Doctor Zhivago is the life story of an orphan in Russia throughout World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Civil War.
Sometime during the Stalinist era of Russia, a KGB officer named Zhivago (Alec Guiness) is looking for the daughter of his half-brother. He finds Tonya, the young woman he believes to be his niece and tells her the life story of,Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Orphaned as a young boy, Yuri was taken in by a family with a young daughter, also named Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Yuri goes on to become a medical student and a poet. On the other side of Moscow, Lara (Julie Christi), is in love with a young radical named Pasha (Tom Courtenay) but is seduced by an older man and friend of her mother’s, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger). After her mother learns of this, she attempts suicide and Yuri is called upon for his medical services, which is where he first meets Lara in a love story that spans many years as the two continue along their own paths before finding each other again.
I’m not sure if I have said this before, but David Lean is synonymous with epic movies and Doctor Zhivago is one of his finest. It is a film that a single paragraph can not possibly summarize adequately, but the basis of the film is quite simple. While the story is largely timeless, the historical portions, names, and places are all fairly confusing unless strict attention is paid. During the first 30-45 minutes I thought that Yuri’s adopted father and Komarovsky were the same person, which was terribly confusing. Luckily, I have taken a fair share of world history courses and knew enough of the history of Russia so the constant political turmoil in the film was at least partially understood.
Running close to 200 minutes, Doctor Zhivago is truly an epic film. While the film does feel long (though it does include an intermission) there was very little I found that felt superfluous. In fact, the pacing for the first half of the film is fairly brisk. If the film stopped and gave a history lesson and spent more time getting used to the characters, it would have easily topped the four hour mark. Even at such a length, however, I was entranced by Doctor Zhivago. Julie Christie is simply stunning to watch and when the soundtrack swelled I found myself falling in love with her as Lara too.
Seeing Doctor Zhivago on the big screen was an absolute treat, for the soundtrack especially, but I would have liked the comfort of my own home where I could pause and take bathroom breaks as needed. I can’t stand having to get up in the theater and miss anything but at home I’m no stranger to the Pause button when nature calls. David Lean’s most famous epic, Lawrence of Arabia is coming soon and while I would absolutely love to see that in theatrical glory, I’m afraid the even longer runtime will likely dissuade even me. That’s the problem with epics, they have epic runtimes.
Having never seen Doctor Zhivago, but having some knowledge of it beforehand (you may recognize Lara’s Theme), I am ashamed that it took me so long to finally watch the full film. David Lean is a director that doesn’t seem to get nearly enough love, but I have yet to be let down by a film of his. Don’t let the length discourage you, Doctor Zhivago is one of the best epic dramas of all time.
I give it 5 Lara’s Themes out of 5.