It’s fair to say that many of the greatest films ever made are products of perfect timing. If many of them were released now, they wouldn’t make anywhere near the impact they did as when they were originally released. Cinema is an organic beast, constantly evolving with technology, society and history. When people wax lyrical that "they don’t make them like that any more," it should be with the knowledge that this is a good thing - great films are created in the little crucible of their own time and circumstance, and any artificial attempt to replicate that will only lead to failure.
So what does this have to do with David Lean’s 1965 classic ‘Doctor Zhivago’, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary? Well, in our cinema a classic romance tends to function on a small scale against a modest backdrop, stories of star-crossed and doomed lovers told against a suburbia or a small yet gritty period canvas. ‘Zhivago’ belongs to a different time, where a romance could be played out against the most enormous of visual and historical backdrops, running at an impossible length, writ impossibly large in every way. Before computers and visual effects came and took over the responsibility of scale and grandeur, pure visual storytelling and great sweeping narratives on a cinema screen were the height of the popular cultural experience. Lean’s staggering Russian epic may have been one of the last gasps of this most spectacular form of cinema.
By 1965, David Lean had established himself as a superstar director. After decades of incredible films in Britain, working with playwright Noel Coward and a series of acclaimed adaptations of Charles Dickens novels, he moved to Hollywood and established his reputation with the Oscar-winning WWII drama ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (1957), for which he won his first directing Oscar. This was the first time Lean had stepped into a much wider visual and narrative canvas, away from intimate scenes in small rooms, but the tremendous skill he had tuned on those more intimate films translated beautifully into the wider scope. ‘Bridge’ was action-packed and breathtaking, yet intense and detailed, with a towering central performance from Alec Guinness. It was his follow-up to ‘Bridge’ though that established him as one of the finest directors of all time, his biopic of Colonel T. E. Lawrence. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ is a masterpiece, a perfect film from beginning to end, everything cinema should be. At the time of its release, it was an enormous critical and commercial success, garnering Lean further Oscar glory. In it, you see a great craftsman become a titan, an artist who wields the cinema like a weapon, and wield it better than anyone else around him.
As his follow-up, Lean chose the controversial Russian novel ‘Doctor Zhivago’, Boris Pasternak’s best-selling romance set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution. It follows the tale of love between a gifted young doctor named Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and a beautiful young woman named Lara (Julie Christie). With both married and their lives crossing at the most intense junctures, the two battle against the impending affair that they know will eventually claim them, all the while trying to survive and help their own families survive as their country literally falls apart around them. The novel had been a huge success internationally, but Pasternak’s home country had banned it. At the height of the Cold War, Pasternak had presented in the novel a damning account of the communist revolution, criticising the history of his country. It’s little wonder it attracted Lean - the backdrop was vast but the focus was on human relationships and human interaction.
In every way, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ is an enormous film. It runs at nearly three and a half hours, it covers Russian history from before the fall of the Tsar to the rise of Stalin, it moves between the metropolis of Moscow to the wild woods of untamed Russia, and at the centre is the most doomed of romances, fighting both circumstance and history. In the shadow of ‘Lawrence’, Lean expanded his canvas to create arguably his biggest and most complicated film, composed of uncountable moving visual pieces and featuring a cast of thousands. It’s a stunning balancing act, one where the storyteller has to juggle not just a personal and intimate story but the entire history of a people at the same time. The thrill and confusion of ‘Zhivago’ for us is watching something that might topple at any second.
I hadn’t seen ‘Zhivago’ for a long time when I recently revisited it, and certainly don’t know it as well as I know ‘Lawrence’, but in many ways I found it the most experimental and bold Lean ever got. While many filmmakers relied heavily on dialogue, Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt stripped back dialogue wherever possible to let the images do the talking. There are moments of visual storytelling in this film that are amongst the finest I've ever seen, sequences that convey everything you need to know about character, circumstance and culture without uttering a word. Bolt’s screenplay is pure economy, stripping Pasternak’s story to its core and never wasting a word. Legendary cinematographer Freddie Young pulls out every trick available to him to craft the interior and exterior world of Yuri and Lara. The three men employ a series of recurring motifs (candles, flowers, the contrast of colour against snow) to hold the film together, and evolve them as the relationship between Yuri and Lara grows and the country crumbles.
It wasn't the first time someone had told a human story against the background of an enormous historical event, but not since ‘Gone With The Wind’ had one done it with such immediacy and without compromise.
And what a country! The Russia of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ is captured in breathtaking romantic vistas, epic landscapes of snow and ice and jaw-dropping sunsets. The first act of the film sits mostly around Moscow, where we watch it crumble along with the Tsarist regime that built it, but when Yuri moves his family to the country in hopes of a better life, we’re offered a view of the scope of the Russian landscape. What’s still so amazing about what we see on the screen in ‘Zhivago’ is that these landscapes are real. The train moving across it in the distance is real. The cavalries of hundreds of men battling in snow-covered meadows or on frozen lakes are all real. Say what you will about visual effects and their great convenience, but they’ll never capture the raw horror of the decimated village Yuri and his family see on their journey, a complete burning skeleton of an entire little civilisation smouldering black against the virgin snow.
And that might be the thing that makes ‘Zhivago’ such a distinct and powerful film. It wasn't the first time someone had told a human story against the background of an enormous historical event, but not since ‘Gone With The Wind’ (1939) had one done it with such immediacy and without compromise. Lean takes the bravery of Pasternak’s inditement of Communist Russia and pushes it even further, painting the most damning of portraits of a complex and dangerous political movement. And most importantly, he shows us through the most human of eyes - through Yuri, a genuinely good man simply trying to save those he loves and preserve his soul against the insanity around him. It helps that he has someone as genuinely human as Sharif in the role, who pours his heart and soul into it. The same can be said of the entire ensemble cast. As well as the radiant Julie Christie, you have Geraldine Chaplin, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, Ralph Richardson and a terrifying Tom Courtney. Somehow, none of them get lost amidst the enormity of the film, a credit to their collective talents and to the tremendous attention to detail from Lean.
I've barely scratched the surface of ‘Zhivago’ - when a film is this big, it needs far too many words to encapsulate it. I haven’t even talked about the utterly sublime score from Maurice Jarre, or its initial failure with critics and audiences on its first release, or the enormous impact it would have on the cinema that followed it. Maybe that’s appropriate though. A David Lean film can’t be captured in words, and especially not one as passionate and powerful as ‘Doctor Zhivago’. They need to be seen and experienced, and preferably on the biggest screen you can find. ‘Zhivago’ is a breathtaking piece of cinema, enormous and ambitious and unrelenting, the kind of epic romance we could never make today. We might look at a film like this and say "they don’t make them like that any more," but it’s with a fond smile, because when it's a film as damn bloody good as this one, who would want a bad replication of it?