor Zhivago (1965, Julie Christie, Omar Sharif)

Poster for the movie "Doctor Zhivago"
PG-13 197 min - Drama, Romance, War - 22 December 1965
Our rating:

David Lean's most celebrated films are anything but slim. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) weighed in at 161 minutes, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) topped the scales at 216 minutes, and Doctor Zhivago (1965) ran a hefty 197 minutes. But that's partly because Lean treats place and atmosphere with the same importance as character, and Doctor Zhivago is as much a love story about Russia during the revolution as it is about a married poet-doctor who finds true love outside his marriage.

One of the Most Romantic Movies of All Time

When Doctor Zhivago premiered, audiences fell in love with it, and the epic quickly became known as one of the most romantic movies of all time — a reputation that persists. Maybe it's the haunting music, "Lara's Theme," that wafts like a memory through time and place wherever young Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) roams. Or the inherent romance of two people who love each other but can't be together. Maybe it's the romance of an era, of somehow being able to see beauty and find love in the midst of war and struggle. Or to find TWO loves during such hard times, which, in an era of emerging Soviet austerity, is almost a rebellion of another kind.

Maybe it was the fact that Boris Pasternak's novel of the same title was smuggled out of the Soviet Union so that it could be published, and was still banned in the U.S.S.R. when the movie debuted. For some women, it was as simple as casting Sharif, who could have pushed a sanitation worker's broom and looked into the camera with those soulful eyes and still swept them off their feet. Still others, we're reminded by superb special features, identified with other-woman Lara (Julie Christie) so much that they dressed in Russian-style clothing — a faddish expression of the powerful effect the movie had on a nation still trying to deal with the death of a dear president, and the loss of Camelot.

On the commentary, the good doctor offers his own diagnosis of the film that should have shocked audiences in the '60s, and basically admits that he doesn't understand the movie's romantic appeal: "You make a film about a girl who makes love with her mother's lover, who's a pig, then marries a young man who's wonderful, and then becomes the mistress of a married man who loves his wife." What's more, he adds, they're apart for most of the film. But if you're Lean, you tantalize viewers by beginning the film with a Soviet official, Yuri's half-brother (Alec Guinness), searching for his niece and showing her his copy of The Lara Poems with photos of Yuri and Lara. Then you have the revolution tear them in separate directions, only to have their paths cross time and again. But you make viewers wait until the last third of the film before the couple actually gets together. True love waits. And waits. In part, that's what makes it epic.

Apparently Lean, best known for his epic films, felt he wasn't "great at epics," and grew "enormously tired" during production, because filming the tender and quiet moments with two actors came naturally to him, but big scenes with hundreds of extras and enormous sets did not. But getting it right mattered to Lean, so much so that the location-scouting trip spanned 10,000 miles. With the book banned in the Soviet Union, there was no way Lean could have filmed in Russia, so he started in Yugoslavia. That didn't feel right to him, nor did Norway or Sweden. Finally, he settled on Spain, and used 800 workers over a period of 18 months to construct a replica of Moscow in a suburb outside Madrid. Harsh winter scenes were partly shot in Finland, dangerously close to the off-limits Soviet border.

For the ice palace in the Ural Mountains where Zhivago lives after fleeing harsh conditions in Moscow, Lean's crew covered a house with hot beeswax and then splashed it with nearly freezing water. To reflect changes in seasons, leaves on trees in the area were actually painted by hand every night. One day, members of the cast recalled, they'd show up for work and the leaves would be spring-like, with carpets of flowers everywhere; the next day the leaves would be painted with autumnal color, or the ground would be covered with artificial snow. Sharif, we find out, went through painful processes each day to shave his hairline and tape back his eyes so he'd look more Slavic and less Egyptian. Only one detail seems to have escaped everyone's notice: the women's hair, which cast and crew joke about as being "pure '60s," a dead giveaway of when the picture was filmed. But that can be forgiven.

And it has been. Although criticisms of the film were so harsh that Lean said he would never direct another movie — film critic Judith Christ, for example, called it nothing more than "a spectacular soap opera" — this soap cleaned up at the Academy Awards, winning for art direction/set design, original musical score, cinematography, and screenplay. This, during the year of The Sound of Music. Christie, ironically, won Best Actress that year for her role in Darling, and Steiger was nominated for a Best Actor role that year, but did not win for The Pawnbroker. Sharif and other cast members — including relative newcomer Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin's daughter, who played Tonya Zhivago), Tom Courtenay (Lara's husband, the revolutionary Pasha/Strelnikoff), and Ralph Richardson (Alexander, Zhivago's adoptive parent), were not nominated.

Director:  David Lean
Producer:  Carlo Ponti
Composer:  Maurice Jarre
Director of Photography:  Freddie Young

Production Details

Production Companies:  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Release Date:  22 December 1965

Running Time:  3 h 17 min

Genres: Drama, Romance, War
Country:   Italy United States of America

Language:  English, Russian

Tagline: Turbulent were the times and fiery was the love story of Zhivago, his wife and the passionate, tender Lara.

Budget and Box Office takings where known

Budget:  $11,000,000
Revenue:  $111,858,363