Ask me if I want to go see a three hour movie. (Go on, Peter Jackson, ask me.) The answer is likely to be "maaaaaaaaaybe". Now, tell me it's by David Lean, the great director of Lawrence of Arabia. I'll have my popcorn in hand before you finish rolling your "r"s, which you should do, if you're saying "David Lean, the great director of Lawrence of Arabia".
Dr. Zhivago is, in fact, 3 hours and 20 minutes, and longer if you factor in the intermission and the overture, but much like Lawrence, it leaves you wanting more. But before we get into that, let's just recap the plot: The eponymous Zhivago is orphaned at a young age and taken in by some family friends who have a daughter his age. Zhivago and the daughter fall in love and get married, and live happily ever after, in the manner of all protagonists of Russian novels.
Nyet! But seriously, things are going all right, at least for their little family, and then there's a bit of trouble in the form of World War I and the October Revolution. In the tumult, Zhivago ends up manning a hospital full of injured with the help of Lara, a nurse he has crossed path with several times previously, and who is now married to a fanatical revolutionary.
Zhivago and Lara fall in love, though they never consummate, and Zhivago goes back home to find his family property divided "fairly" amongst the survivors of his family and a bunch of poor people who see a good opportunity for revenge. To make matters worse, Zhivago is a poet, and his poetry is on the outs with The Party, so he has to flee into the country—where his path crosses again with Lara.
One of the reasons I'd never seen this film before is because it just sounds boring to me. Much like Lawrence, really. Even now! But there's something magical about Lean, and I can't quite put my finger on it. The cinematography and blocking is flawless, of course—this is a great movie to look at, with its snow palaces and shadowy street scenes. The characters are interesting, sure, even for three or more hours. The story hangs together better than most modern ones, maybe: Instead of a series of things that just happen, every cause and effect here seems thoughtful, even when essentially random from the characters' perspectives.
There isn't a ton of suspense. This sort of movie can make Hitchcockian suspense seem practically gimmicky. But you care, so there is that level of suspense. Zhivago is a good man, even a pure man, which is an odd thing to say to one in a love triangle. Perhaps because he is not a womanizer, just a man blindsided by love. He doesn't seem entirely earthly.
Sometimes you see a movie that everyone loves and agree with them about all the great aspects of it but still personally just don't like it. Sometimes there's a movie like this, where you agree with everyone about all the great aspects, love it—but still don't understand why.
The acting was different back then, I note. I don't want to say it's stagey, but it's bigger than modern acting. There's a scene where the Moscow police/army storm through a Commie protest and mow everyone down. Lean doesn't show the violence, he shows Zhivago's reaction to it, and it's bigger than you'd see today. Not, like, Shatner big, but still: big.
Overall, it's an amazing film, perhaps not quite up to Lawrence but still a classic. Of course, it got very mixed reviews at the time, and there's no need to speculate why. Lean and Pasternak do what Zhivago is accused of in the movie: They tell a story about human beings in a time of great revolution. And there's nothing Romantic about the Revolution.
The movie is bookended by Zhivago's half-brother, a party apparatchik, trying to locate Zhivago's daughter. He tells the story partly to a younger comrade (who notes pointedly that, if the younger generation doesn't appreciate Zhivago's poetry, it's because they weren't allowed to by the State). The possible niece works in a mine or factory or something that falls short of a worker's paradise, and is scared of her would-be uncle who, as a Party Leader, is extremely powerful and dangerous. As he says, "nothing ordered by the Party is beneath the dignity of any man."
He fights in World War I with the purpose of making Russia fail. And succeeds. And counts it as his greatest work.
Lara's husband, insane as he is, articulates the the Revolutionary ideal: "The private life is dead for a man with any manhood." Then in the same breath, when it's pointed out to him that he burned the wrong village, he says "A village betrayed us, a village is burned. The point is made."
Then, after serving in the war, when Zhivago comes home, his home has been #occupied. All of Moscow is, really, and of course, everyone is sick and starving and feeding off resentment of the rich. Zhivago, as a man who writes love poems, is a threat. When they escape to the country, they find their old house unused and boarded up, but with a sign threatening terrible things to them should they dare to use it. And already the Party has spies everywhere.
We don't actually witness Lara's fate, but we hear she may have ended up in the gulags.
So, yeah, I don't wonder that critics judged it harshly, in an era when the New York Times was decades away from admitting Duranty lied. It's a deeply Romantic film at every level and breathes with an understanding that the joyless worker state of Communism is death to Romance.
It was fun to see all these people in their prime that I knew as a child primarily in middle age and late life. Omar Sharif is quite handsome and earnest in a way that keeps things from getting sleazy. I'd always thought of Geraldine Chaplin as okay-looking, but she is heart-breakingly sweet here. Until 2006's Away From Her, I'd always thought of Julie Christie as unremarkable looking, but it's hard not to fall in love with her here.
Rod Steiger does a great job as the epitome of the old world corruption. I imagined Alec Guinness standing there, delivering his lines with the perfect combination of menace and party-toadying, thinking "I'm going to be remembered for swinging around a flashlight-sword."
The music, by Maurice Jarré, is near perfect. About the only thing that I wasn't sold on was the creepy music he used for Lala's (Christie) affair with Komarovsky (Steiger). But I wasn't clear on that whole thing. It was creepy, and I'm not saying Jarré was wrong, or anything, but maybe the relationship needed a little less elision in the movie itself.
Still, here's the key thing: The Boy and I? We would sit down and watch it again in a heartbeat.
If you have a chance to see it in a theater—it's making the rounds for its 50th anniversary restoration—by all means, do so.