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Doctor Zhivago: 45th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

21 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$24.98 two-DVD set, $35.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for mature themes.
Stars Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Tom Courtenay.

Whether or not to call Omar Sharif’s eyes “limpid pools” is likely in the eyes of the beholder, but so many women went big-time for the actor’s Zhivago peepers nearly five decades ago that David Lean’s blockbuster adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel became the No. 1 date movie of its era. (Unfortunately, I took a date to the other Rod Steiger movie of 1965: The Pawnbroker.)

I hadn’t seen Lean’s 3-hour, 20-minute epic of the Russian Revolution in maybe 35 years, so soaking it in via Warner’s gorgeous new Blu-ray was the way to go and almost made it seem like a first-time viewing. Thank goodness for this visual splendor but with a gulp — given the extent of in some cases scotch-taped disrepair (as Chris Tibbey noted in his piece for Home Media a few weeks ago) into which the source material had fallen before technicians went to work.

In the latter 1960s, Zhivago’s may have been the hardest-working negative in show business, so popular was a full-fledged screen phenomenon (belatedly put over by the sudden chart popularity of composer Maurice Jarre’s theme) that overcame tepid reviews to win five Oscars out of its 10 nominations. If there’s one Oscar that Lean’s spectacle most deserved, it was Freddie Young’s for color cinematography. A lot of people remember Julie Christie’s red dress, but I think of the yellows (daffodils, sunflowers and, of course, Christie’s blond hair).

Still, you can see why the critics thought the movie was somewhat of a comedown for Lean, coming directly on the heels — though not that directly because later in his career, the director consumed years on each project — of The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Lawrence screenwriter Robert Bolt had a lot of sprawl to work with telling the flashback story of a doctor/poet (Sharif’s “Yuri”) who tries to remain as apolitical as he can during a period in Russian history when doing so was almost impossible. Sharif is effective, but his passive dimension has a way of making him something less than the forceful protagonist that most epics demand. And it also doesn’t help that one of the two women who consume Yuri — wife Tonya — is pretty much of a vacuum, doubly due to an underwritten part and Geraldine Chaplin’s shortcomings as an actress.

Fortunately, rival Lara — nurse, lover and confidante — is played by Christie in what was essentially “her year” (just as 1954 was the year of Grace Kelly). Following a relatively brief but memorable appearance in the Sean O’Casey biopic Young Cassidy (started by John Ford but finished by and credited to Jack Cardiff), Christie launched her own British Invasion with her eventual Oscar-winning performance as the bed-hopping fashion model in Darling. Lean’s bang-bang successor capped her year and co-launched a career still going.

After a middling start, you can feel the movie kick into another gear entirely when Lara enters the picture. The strongest sections are in the middle: Her rape or at least undesired sexual submission to oily Komarovsky (an uncommonly and effectively restrained Rod Steiger); her non-fatal shooting of him at a Christmas party; her marriage to Bolshevik firebrand Pasha (Tom Courtenay); the so-called “people” … er, rabble … taking over the aristocratic household into which Yuri was adopted; and a long, oppressive train ride leads to a memorable shot just before the intermission. Unfortunately, there’s some serious sag in the final hour, even if that mystical ice palace in which Yuri and Lara reside for a while provides one of the more indelible screen images of the ’60s.

Most of the extras are extensive carry-overs from previous releases, though a new 40-minute featurette has several filmmakers (from director Taylor Hackford to producer Kathleen Kennedy) rhapsodizing on what Zhivago meant to them.

Getting back to the date-movie component, the picture had something for everybody, whichever one’s sexual inclination: Sharif and Christie (who knocked virtually all my male buddies on their behinds at the time, on a level with Natalie Wood). Every few years starting in the 1950s, MGM had to roll the dice on a blockbuster — Ben-Hur before and 2001: A Space Odyssey after — which would hopefully, and did, end up saving the studio (for a while). Zhivago filled this bill in the mid-1960s, and today’s younger moviegoers can’t possibly have a full conception of just how big it was back in the days when screen spectacles dealt with a whole lot more than game-boy fantasy issues.


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