Top 100 Movie Review: No. 048 – Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Ranked 048 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017). Watched movie during May 2020.

Cast: Omar Sharif (Dr. Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara Antipova), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko), Rod Steiger (Victor Ippolitovich Komarovsky), Alec Guinness (Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago), Tom Courtenay (Pasha Antipov / Strelnikov), Siobhán McKenna (Anna Gromeko), Ralph Richardson (Alexander Gromeko), Rita Tushingham (Tanya Komarova)
Director:  David Lean
My rating: 9.0 / 10

The movie takes place from just before the first World War, and the Russian Civil War which also covers the Russian Revolution of 1917. The movie between sometime after World War 2 with KGB Lieutenant General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) searching for the daughter of his half brother the Doctor Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and his former lover Lara Antipova (Julie Christie). Yevgraf interviews a young woman, Tanya Komarova (Rita Tushingham), who he believes is his niece.  Tanya is sceptical and recalls little of her past before she became and orphan so Yevgraf tells her the story of her father’s life.

After the burial of his mother in rural Russia, the orphaned child Yuri Zhivago is gifted his mother’s balalaika (a musical instrument) and is taken to be cared for by his mother’s friends in Moscow: Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and Anna Gromeko (Siobhán McKenna). Jumping forward to 1913, Zhivago, as a medical student in training, but a poet at heart.  Yuri greets Tonya Gromeko (Geraldine Chaplin) returning to Moscow after a long visit to Paris. Tonya informs Yuri that his poetry is famous in Paris.

Lara Antipova who is 17 years old, becomes involved in an affair with her mother’s ‘friend’, the older well-connected Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), despite being in a relationship with idealistic reformer Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay).  Pasha is wounded will marching in a peaceful protest that is interrupted by the sabre-wielding police attack which is witness by Yuri and shapes his opinion of the authorises. Pasha injured runs to Lara to treat his wound and urges her to hide a gun he picked up at that protest.

After Lara’s mother learns of her daughter’s affair with Komarovsky, she attempts suicide, for which medical treatment is given by Zhivago, alerted by the man to Lara’s home. When Komarovsky learns of Lara’s intentions to marry Pasha, he tries first to dissuade her, and when refused he rapes her In revenge. Humiliated Lara then takes Pasha’s pistol hidden for him, follows Komarovsky to his Christmas party, and shoots at him but only slightly wounds him.  The man insists that no action be taken against Lara, who is soon escorted out by Pasha who happened to be around, whereas Komarovsky’s wound is taken care of by Yuri who now sees though the facade of the elites in Moscow.  Although devastated by Lara’s ill relations with Komarovsky, Pasha marries her, and they have a daughter named Katya. Yuri marries Tonya and they have a little boy.

Yevgraf Zhivago is sent by the Bolsheviks to subvert the Imperial Russian Army during the war. Yuri Zhivago is drafted and becomes a battlefield doctor. Pasha is reported missing in action following a daring attack on German forces, and Lara enlists as a nurse to search for him. During the February 1917 Revolution, Zhivago enlists Lara’s help to tend to the wounded. Together they run a field hospital for six months, during which time radical changes occur throughout Russia as Vladimir Lenin returns from exile to Moscow and the Tsar is arrested. Before their departure there, Yuri and Lara fall in love, but remain faithful to their partners.

After the war, Yuri returns to Tonya and his boy and settles at their house in Moscow, which was been split and divided into tenements by the new Soviet government. Yevgraf, now a member of the secret police informs Yuri that his poems were condemned as antagonistic to Communism and urges him to leave Moscow as soon as possible. Yevgraf provides Yuri the travel passes and documents to escape to the Ural Mountains to former estate of the Gromeko’s. The family board a heavily guarded freight train, bound to be travelling through contested territory, being secured by the infamous Bolshevik commander named Strelnikov, who is in fact Pasha Antipov now a bitter man.

During their journey they see the horrors of the civil war.  At one stop they encounter Strelnikov (Pasha) who informs Yuri within a tense interview that his estranged wife Lara is now living in the town of Yuriatin.  On arrival in Ural Yuri and his family settle and live peacefully in a cottage on the estate with the main house barred. 

By chance Yuri runs into Lara eventually they surrender to their long-repressed feelings.  At the same time Tonya becomes pregnant. Yuri travels to Yuriatin to break it off with Lara, only to be abducted by the Communist partisans on the trip back, and forced to join their field medical service.

After two years, Zhivago deserts the partisans and trudges days and nights through deep snow to Yuriatin, where he again finds Lara. She informs him that Tonya had reached her while searching for him and is now back in Moscow. However, as Lara hands Yuri a sealed letter mailed six months earlier to her own address, it was revealed that Tonya, her father, and their children escape to Paris. 

Yuri and Lara renew their relationship, but one night Komarovsky arrives and warns them they are being watched by the local police because of Lara’s marriage to Strelnikov (Pasha). Komarovsky offers her and Yuri his help in leaving Russia, which they promptly refuse remembering the crimes he previously committed. Instead they return to the abandoned Gromeko estate, taking up residence in the previously barred main house, where Yuri begins writing his “Lara” poems which will later make him famous

Komarovsky reappears in their house sometime later and informs Yuri that Strelnikov (Pasha) was captured five miles away, while apparently looking for Lara, and then committed suicide en route to his own execution.  With Pasha dead Lara is no longer protected. Zhivago sends Lara and Katya away with Komarovsky, recently appointed as regional official in the independent Far Eastern Republic. Refusing to accompany the despised person, Yuri remains behind to face his fate.

Years later, during the Stalinist era, Yevgraf meets Yuri in Moscow, sick and destitute, and gets him a new suit and a job. Looking out the window of a crowded tram, Yuri sees Lara walk by. Unable to attract her attention, he struggles to get off at the next stop, and runs after her, but suffers a fatal heart attack before she sees him. Yuri’s funeral is well-attended, despite the ban on his poetry at the time. Lara approaches Yevgraf at the funeral, and tells him she gave birth to Yuri’s daughter in the Far East, but the girl was lost when the Russian Civil War broke out there. After vainly looking for her, with Yevgraf’s help, in various orphanages, Lara disappears; Yevgraf thinks she must have died in one of the labour camps.

While Yevgraf still believes that Tanya Komarova is Yuri and Lara’s daughter, she is not convinced, and still insists that her father was Komarovsky, who later let go of her hand and lost her in the street. When about to leave with her fiancé, Yevgraf notices Tanya’s balalaika, the instrument which Yuri’s mother was so gifted at playing. Questioned further, Tanya confirms that she is indeed self-taught at it, whereupon her boyfriend proclaims what a ‘great artist’ she is, to which Yevgraf smiles, “Ah well, then it’s a gift!”, leaving no doubt as to whose daughter she is.    

What’s to Like
The epic scale of the movie, the historic setting of Russia as they go through the communist revolution, landscapes, the music, the tragedy of all the characters.

What’s not to Like
The strong British accents can take away from the Russian drama while it’s easier to follow with the actors speaking English using Russians accents.

A remarkable movie that took two years to film.  The book was banned in Russian, like Yuri’s writings inside the movie.  The backdrop of the revolution gives you some glimpses into the difficulties and horrors of this period in Russian history.  The human drama is the heartbreak of this three hour epic.  Yuri tries to be a good and honourable man and only fails when it comes to his affair with Lara.  Lara also tries to be a good person but struggles all her life but her assault and rape by Komarovsky wakes her up to the false façade of the elite.  Similarly her husband Pasha starts out wanting a peaceful revolution but becomes a killer.  The movie is a tragedy of missed opportunities setup around the massive upheaval and loss of life and status for some many Russians.    

While a fairly long movie every scene has a purpose and each and every character changes.  While this movie lost the major Academy Awards to the Sound of Music this movie has only become more appreciated as it ages showing how much of a classic it really is.

Highly recommend.      

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium – winner
  • Best Cinematography, Colour – winner
  • Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Colour – winner
  • Best Music, Score – Substantially Original – winner
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Tom Courtenay) – nominee
  • Best Director (David Lean) – nominee
  • Best Sound – nominee
  • Best Film Editing – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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