Warner Home Video
Cast: Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness
Extras: Introduction, Commentary Track, Isolated Music Score, Documentary, Featurettes, Talent Files, Trailer
"Doctor Zhivago" was the third grand epic by acclaimed director David Lean. While his earlier efforts "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia" are widely hailed as two of the finest films ever created, many of those same critics summarily dismiss "Doctor Zhivago" as a mere piece of romantic fluff. Having been treated to wonderful DVD releases of these three films it’s been my pleasure to revisit these classics and form new opinions based on personal observations rather than the musings of film critics. And I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I found "Doctor Zhivago" to be just as meaningful and moving a motion picture experience as its more heralded predecessors.
Orphaned at a young age, Yuri Zhivago is taken in by family friends in Moscow where he goes on to become a poet and a doctor and falls in love with their daughter, Tonya. But all is not peaceful as the outbreak of World War One leads to the Bolshevik uprising against the Tsar and Zhivago soon finds himself conscripted to run a field hospital far from home. Aided in his medical practice by volunteer nurse Lara — whom he met years earlier under somewhat questionable circumstances — Zhivago falls madly in love with the caring and good-hearted woman.
Knowing that their love can never be, Lara bids Zhivago farewell and heads east in search of her daughter and husband Pascha. Zhivago returns to Moscow only to find that the drive toward communism has cost his family everything and try as he might he just can’t fit into the new communal order. Fleeing with his wife, child, and father-in-law to an old family estate east of the Urals, Zhivago finds some solace in the simple life of a peasant but even there the fighting between the Bolsheviks and the White Russian and foreign forces continues unabated. Zhivago also learns that his beloved Lara is a mere town away and soon they have rekindled their nascent romance and Zhivago begins leading a double life.
On the way home from one such visit to Lara, Zhivago is abducted by Bolshevik partisans and forced to serve as their medical officer for a number of years before at last escaping back to his family’s estate. But his family has fled to France and it is Lara to whom he finally turns for comfort with the tacit understanding of his departed wife.
Trying once again to establish some semblance of a normal life, the two are interrupted by the appearance of Comrade Komarovsky, the one-time lover of Lara who now pleads with them to flee with him to safety in the Far East. But Zhivago is torn by his love for two women and his knowledge that he will never feel at home outside of Russia.
Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, "Doctor Zhivago" was not an easy film to make. Flat out rebuked by the Soviet Union (not at all surprising given the fact that the novel itself was forbidden in that nation), David Lean was faced with the task of filming a story that is as much a result of its environment as its characters in Spain rather than on the streets of Moscow and in the forests of the Urals. The fact that the film never once appears to be taking place anywhere but Russia is a true testament to the skill of the filmmakers.
Perhaps no casting decision was as surprising as the selection of Omar Sharif to star as Doctor Yuri Zhivago. Having already appeared in "Lawrence of Arabia,", Sharif was well-known to Lean who obviously saw something in his character that the director felt could carry a film as epic in scope as "Zhivago." Omar Sharif’s performance here is simply amazing as he perfectly embodies the character of the complex poet and doctor. As the title character of the film, few and far between are the scenes that don’t feature Zhivago and never once does Sharif offer anything but the best possible performance.
For the illicit love interest and heroine of the film, Lean chose little-known actress Julie Christie to portray Lara. Lighting up the screen with her sheer presence it’s not hard to understand why the men in the movie are so enraptured with her beauty, intellect, and good-natured personality.
Interestingly enough, the part of Lara’s husband Pasha (later Strelnikov) is played by Tom Courtenay who earlier starred alongside Christie in the wonderful film "Billy Liar." Having already worked together, the chemistry between the two actors is very natural and gives the complicated interrelationship between their two characters a certain level of believability that otherwise might not have been there.
Two of the more challenging roles in the film are those of Zhivago’s wife Tonya and Lara’s first lover — and sly political animal — Komarovsky. The young model and actress Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie) was picked to play Tonya and her portrayal of the ever faithful wife willing to sacrifice all for her husband is among the more moving performances of the film. It’s no easy task to make the woman a sympathetic character without making her seem merely pathetic for putting up with a philandering husband.
Rod Steiger portrays Komarovsky and has the enviable task of making a lecherous and selfish man seem somehow heroic. Komarovsky is a heel through and through but he nevertheless winds up offering aid even when the danger to himself from such action is very real. Steiger capably conveys the very complex moral character of the man and practically steals every scene he is in.
The film itself is narrated by General Yevgraf Zhivago, Yuri’s half-brother, whose search for his long-lost niece serves as the bookends for the movie. Portrayed by frequent Lean collaborator Alec Guinness, Yevgraf is an infrequent influence in his half-brother’s life but his insights into Yuri’s character form a key aspect of the film and Guinness’s straightforward performance serves to fill in much of the backstory that Lean is content to gloss over.
"Doctor Zhivago" is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and is framed at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Having undergone a new digital restoration by Lowry Digital Images specifically for this release, the video transfer is simply astounding. If you’ve seen the work Lowry has done on "Citizen Kane" or "North by Northwest" then you know that nobody in the business is better at creating new transfers from less-than-perfect source materials.
Colors here are lush, vibrant, and solid. In one particular scene Strelnikov’s armored train is hurtling through a vast winter landscape with bright red flags flying and at no time do the colors bleed or bloom. Black levels and contrast are also spot-on with even the darker scenes exhibiting fine detail.
The overall image is fairly sharp without appearing too artificial although there are a few scenes that suffer from excessive edge enhancement and halo effects (the scene of young Yuri at the cemetery is particularly noticeable). But this slight flaw is rarely in evidence so it doesn’t appear that it was introduced during the creation of this new transfer and may be inherent in the original film elements.
Splitting the feature across both sides of a DVD-14 also allows for a very high bitrate and no noticeable compression artifacts are in evidence. The digital restoration has also removed almost all traces of physical damage and excessive film grain and the overall quality of the video is nothing less than excellent.
Audio is presented in new <$DD,Dolby Digital> English and French <$5.1,5.1 mix>es. This new soundtrack preserves the directional dialogue of the original theatrical release which may sound odd if your front speakers aren’t optimally positioned. Dynamic range is fairly good with very little clipping of the high notes and some slight amount of bass present. Surround use is limited to a few atmospheric effects and the musical score. The only complaint I have with the audio is that it required frequent volume adjustments as the sound effects and score come across louder than the dialogue. But all in all this is a decent attempt to preserve the intent of the original sound mix and it really does sound quite good.
Warner Brothers has seen fit to release "Doctor Zhivago" as a two-disc special edition and it is loaded with extras. Disc One features the film itself as well as a handful of extras.
First up is a brief introduction to the film hosted by Omar Sharif. Created for the 30th anniversary laserdisc release this bit serves as a nice prelude to the film.
Next up is a screen-specific commentary featuring Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, and Sandra Lean. Sharif and Lean were recorded together and offer up the bulk of the comments but Steiger’s insights are among the more entertaining bits. This track is very light on the technical details but full of wonderful personal anecdotes that fans of the film should find enlightening.
Also included on Disc One is a Dolby Digital 5.1 isolated music score featuring Maurice Jarre’s wonderful musical compositions. If any film is known as much for its music as its performances this is it as "Lara’s Theme" has entered the pop culture canon and even those who have never scene the film recognize the score.
The bulk of the bonus features reside on Disc Two. First up is the hour-long documentary "Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic." Another feature carried over from the laserdisc, this behind-the-scenes piece is narrated by Omar Sharif and offers up a wealth of information about the film and features interviews with the principal cast and crew.
Next up are 11 promotional pieces created at the time of the film’s release which offer a nostalgic view of film marketing in action circa 1965. These are all interesting but not nearly as insightful as the full-length documentary which benefits from the gift of hindsight in its examination of the film.
Also included are cast and crew files (some of which feature none-too-subtle Easter Eggs), the film’s original theatrical trailer, and a multi-page listing of the numerous awards the film garnered.
Before undertaking this review I was not a huge fan of "Doctor Zhivago" and agreed with many others that it was somewhat weak in comparison to David Lean’s other works. But after spending numerous hours pouring over this new special edition DVD I’ve come away with a much greater appreciation of the film. Yes it’s an epic soap opera but epic is the key word here. Everything about "Doctor Zhivago" is grand in scope and never once does the director miss an opportunity to take full advantage of the lavish sets and talented cast to tell his story.
Such an epic deserves the five-star treatment for its DVD release and Warner Brothers has really delivered the goods. The quality of the new video transfer is wonderful delivering a stunning image that is only marred by occasional halo effects. The audio preserves the film’s original directional effects and doesn’t detract from the experience with any ham-fisted attempts to jazz up the new 5.1 soundtrack with fake-sounding surround effects or amped up LFE.
As if a high quality video and audio presentation weren’t enough, the package also offers up a wealth of insightful bonus features that fans of the film are sure to enjoy. What more can I say? The film is excellent, the DVDs are excellent, and Warner Brothers has given the set their usual attractive pricing. Short of a revival showing on a real big screen (no puny multiplexes need apply) this DVD is the only way to experience the romance and drama of David Lean’s masterpiece "Doctor Zhivago."