When one thinks of an epic today, what comes to mind are scenes of massive war; explosions take over as bombs explode and the sky is showered in a storm of bullets. But not in this epic. Perhaps it is possible that an epic can be epic in scope and not in noise. Yes, a film like that does exist; and it’s called “Doctor Zhivago.”
“Doctor Zhivago” is nothing but pure grandeur in nearly every aspect, from its cinematography, to its score, to its larger-than-life characters, and of course the tale that it all fits into. It comes from the master of the epic David Lean (“Lawrence of Arabia”).
“Doctor Zhivago” is one of Lean’s many films that take place during World War I. This time, it is not focused on the Arabs and the British, but rather on the Russians and their Revolution. The story of the Revolution is not told through the eyes of Lenin, Stalin, or even Trotsky, but rather through the eyes of ordinary citizens who happened to get involved in the whole mess.
The film is told from the narrative perspective of General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guiness). He is searching for his brother’s daughter, and thinks he has found the answer in a young woman named Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin).
Like “Lawrence of Arabia,” the film is told in flashback form. But rather than focusing on himself, Yevgraf tells the story of his brother, Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Originally from Moscow, Yuri gets caught up in revolutionary fever and serves for many years away from his wife as a doctor from the Red Army. While on the battlefield, he begins a long and doomed affair with the beautiful Lara (Julie Christie) which sets the course for the remainder of the film.
Despite being labeled as an epic, one surprising thing about the typical Lean film (and especially this one), is how little action actually occurs. The battle sequences are sparse, but the film almost keeps you waiting on purpose, because every time a sword is raised or a gun is fired, the film becomes nothing short of spectacular. Such scenes as the March on Moscow, the trench fighting, and the attack on the White Army are among the most stunning ever shot. The trench sequence is perhaps the most intimate and realistic look at trench warfare in World War I since “Paths of Glory.”
But even when the characters aren’t caught in the middle of bloody battle, the film never has a dull moment. Cinematographer Freddie Young captures the Russian landscape in a way that is sometimes haunting and at other times romantic. The images of sparkling snow and icicles are almost as stunning as the yellow flowers blooming in spring. The mansion where Yuri and Lara later live, covered in snow and boarded up by Communists, becomes something of a representation of the characters’ isolation and separation caused by war. The mansion therefore becomes the filmmaker’s statement on war. This opinion uttered without speaking a single word is a testament to the power of the idea that more is less.
The film’s cast contains both Lean regulars as well as newcomers. Shariff, who had a supporting role in “Lawrence of Arabia,” proves he is leading man material in the title role. Often, his fine performance is not realized through words, but rather through expressions; his bloodshot eyes express pain and sadness throughout. Christie, as Shariff’s mistress, steals scenes with her beauty, but also with her pain of having a lover who is more committed to revolution than to her.
Some people say music makes a movie, and the most epic part of “Doctor Zhivago” is its musical score. It is not the greatest score, but it is without a doubt the most beautiful, and one that flawlessly transitions from one scene to another. In one particular scene, two songs overlap. In one corner of Moscow, the resistance of the workers is met with a dreary tune while a fancy restaurant in the other corner is draped in a more uplifting tune. The score of course is conducted by Maurice Jarre. With this film, he proves himself a conductor of film scores that the likes of even John Williams could never live up to. Just try and get “Lara’s Theme” out of your head.
As much as “Doctor Zhivago” is a haunting tale of how war tears apart basic human ties, it is in the end an optimistic look to the future. Some harsh critics have argued that the film’s final shot is “pro-Communist.” This would be like calling “Munich” pro-terrorist. By the end of the film’s 3 hour and 20 minute run, David Lean isn’t trying to sway his audience in one political direction or another. What he’s giving us instead is a beautiful epic about the survival of love and humanity in any circumstance. If more directors made their blockbusters like “Doctor Zhivago,” the world of movies would be a much better place.