Doctor Zhivago is one of those classic Hollywood films that is almost impossible to view completely objectively. If it’s a classic, it must be great, right? But it is forgotten that despite being loved by audiences at the time, it was savaged by critics. I checked out the IMDB, and was a little surprised to see that though it had won 5 Oscars, they were all technical ones like Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction. The most major categories it lost were Best Director (David Lean) and Best Supporting Actor (Tom Courtenay). Wow. That’s it?
When I first watched Doctor Zhivago, I was a teenager in the throes of swooning over everything related to classic Hollywood. I remember being agog at how beautiful Omar Sharif was in Lawrence of Arabia (forget the pretty boy Peter O’Toole), and fell into a default swoon for Doctor Zhivago as a result. But I don’t remember ever revisiting the film since then (until now), unlike many other Hollywood classics that I’ve watched and loved over and over. Perhaps, unlike Lawrence, Zhivago comes across as more of a sprawling cinematic extravaganza (impressive, no doubt) that happens to be as cuddly as the gorgeous “ice palace” that became one of the film’s most enduring images.
Omar Sharif plays the titular Russian doctor and poet as a young man in medical school to the silver-haired forlorn man in his famous final scene. Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago is orphaned as a young boy and is taken in and raised by family friends. As he grows to adulthood, he falls in love and marries the family’s daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, in her first major role), and becomes a doctor, as well as a respected poet. But this is the era of the Bolshevik Revolution, so the country is in turmoil, and he is often ripped away from his young family. His path crosses multiple times with beautiful Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman married to an up-and-coming revolutionary named Pasha (Tom Courtenay). After various encounters and seemingly chance meetings, they fall into an affair. Zhivago is devoted to his wife and child, but also loves the lovely Lara. With the backdrop of the revolution where countless people disappeared and/or were killed, you know there will be tragedy.
I remember years ago thinking that Julie Christie was a bit dull for such passionate interest from Zhivago. Sure she is lovely, but it takes at least half the film for her to get a personality. And Omar Sharif, bless his ridiculously handsome face, has pretty much two expressions in the film: blank (with big brown eyes) and shock (where he parts his lips slightly and gets blinky and trembly). Tom Courtenay as Pasha chews up his moments as an uppity power-hungry idealist, and fabulous Rod Steiger completely steals all of his scenes (it almost seems like he is in a different film) as the bad guy from Lara’s past Komarovsky.
It may sound like I’m dissing the film, but the truth is I still got caught up in its grandeur. The movie is truly epic and sprawling, covering decades of one country’s fascinating and brutal political turmoil. The cinematography is fantastic, with scene after scene of visual glory. If I forgot plot points, I certainly remembered the visuals of peasants being slaughtered in the streets of Moscow by the military; of a brigade of soldiers on horses racing across a frozen lake; of people huddled in a frozen railcar as the train hurtled across the plains; and of course the striking image of the beautiful ice palace that symbolizes Zhivago’s idealized past.
And who could forget Maurice Jarre’s timeless score, one of the most famous and recognizable in movie history? If “Lara’s Theme” – which you first hear the first of a full hour into the film – doesn’t make you swoon, well, you must have no love for the magic of Hollywood.
Doctor Zhivago was my first experiment with downloading a full feature-length film from iTunes onto my PC. Of course (just my luck) I tried this experiment with a movie that clocks in at a hefty chunk over three hours on a night that my downloading speed slowed to a crawl. When iTunes estimated a 7 hour (!) download time for 2.5 GB, I just left the computer on and went to bed. Voila, the next day, it was good and ready for watching, though with that amount of download time, it sure didn’t make for a spontaneous movie night. Watching the film on my 19-inch monitor was fine, though the quality varied. Normally it was fine (not great… but it *was* just a monitor), but I noticed that periodically there were horizontal “blip” distortion lines going across the center of the screen (reminded me of a VHS hiccup). And once after pausing the film for a break then restarting, the synching of the sound was off for an entire scene at the two-hour mark. I stopped the film, went back about 5 minutes and restarted, and the problem corrected itself. For a movie like Doctor Zhivago, that is entirely a visual pleasure, iTunes wouldn’t be the ideal source. If you really cared, you’d be picking up the Blu-Ray (where you’d also get all the extras, which you don’t with the iTunes purchase). But if you are simply downloading a movie for on-the-go entertainment on a portable device, it would certainly do the job just fine.