Doctor Zhivago

January 28, 2012 10 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton

Plot: What’s it about?

When it comes to movies of epic proportion, there’s only a few Director’s that you can (or could) turn to. Stephen Spielberg certainly comes to mind, as does James Cameron. But the older movies had a more grand scale. Films like Ben-Hur, The Godfather and Lawrence of Arabia. The latter of the titles belongs to one David Lean. We might say that 2001 is the year of David Lean on DVD. Three of his epic movies have come out in 2-Disc Special Editions. The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and the third jewel in his crown, Doctor Zhivago. Ranked as #5, #13 and #39 on the AFI list of the 100 Best Movies of all time (not too shabby). While Alec Guiness is present in all three, it’s not felt as much here. Still, I feel that Doctor Zhivago is by far the slowest-moving of the three. Clocking in at just over three hours, you’ll feel every minute of it as well! It’s no secret that the movie was based on Boris Pasternak’s best-selling novel from 1958. Let’s dive right in and see what it’s all about, shall we?

Doctor Zhivago follows the characters through more than 50 years. While starting out in the dreds of Russia, through the disarray and devistation of World War I, then into the chaos that was the Bolshevik Revolution. This leads into the crackdown’s of the 1920’s and 1930’s. The story is told in flashback form (much like ‘Titanic’) as an old General (Alec Guiness) questions a woman (Rita Tushingham) from a group of workers. His goal is to solve an old family mystery which is this…”What happened to his niece after the death of his brother, a doctor-poet by the name of Zhivago?” The war and revolution bring Lara (Julie Christie) and Zhivago (Omar Sharif) together many times, but years to tear them apart. When a lawyer, Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), seduces (seduces is a mild way of putting it) Lara only to tear her and Zhivago apart. Years later, Yuri and Tonya are married and have a son. In the meantime, Lara has also been wed to a revolutionary by the name of Pasha (Tom Courtenay).

Doctor Zhivago is a movie where there’s either a lot of praise and an lot of despise. Doing some research for this review (and I’ll be the first to admit…it’s not good), I noticed a lot of varying opinions of the movie. If the AFI says it’s the #39 best movie ever made, does that necessarily make it so? Of course not…it’s followed by North by Northwest which is my favorite Hitchcock movie and one of my favorite movies of all time. I’ll say that Doctor Zhivago ranks up there with the best of them when it comes to cinematography (he was known for being very meticulous and as a former accountant, he certainly fit the bill) right up there with The Sound of Music and Lawrence of Arabia (another of his works). But the plot of Doctor Zhivago drags on and on like that of a soap opera. And that’s what I can most likely compare it to…a soap opera. Had this movie been about an hour shorter, it would have been that much better. The closeup shots are more like that of Days of Our Lives than an epic that spans over fifty years. I’m not saying that this is a bad movie, far from it. I’m not saying that it doesn’t deserve a place in the Top 100 movies of all time, I think it does. But I don’t think it lives up to the hype and I don’t think it stands the test of time that well. Then again, I’m just a humble reviewer of DVD’s…but I’d like to think that my opinion counts for something. If you’re a fan of the movie, then this is highly recommended of course. If you’ve never seen it, then by all means–give it a try.

Video: How does it look?

Doctor Zhivago has been remastered with a brand new anamorphic transfer. I don’t have to tell you that it looks amazing. I also want to mention (and there’s only one other site out there that gives the proper credit to these people) that the folks responsible for this transfer are at Lowry Digital Images. You might recall their work on Citizen Kane, Snow White and North by Northwest. Simply they bring each film to a higher level. The 2.35:1 image simply oozes with rich colors (just look at the train against the whiteness of the snow) from beginning to end. As the face shots of Omar Sherif and Julie Christie adorn the screen, we can not make out any errors whatsoever in the picture. Truly, David Lean knows how to shoot a movie and a film as epic as this certainly looks as good as it ever has. Nearly perfect.

Audio: How does it sound?

While not nearly as impressive as the video, the audio is the same track that was used for the newly issued LaserDisc just a few years ago. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is mostly dry throughout, though dialogue is clean and clear. Surround effects are used sparingly, as Lean was more to concentrate on visuals rather than sound (and if you ask me, that’s the way it should be). For the most part, it’s a really good mono mix. Like so many of the movies from the 50’s-80’s, it’s really hard to get a good-sounding mix no matter how remastered it is. There are a few exceptions to this rule, however, but this isn’t one of them. Viewers will like what they hear, but won’t be impressed by it.

Supplements: What are the extras?

As mentioned above, this is the third of Lean’s movies to be released this year as a 2 Disc Special Edition. The first disc doesn’t have much on it besides the movie and a rather unspecific commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Mrs. David Lean (Sandra). The track is full of information, but coming from the actors, it just doesn’t have the same effect as it would from the director. Sharif shot to stardom after his roles here and in Lawrence of Arabia, but his lack of enthusiasim here is disappointing. He does give a very warm new (new being about seven years old) introduction to the movie, though. The really great documentary “The Making of Doctor Zhavigo” is a 30 minute piece that is really well done. Unlike modern documentaries, this has interviews with the cast and crew (which new ones have too) but it’s interspliced with the movie itself. It really makes you excited about the movie and wants to make you watch it. Unfortunately for me, that excitement wore off after the first hour! There are 10 “vintage” documentaries, but I’ll let you find those out for yourself. They do have some good parts in them, though like an interview with Julie Christie in 1965 as with Omar Sherif and Rod Steiger. It shows how popular the movie was (and is) and all are very interesting to watch. Lastly, the audio-only track is nice, but is fairly tiresome after a while. The unforgettable “Lana’s Theme” is played over and over throughout the disc’s menus and in this track. So while Doctor Zhivago may be the third jewel in David Lean’s crown, it certainly deserves a spot in his pantheon. Recommended for fans of the movie, or for someone who has 200 minutes to kill. Only kidding…

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