In belated tribute to the passing of a legend, we honor the late Omar Sharif (1932-2015) with a review of, arguably, his most memorable performance in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Sharif, of course had first appeared to the world as that shimmery black speck of a mirage on the anvil-flat desert landscape in David Lean’s other masterful epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Before that, he was a major box office heartthrob in his native Egypt for almost a decade. Had he not elected, at producer, Sam Spiegel’s implore, to make the journey from Cairo to London to meet Lean, Sharif’s career might have taken a very different route – or perhaps, a more enduring and successful one. Indeed, in later years, Sharif would both praise and lament his decision to partake in Lean’s sprawling Arabian epic; nudging nearly two years of his life out of the public spotlight as the Middle East’s hunk du jour, forming a lasting bond of friendship with co-star Peter O’Toole, whom he adored, admired and respected as a kindred spirit, prolific carouser and occasionally proficient gambler. Sharif could, of course, relate to the latter two vices; rumored to have won and lost a million dollars in a single evening’s gaming inside an Italian casino in 1970.
Sharif, born Michael Shaloub of Christian Syrian-Lebanese ancestry, but later converted to Islam (with a name change) for the love of his frequent Egyptian film co-star, Faten Hamama, could count himself among the very fortunate for having starred in two David Lean epics; his opinion of Lean himself veering from unqualified love and affection to a marginalized contempt for the director’s seeming loathsome aloofness toward actors. Regardless of Sharif’s estimation, Lean’s movies made Omar a star on this side of the Atlantic, and a heartthrob the world over. The rest of his 60’s tenure as a superstar was not nearly as successful. Apart from a supporting role as the notorious gambler, Nick Arnstein in Funny Girl (1968, a case in which art seemed to closely mirror life, and, in which he aquitted himself rather nicely of singing Jule Styne’s ‘You Are Woman’), Sharif began to see his prospects for bigger and better roles slowly evaporate and eventually disappear. Begrudgingly, he semi-retired from acting after the mid-1970s, claiming in interviews to have ‘lost’ his ‘self-respect and dignity.’ He concentrated on becoming an expert bridge player, writing several books on the art of gambling. Alas, such ventures could not keep up with his increasing – and arguably, frivolous – expenditures at the tables in Monte Carlo. Plagued by failing health, Sharif retreated to the Royal Moncean Hotel in Paris and finally returned to Cairo where he died from heart failure on July 10th 2015.
As with the passing of each emissary from Hollywood’s more resilient age of enlightenment, it becomes something of a cliché to acknowledge the extraordinary uniqueness of these once deified individuals no longer in our midst. There will never be another Omar Sharif; a fairly rank, though nevertheless, accurate axiom made all the more glaringly transparent when one pauses to review a film like Doctor Zhivago, made at the height of MGM’s sad decline after reigning supreme for decades as the undisputed ‘king of features’; Lean, relentless in his toiling half way around the world, spending money like water, but always keenly focused on improving his current passion project. In Spain, he had technicians cover the ground with pulverized gypsum and salt to simulate the snowy farthest reaches of Mother Russia; waited painstakingly for nearly three months for production designer, John Box’s newly planted daffodils to mature and bloom for a pivotal ‘rebirth’ Spring scene that recalled Sharif back for retakes after the rest of the cast and crew had already disbanded, and finally, ordered his artisans to cover a mammoth cottage set in tons of plaster of Paris, transforming it into a frozen fortress for the movie’s climactic farewell between Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (Sharif) and his paramour, Lara (Julie Christie).
When it was first published, Boris Pasternak’s weighty novel was a worldwide phenomenon, touching off a powder keg of controversy in his native Russia; the government denying him the privilege to accept the Nobel Prize for literature, and forever thereafter considering Pasternak something of a dangerous subversive to be scrutinized, later imprisoned and even afterward, heavily watched, presumably for further insurrections against the state. Both the book and the movie were banned in the U.S.S.R. until the mid-1990's after a more ‘tolerant’ form of government began to take hold. Doctor Zhivago – the movie – has been affectionately compared to Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939). Of course, there are parallels; the doomed love affair, the saga of a man and a woman pitted against monumentally uncertain times, the lengthy structure of its road show engagement, complete with intermission; the concentration on Maurice Jarre’s voluminous underscore and world-renown ‘Lara’s Theme’ (second only, by most critics estimates, to Max Steiner’s ‘Tara’s Theme’ for GWTW). Yet, unlike the immediate flourish of praise for Selznick’s 1939 masterpiece, Lean’s epic was to have a fairly awkward uphill climb convincing both the public and the critics it was worthy of such enduring praise. Despite being nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, immediate critical reaction to the film in 1965 trashed its ‘cheap sets’ and poked fun at its overtly sentimentalized love story. The public, at first, didn’t quite know how to pronounce the title, resulting in all sorts of confusion that left more than a few sweaty palms inside the front offices at MGM, the studio standing or imploding on the movie’s success or failure.
Mercifully, a reprieve was on the way; MGM’s lavishly absurd marketing and publicity igniting the public fervor; theatrical engagements across the country drawing line-ups unseen in the industry since 1939’s releases of GWTW and The Wizard of Oz and ringing cash registers around the globe. At Oscar time, Doctor Zhivago would win the ‘lesser’ awards for Robert Bolt’s screenplay, Freddie Young’s cinematography, Maurice Jarre’s score, John Box’s art direction, and Phyllis Dalton’s costume design. In retrospect, Doctor Zhivago is a monumental soap opera with few equals. Yet it also represents something of a lost opportunity for its director; a last stand as the purveyor of this sort of glossy and larger-than-life entertainment, falling just a tad short of Lean’s usual sterling levels of craftsmanship. Lavishly mounted and with impeccable performances layered throughout, Lean's focus is somewhat disengaged during the latter half of the story, oddly rushed and, at the same time, meandering. Based on Pasternak’s novel, Bolt's complex evolution of the novel into cinematic terms, as a master playwright and storyteller, begins with a flashback device. While Pasternak was keener to exposing the soulless despotisms of communist Russia, Bolt’s unimpeachable screenplay is a master’s class in romanticized economy.
We are introduced to a nameless dam worker (Rita Tushingham) summoned to her boss’ office by sternly composed Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness). The General suspects ‘the girl’ to be his long lost niece; heir apparent to his late brother, Dr. Yuri Zhivago’s (Omar Sharif) poetic legacy. The girl, however, has her doubts. The flashback does more than simply provide an inroad into the past that will flood and fill up the bulk of these three hours; it serves as a mesmerizing comparative analysis between the lavish decadence of the Imperial Russia that was, and is soon to implode within our story, and the relatively austere, failed Marxist utopia replacing it. Yet, even the golden epoch prior to the revolution is something of a fractured oasis for our hero; a sensitive child deprived of his mother’s love after her premature passing; the inquisitive boy growing to prominence as both a gifted poet, under the devotional guidance of his smitten lover (soon to be wife) Tonya Gromeko (Geraldine Chaplin) and the doctor he becomes with the auspices of a kindly mentor, Prof. Boris Kurt (Geoffrey Keen). Zhivago’s life’s ambitions straddle the chasm between art and life. Desperately seeking to cultivate his own sense of flawed romanticism during these harsher times, Zhivago will stumble and fall, driven by this starved necessity into the arms of Larissa ‘Lara’ (Julie Christie); the wife of feared revolutionary, Strelnikov – nee, Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay).
Interestingly, Omar Sharif had sought out the part of Pasha when first learning Lean was preparing to make the film. Telephoning Lean in London to make his inquiries, Sharif spoke to producer, Sam Spiegel instead, a long pause coming at the end of his inquiry, followed by “David doesn’t really think you’re right for that part…but would you consider playing the title role instead?” Remembering the arduous two years invested in Lawrence of Arabia under Lean’s tutelage, but also recalling how this apparently endless tedium in the desert had resulted in a flourish of worldwide popularity unlike anything he might have even dreamed possible, Sharif embraced the starring role in Doctor Zhivago; investing himself body and soul in the part. He endured various painful makeup tricks to reshape his Egyptian facial features, particularly his descriptive eyes, into a more Slavic flavor and shaved into his hairline to create Yuri’s memorable widow’s peak. While the movie’s producer, Carlo Ponti, had no quam about Sharif’s casting, he did implore Lean to consider his wife, Sophia Loren for the role of Lara. With a polite chuckle, Lean is rumored to have replied, “Gladly…if you can convince me she can play a seventeen year old virgin!”
From a purely sociological perspective, it is rather interesting to consider Doctor Zhivago as an epic romance. Without casting aspersions, Lara is a naïve girl, seduced, then later raped by her mother’s lover, Victor Ipolitovich Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), married to her youthful sweetheart, Pasha, who abandons her for the revolutionary cause. She falls madly for Yuri who is, of course, married to Tonya; the pair’s illicit affair virtually eclipsing the fact both have children by their prospective spouses. Eventually impregnated with Yuri’s child, Lara loses the girl in the hellish raid on Manchuria, and Yuri dies alone in the street without ever seeing either his lover or his own legitimate wife and son again. Exactly where any of this grand tragedy ought to have registered as even remotely sensual is beyond general comprehension; except that Lean and screenwriter, Robert Bolt have infused their central protagonist with an aura of conflicted morality and Sharif (being Sharif) is more than capable of conveying a rich and rewarding empathy for human frailty. Pasternak’s novel was, in fact, grotesquely unsentimental; a rather clear-eyed and occasionally clinical critique of the revolution as seen through the eyes of a lyrical/thinking man. Lean’s approach to Doctor Zhivago on the other hand is unabashedly teeming with raw human emotions; what could not be shown in 1965, more than compensated for by Maurice Jarre’s melodic refrains.
Our story begins in pre-revolutionary Russia; a nation of surfs devoted to Tsar Nicholas II, perhaps ungenerously so. As a boy, Yuri (played by Omar’s own son, Tarek) loses his mother and is taken in by her devoted friend, Anna (Siobhan McKenna) and her devoted husband, Alexander Gromeko (Ralph Richardson). Yuri’s only bequest from his mother’s meager belongings is a balalaika, later to prove integral to our story. The Gromeko’s daughter, Tonya (Mercedes Ruiz) dotes on Yuri as a brother in childhood, but quickly escalates her feelings to love once the two have matured into young adulthood; a romance unabashedly encouraged by Anna, though frowned upon by Alexander – not, because Yuri is unsuitable, but rather, because Alex firmly believes genuine love should be let alone to run its course. Yuri is studying medicine under Boris’ tutelage, but also finds time to write poetry. His work is much admired by the French. Tonya goes away to school, returning a full-fledged woman, even as Anna’s health has already gone into steep decline.
Meanwhile, in Moscow’s garment district revolutionary forces are afoot; Pasha handing out leaflets to his fellow comrades. Pasha is high-minded and thoroughly committed to the overthrow of the Tsarist regime. Lara is, alas, much too innocent in the ways of the world and even less aware of these immediate surroundings about to engulf her. Her mother, Amelia (Adrienne Corri) is socially linked to Victor Komarovsky, an aristocrat and friend of her late husband who almost immediately has designs on the ingénue. Of course, neither mother nor daughter can see his intensions are dishonorable. When Amelia comes down with the flu she unwittingly sends Lara off to a fashionable New Year’s Eve party with Victor as her chaperone. The wily and amoral man takes full advantage of the situation on the way home, deflowering the girl in a flurry of forced kisses. Unaware of the incident, Pasha arrives at Amelia’s dress maker’s shop. Earlier in the evening he was wounded by the Russian Guard, who mowed down innocent men, women and children engaging in an organized protest in the streets. Now, Pasha asks Lara to hide a stolen gun somewhere in her mother’s shop.
Again, David Lean illustrates the differences between a mere director and a true artisan of the moving image, zeroing in on a tiny blue bottle of iodine Lara uses to clean out Pasha’s facial cut; also, introducing the weapon later used in a flawed attempt to rid herself of Komarovsky’s influences. In the meantime, the cloistered affair between Lara and Komarovsky progresses; he, inviting her to out of the way private brothels, forcing Lara to dress as his whore and partake in demoralizing role playing games, pouring wine down her throat to the point where she cannot swallow without a few drops oozing from her pouty lips. Whenever Lara shows increasing displeasure over this treatment Komarovsky threatens to expose their affair to Amelia; taunting the girl with the prospect her mother might already know what has been going on between them. Komarovsky tells Lara there are only two kinds of women “…and we, as you very well know, are not the first kind. You are a slut.” When Lara denies the allegation, Komarovsky proves the point by carrying her off by force; she, gradually acquiescing to his penetrating demands.
We move ahead to Amelia, having poisoned herself with the same bottle of iodine. Frantic, Komarovsky sends for Boris to discretely save the woman’s life; Yuri inadvertently observing from a distance the disquieting revelation that Komarovsky and Lara have been lovers. A short while later, Lara inadvertently runs into Pasha on the streets on route to a rendezvous with Komarovsky, concealing in her muff the pistol he gave her nearly a year before. She crashes the Svetinsky’s annual Christmas party, shooting Komarovsky in the arm in a botched public execution. Pasha arrives and escorts Lara from the premises. Yuri and Tonya’s engagement is announced and Moscow learns Yuri has also passed his medical exams with flying colors. He is now a practicing physician. Patching up Komarovsky’s wounded arm in one of the private rooms, Yuri lets it be known he does not approve of Komarovsky’s lifestyle. Ever unapologetic and pompous, Komarovsky offers to pass Lara around to Yuri as a ‘wedding present’; a very cruel gesture indeed.
So far, Doctor Zhivago has been an evenly paced and intricately structured human drama revolving around these closely drawn together lives. Alas, Pasternak’s novel is too much the epic for even Lean to cover without periodic escapes into montage. And so we get the first of several with Yevgraf’s voiceover narration. Here, we learn about the Tsarist war with the Mongols that inadvertently dovetails into Nicholas II’s undoing in the court of popular opinion and gives rise to the Bolshevik movement. The revolution is, itself, glossed over in a few brief lines: so too, Yuri’s marriage to Tonya and Lara’s marriage to Pasha, despite his knowing the truth about her dalliances with Komarovsky. As revolution grips Moscow, the Gromeko’s family home is appropriated by the newly appointed allocations committee who transform its once stately rooms into an overcrowded hovel. Yuri is assigned duties on the front lines, the warring Red and Whites tearing the nation apart; his constant patching up of the wounded eventually wearing down his nerves. At these trying times of crisis, Yuri is befriended by Lara who has become a nurse. Yuri’s affection for Lara grows steadily. He confides these transparent feelings to her; also, the fact he witnessed her display of marksmanship at the Svetinsky’s party some years earlier.
Having grown considerably in her outlook on life, Lara is mildly ashamed of these actions. But Yuri insists both she and Pasha showed immense courage under pressure on the occasion. Sensing Yuri’s inability to discern right from wrong, Lara tells him they have, as yet, done nothing either need be ashamed of once the war is over. At war’s end, Yuri returns to the Gromeko manor, appalled by its decaying condition but grateful to be reunited with Alexander, Tonya and Sasha (Jeffrey Rockland), the son he has never seen, now almost six years old. Alas, Anna has died in the interim. During these uncertain times a man can be suspected of practically anything. And so it comes to pass that Yuri, having skulked off in the dead of night to smuggle in some badly needed firewood from a few stolen fence planks, is caught by his own estranged brother, Yevgraf; now a Bolshevik General. Yevgraf warns the family that Yuri’s past as one of Russia’s preeminent poets has caused the party to label him an insurrectionary. They shoot insurrectionaries.
And so, Yuri packs up what is left of his family for a lengthy journey by train across the Ural Mountains where the family has a country estate. Along this hellish journey, packed into box cars as livestock, along with others fleeing the cramped city, the family encounters several burnt out villages, managing to rescue an elderly woman desperately running alongside their speeding box car with a dead baby clutched in her arms. Aside: in performing this full-scale stunt the first extra dressed for the scene stumbled and fell, narrowly averting being run over by the train, though nevertheless slicing deep into her legs, forcing Lean to order a double be dressed to replace her. At one point the train is detained; Yuri, wandering off, following the warm afterglow of sunrise, but captured by soldier’s loyal to Strelnikov; none other than Pasha. Yuri attempts to befriend Pasha. But Pasha is completely absorbed in the revolution, momentarily confiding in Yuri that he cares not what has become of Lara or his young daughter, Katya (Lucy Westmore). Upon their arrival in the Urals, Yuri and his family are greeted by their former caretaker, Petya (Jack MacGowran); old enough to recall the days when the Gromekos were considered part of the aristocracy.
Yuri and the family discover the main house has been shuttered by orders of the provisional government. Mercifully, the cottage remains theirs to occupy. There, Tonya becomes pregnant with Yuri’s second child. Alas, Yuri grows restless of this bucolic life, particularly during the arduous winter months. At first thaw, he hurries to a nearby town to explore; shocked at his good fortune in being reunited with Lara. Now working as a librarian, she keeps a small apartment with Katya. As time passes, Yuri and Lara become lovers; their amorous infidelity increasingly torturing Yuri. With the assassination of the Tsar, the family realizes there is no hope for a return to the life they once knew. On a routine visit into town, Yuri is kidnapped by the White Army, forced into service as their doctor; the Captain of the Guard revealing to Yuri the government is well aware of his double lifestyle. After nearly two years of service to these mercenaries, Yuri manages an escape; making his way back to Lara’s apartment a gaunt and exhausted wreck. She nurses him back to health and the two make plans to leave Russia for good. Alas, Komarovsky arrives to inform the pair the army is coming to arrest Yuri for desertion. They are also coming for Lara, having captured, tortured for information, and then executed Pasha not more than a hundred miles from town. There is but one escape; under Komarovsky’s auspices aboard a waiting train.
Yuri reluctantly agrees, though only to convince Lara she and Katya must leave while they still can. Promising to meet up with them at the station, Yuri and Lara are instead parted for all time. The last act of Doctor Zhivago is the most dissatisfying; a hurried montage through the nightmarish history of post-revolutionary Russia; Yevgraf narrating the rest of the tale with a somber tone, both disdainful and yet teeming with abject regret. We discover Yuri practicing medicine in Moscow, a broken man separated from his legitimate family, presumably escaped to relative safety abroad. We pick up Lara’s story; having become pregnant by Yuri and given birth to his daughter in the far east, only to lose her in the nightmarish collapse of Manchuria. Lara searches for their daughter, Tonya in every orphanage in Moscow but to no avail; Yevgraf confiding to us that even he was perhaps ‘a little bit in love with her’. Having imagined the hallucination of ‘seeing’ Lara on a Moscow street, Yuri suffers a fatal heart attack. He is buried with full honors befitting a Russian poet and Yevgraf concludes Lara’s fateful tale by suggesting one day she left him in search of Yuri’s daughter, but never returned; just another nameless, faceless missing person who probably died in one of the many work camps.
We regress to the scene that opened the movie; ‘the girl’, tearful and confused by the sudden realization her mother is Lara, the woman her father, Yuri has dedicated a book of poetry to before his untimely passing. She is comforted by a more tender Yevgraf at her side. “Don’t you want to believe it?” he asks her, to which she honestly admits, “Not if it isn’t true.” Promising to be in touch after she has had the opportunity to think things through for herself, the girl departs with a balalaika slung over her shoulder; the same balalaika given to Yuri when he was just a boy after his mother’s passing. Recognizing the instrument, Yevgraf inquires, “Tonya…can you play the balalaika?” “Can she play?” David (Gerhard Jersch) her engineering boyfriend shouts back, “She’s an artist!” “Ah,” Yevgraf admits, knowing for certain he has found his long lost niece, “Then it’s a gift.” Exactly what the future may hold for any of them remains bittersweet and very uncertain as David Lean pulls back on a wide shot of the Aldeadávila Dam (actually built between Spain and Portugal) and Maurice Jarre’s ‘Lara’s Theme’ drowns out the raging waters as a melodic reminder of the tragic love story we have just experienced.
Doctor Zhivago is unquestionably nostalgic yet redemptive, the generational renewal of life, perennially leaving its mark upon the grand sweep of history, despite turbulence and uncertainty during one of its most harrowing chapters. The film’s first two acts rival the scope and quality of any David Lean epic; Lean employing his justly famous painterly style to evoke period melodrama better than most any storyteller of his generation. Regrettably, he all but abandons this even pace during Zhivago’s last act, devolving into a lengthy series of montages and dissimilar vignettes linked together only by Alec Guinness’ stoic account of these later years. In all fairness to Lean and screenwriter, Robert Bolt, Pasternak’s novel is not ideally suited for the motion picture medium – even as a lengthy road show. There’s just too much exposition explored within the girth of Pasternak’s prose, barely unpacked, much less explored in the movie.
Unable to shoot his grand epic in Russia, Lean settled for various carefully scouted locations across Central Europe, capturing the essential flavor and atmosphere of this doomed civilization mostly in Spain. In retrospect, Lean had forged his storytelling prowess upon a daunting canvas of civil unrest before – and wound again, with Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India. Yet, herein he occasionally loses sight of even his main characters; the upheaval and displacement much too broad and at odds with the restrictions of even this lengthy run time. The audience senses that cinematic time is running out during Zhivago’s last act: the narrative becoming more disjointed and unwieldy, Bolt’s textbook plotting devolving into an historical testament, suddenly taking precedence over these all too human situations. It is a shame too, because until the intermission, Lean has carefully balanced history with fiction, creating one of the most compelling human sagas in movie history. Without question, Doctor Zhivago endures and has withstood the testament of time itself as a grandiose and oft’ resplendent entertainment. Yet, upon further reflection it seems to lack something of Lean’s masterful arc in storytelling, an overriding and all pervasive absence of vision to will it into a truly undisputed masterpiece on par with his Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Passage to India, or even, Ryan’s Daughter.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is above average. Regrettably, it is not perfect. Sourced from restored elements created for the DVD reissue in 2001, this 1080p anamorphic image exhibits fully saturated, often beautiful colors; contrast superbly rendered and fine details generally popping as they should. Black levels can appear just a shay weaker than anticipated, although even this is not enough to fail my overall rating. Better still, age-related artefacts are mostly absent from the print. Even so, this image is not quite as punchy as one might expect. Flesh tones occasionally exhibit a paltry glow, usually favoring a muskmelon orange hue. Often, the image seems bright without fully absorbing the lushness of its MetroColor palette. What is inexcusable, unfortunately, is the edge enhancement that plagues several scenes in the movie. This proves Warner did not perform a new hi-def scan for this Blu-ray, as these same anomalies were glaringly visible on the DVD release and are directly ported over to the Blu-Ray.
Zhivago’s 5.1 DTS audio is also questionable. Aside: the movie’s vintage audio has always sounded rather tinny; dialogue obviously re-recorded in post-production and sounding thin with unconvincingly integrated effects and a general lack in bass tonality. Herein, the timbre just seems off and strident. On occasion, Maurice Jarre’s score seems to intrude rather than envelope the screen with a problematic distortion and slight reverb. Again, these shortcomings have always been part of Zhivago’s sound mix. Could they have been improved and/or corrected or even made slightly less offensive for this Blu-ray mix? Debatable, but the real benefactor herein is undoubtedly Maurice Jarre's score; more pronounced and, on occasion, very lush sounding.
All of the extras included on the old DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray, including the hour-long ‘making of’ documentary hosted by Omar Sharif, an audio commentary featuring Sandra Lean, Omar Sharif and Rod Steiger, vintage junkets and featurettes and theatrical trailers. The Blu-Ray adds an exclusive two part 'celebration' of the movie’s lasting appeal whereby present-day film makers gush about the impact and staying power Lean’s indelibly crafted images have had on their own aspirations as cinematic storytellers. Only this newly produced featurette is in 1080p. The rest of the extras remain in 720i and, on occasion, show significant wear and tear. Overall, Doctor Zhivago on Blu-ray looks good, but decidedly not great. It really does require a brand new 1080p hi-def scan and remaster. With Omar Sharif’s passing, here’s to hoping this cornerstone in his filmic legacy gets its just desserts. Recommended – for now.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)