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Doctor Zhivago: Brief Notes on an Epic Drama

Pre-Movie Night Reading

Director: David Lean
Date of Release: 1965
Awards: Five Oscars in 1966, Five Golden Globes in 1967, and multiple others

Principal roles:

Omar Sharif as Doctor Zhivago
Julie Christie as Lara
Alec Guiness as Yevgraf

Summary:

This movie is an epic drama about Russian physician, Yuri Zhivago, who experiences the dramatic upheavals that WWI and the Bolshevik Revolution bring to his homeland. Throughout the story, idealist Zhivago endures numerous hardships, which includes falling in love with a nurse, Lara, when he also loves his wife and family.

Read beforehand to enhance the movie-watching experience:

  • Much of the movie takes place between 1912 to 1925, which spans World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War.
  • It is based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, which was smuggled out of Russia and eventually published in Italy in 1957.  The Soviet Union finally allowed the book to be viewed by the public in 1988.
  • The film was shot in Spain during the regime of General Francisco Franco. While the scene with the crowd chanting the Marxist theme was being filmed at 3:00 am, local police showed up at the set thinking that a real revolution was taking place. Apparently, people who lived near the filming venue woke up to the sound of revolutionary singing, and mistakenly believed that Franco had been overthrown. As the extras sang the revolutionary Internationale for a protest scene, the secret police surveyed the crowd, making many of the extras pretend that they didn't know the words. (Source: IMDb)
  • Doctor Zhivago is well known for its soundtrack, particularly Maurice Jarre’s "Lara’s Theme," which won an Academy Award for Best Music Score.

 

Doctor Zhivago: Pasternak and Politics

For some apolitical men, a conscientious few, ideas need not have a practical application. They are of intrinsic worth. The advantage to be gained by exploiting an idea is of no concern. These men love ideas for the sake of wisdom, tranquility, and transcendence; Zhivago was such a man
—Ian Bloom, Illumined Illusions

I remember observing out loud to Lucy after she and I had tallied the votes for the Fall Film Competition, that the four top films seemed lacking in commonality except for their dates of release. But of course, as I expressed last month, it began to occur to me that a theme for these films might be "social defiance."

Don't you wonder why humans are drawn to such stories? Do we all feel powerless at the core, no matter our social position or beneficial characteristics? Jesus of Nazareth and certainly his followers too were defiant. Many stories in the Hebrew scriptures describe defiant acts or defiant people. Each of us would likely be proud to carry a reputation of standing up to oppressors, if we could do this in a way that resulted in positive influence without inspiring violence. Is this fantasy part and parcel of the human race, or have we assumed this mantle because of stories and films that have such outcomes and satisfying endings?

Boris Pasternak, man of privilege

Boris Pasternak and brother Alex
Boris Pasternak and his brother Alex

Boris Pasternak, son of Russian artists and the author of the novel on which our movie is based, was a man of privilege, a celebrated writer of poetry and prose who lived through—and whose life was directly affected by—enormous social turmoil and political change. He was born in Moscow in 1890 into a Jewish family and studied philosophy at the University of Moscow.

We might imagine that Pasternak set out to influence others quietly and peacefully by revealing the realities of the Revolution through his writing, instead of possibly attempting to foment retaliation in kind. Through the character of Yuri Zhivago, he showed a model of humanity where caring for others rose above slaughtering people who disagreed. This is a political stance many Americans adhere to according to our vision of democracy.

But, Pasternak was not free to express himself as he might have wished. Prior to the enduring global acclaim from Doctor Zhivago, he first achieved public recognition through his poetry, published during the period between 1913-1922. However, his writing was judged to be inconsistent with Communist "socialist realism;" therefore, Doctor Zhivago was rejected out of hand as unacceptable for publication.
Read more about socialist realism . . .

Doctor Zhivago: Mary’s Movie Night Review

A Doctor Zhivago review must first include comment about its extraordinary success at the box office. Upon its release, Doctor Zhivago was so popular with its audiences that it remains as MGM’s second most profitable film. Guess which film is first? Gone with the Wind! Both Gone with the Wind, released in 1939, and Doctor Zhivago, in 1965, are epic movies set in times of immense turmoil that war brings and both include irresistible love stories. The similarities end there. Gone with the Wind, based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, glorifies the Old Confederate South. Margaret Mitchell was free to write and create her own world in any way she wanted. Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago, was at the mercy of the Communist Russian government in 1956. To be published, the manuscript had to be smuggled out of Russia. It was not until 1988 when the Soviet Union finally allowed its citizens public access to it.

Doctor Zhivago in Atlanta

Fox Theater
Fox Theater, Atlanta
Photo: Robert Elzey

Movie-goers in Atlanta were first introduced to Doctor Zhivago in 1965 at the Fox Theater on Peachtree Street. The movie and its score captivated the audience, which included Lucy and Jack Cota. Jack was most impressed with the soundtrack and its composer, Maurice Jarre, and he was not alone in his admiration. According to the IMDb, the soundtrack sold more than 600,000 copies during the film’s initial release.

Movies make for great family bonding time, and when a rare ice storm swept across Atlanta in the early 1980’s, Lucy, Jack, and daughter Mary, cuddled in the den, and watched the epic Doctor Zhivago, which happened to be showing on TV that day. The scenes that Mary remembers most are those filmed in the Ice House, which was appropriate because of the Atlanta ice storm at the time. Like the famous maze of snow-covered hedges in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the memorable ice house scene is permanently seared in audiences’ memories.

Zhivago notes of interest

It is surprising to learn that most of Doctor Zhivago was filmed in Spain in the dead heat of summer. For snow, director David Lean bought an entire marble quarry and had it ground into powder for disbursement as snow. Surrounding trees were sprayed with plastic snow to complete the setting. While watching the movie, you would never guess that the actors were withstanding 100 plus degree weather, and sweating profusely with makeup artists hovering around wiping away the sweat. Movie extras were ordered not to shed a single layer of clothing, which was a hard challenge for them in the insufferable heat.

It was Lean’s choice that handsome Omar Sharif star as Doctor Zhivago. The director and the actor had worked together previously in Lawrence of Arabia. During filming, Sharif had to endure daily rituals of having his eyes taped back, and his hair straightened to make him appear more Russian than Middle Eastern. Every three days, he also had his hairline shaved back, and his skin waxed. However, undergoing ethnic transformation for movie roles was not an unusual occurrence in Sharif’s career. According to Variety, he was also cast as a Spaniard in Behold a Pale Horse, a Mongol in Genghis Khan, a New Yorker in Funny Girl, and a German in The Night of the Generals.

One would not guess that the actor was a fat and ugly child in the eyes of his mother. She thought in desperation, “What can I do? Where is the worst food?” That would be English cuisine, so she sent her son Omar to an English boarding school. This turned out to be life-changing for Omar Sharif. In one year he lost weight and learned to speak fluent English. Next door to the school was a theater, which exposed him to an activity that soon became his life’s calling. Omar Sharif died in Cairo, Egypt this past July 2015. He suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease in his later years.

Lucy would be interested to know that Omar Sharif was a world-class bridge player.

REFERENCES

Doctor Zhivago (film). (2016, Apr). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Zhivago_%28film%29