If You Believe That Bigger Is Better and Biggest Is Best, Then ‘Doctor Zhivago’ Is For You

The 45th Anniversary Edition version of Doctor Zhivago brings to both Blu-ray and remastered DVD one of the last great epic films of the grand old school. When they say “They don’t make them like this any longer”, it’s particularly true here. It ‘s safe to say that Doctor Zhivago represents filmmaking the likes of which we will never see again.

Where David Lean had to have several blocks of early 20th century Moscow specially constructed in Spain, today’s filmmakers could achieve much the same with CGI. Where Lean meticulously replicated an entire world with gargantuan sets, assembled vast crowds for key scenes, and had an almost endless string of huge sets built to both dazzle and amaze, studios today would achieve the same with highly complex special effects. Indeed, Doctor Zhivago stands on the other side of a vast chasm defining one era of film making from another.

Thematically, Doctor Zhivago resembles a different tale told by a fellow Russian: Leo Tolstoy’s A Confession. At the beginning of his book, Tolstoy recounts an Eastern tale about a traveler who, in order to escape from a beast chasing him across a wasteland, seeks refuge by leaping into a well. Holding onto a twig he looks down to see a dragon at the bottom of the well. Unable to leave the well because of the beast above or go further down because of the dragon below, he watches helplessly as two mice begin to gnaw on the twig. As he hangs there, he notices some honey on the twig, and he reaches out with his tongue to taste it.

Tolstoy’s story captures the essence of Dr. Zhivago. Although set against a backdrop of extraordinary political and social change in Russia, the film is fundamentally a love story between the poet and physician Yuri Zhivago and the beautiful Lara, a story of two individuals striving for private moments in an era of extraordinary public upheaval. They experience a great love that is immortalized in the fictional Soviet Union of the film through the “Lara” poems that Zhivago composes, a love they can share only briefly. The monumental events of the ’10s and ’20s are used almost exclusively as window dressing for a romance, with Lean making virtually no significant political commentary except to imply that all forms of repression – whether by the Czarist elite or the proletarian revolutionaries – are wrong, thereby almost trivializing history for the sake of making us ache a little for Yuri and Lara.

It was not always this way with Lean. Today he is most remembered for his huge, baggy epics like Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia. In the ’50s, Lean had moved away from the small, intimate dramas upon which he built his early reputation in the ’40s – exquisite “small” films like Brief Encounter and This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit – to make increasingly overwrought epics – but we all know that bigger is not necessarily better.

Aesthetically Doctor Zhivago is a prime example of what Manny Farber dubbed “White Elephant Art”. Viewed in the right light, Doctor Zhivago can appear to be a bloated monstrosity that attempts to overwhelm the viewer’s critical senses with massive sets, enormous vistas, and bright – even garish – colors. How can Doctor Zhivago fail to be great art with its gorgeous actors, dazzling backgrounds, astonishingly huge sets, succession of spectacles, and lush music that cues for viewers the appropriate emotions and informs us that we are in the presence of Great Passion?

The problem throughout the film is that the extreme bigness blocks out most of those smaller, more delicate moments that are at the heart of great films (what Farber terms “Termite Art” – art that focuses on small, intimate, human moments, that burrows into the human experience). It’s not that Lean is incapable of these fine moments. Brief Encounter, his greatest film, is proof that Lean could make movies and not merely carnivals captured on film.

If we can pull ourselves away from the sheer bigness of Doctor Zhivago, we can recognize that in many ways it’s simply not a very good film. The movie is almost pornographic in the way it pursues the beautiful image — viewing many of the shots in the film is akin to the vista in a national park, like looking at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite’s Half Dome — the gorgeous face, the striking sprig of flowers, the almost obscene beauty of the Ice House, the numerous lingering shots of Julie Christie’s delicately and precisely lit face. It’s as if Lean had ignored the capacity for intimacy that he had displayed in Blithe Spirit and the love he had there and in other efforts for small moments.

The shift from Character to Image could be seen as early as Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, where the Dickensian recreations led to an increased preoccupation with set design and ornament. Even as late as The Bridge on the River Kwai, the spectacle did not completely overwhelm the concern with people and character. What we remember in the latter is the encounter between strong central characters and, in the final moments of the film, the incompatible goals of highly driven individuals, and not merely the visual spectacle.

From The Bridge on the River Kwai on, though, characters would be of decreasing importance in Lean’s films and would be increasingly dwarfed by his sets and artificial towns and expansive deserts. Even in Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole, who was absurdly inappropriate for the role of T. E. Lawrence (being a foot taller than the diminutive Lawrence, who only gained a military commission when influential connections faked his real height in official paperwork) was just another pretty object in the film (Noel Coward – who provided Lean with his first directing jobs – famously quipped, “If you’d been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia”).

Despite all the negative things that can be said about Doctor Zhivago, it still undeniably makes for entertaining viewing and has remained hugely popular with viewers just as it has retained critics’ disregard. While many critics and film students hate the film (though by no means all), the majority of everyday viewers continue to adore it. One reason for the divergence in opinion lies in the fact that perceptive viewers can spot all the points where Lean is trying to manipulate the viewer, while the everyday viewer is content merely to be manipulated. My suspicion is that even the film’s most passionate detractors find many moments in the film to be rather entrancing.

One of the selling points of the re-release is the film’s being made available on Blu-ray for the first time. My review copy was a DVD, so I cannot address just how much better this looks on Blu-ray. On DVD, the film was visually all that I would have anticipated. From beginning to end, it looked and sounded great, which is crucial since the film does not have a great deal of content to offer beyond the visual and aural spectacle. On these grounds, the new edition has to be deemed a great success.

The Bonus Features are legion but generally not engaging. There are multiple features contemporary with the film’s release as well as many others made at various points over the past few decades about the making of the film or the history of its reception. Without exception, I found these short on insight and interest. There are some curiosities. There is raw film footage of several of the stars being interviewed in a press junket at the time of the film’s release. It’s especially droll to watch an exceptionally bored Julie Christie smoking one cigarette after another during one-on-one sessions with journalists, while struggling to maintain even a semblance of interest.

Even less helpful are the commentaries provided by Omar Sharif, David Lean’s widow Sandra Lean, and Rod Steiger. Although they drop an interesting tidbit from time to time, in general I found that the commentaries were not equal to the time invested in listening to them. Rod Steiger’s comments were particularly unenlightening, essentially amounting to primitive psychological musings on how women are attracted to brutish men (not that he advocated brutishness) and that Lara was attracted to his character Komarovsky because he feigned disinterest and treated her like a tart. Having listened to a host of commentaries, I have come to the conclusion that in general actors should either be kept from participating in them, unless multiple commentaries are provided. There are the occasional exceptions, but in general directors, writers, and, in particular, film critics tend to offer the most insight into films.

One’s reaction to this new DVD edition of Doctor Zhivago will hinge on one’s attitudes toward what makes for a great movie. If you believe that bigger is better and biggest is best, then you may well regard watching this new edition as the epitome of the home film viewing experience. I’m not of this camp. I find parts of Doctor Zhivago to be irresistible, but I also find most of it big merely for the sake of being big. There’s no question that this is a well-executed production, but for me the humanity has been blanched out by the need to impress the viewer with the sheer enormity of things. For some of us, bigger is not merely not better; sometimes it’s out and out bad.

RATING 6 / 10