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Doctor Zhivago

theatrical release poster
Directed by David Lean
Produced by Carlo Ponti
Written by Novel:
Boris Pasternak
Robert Bolt
Starring Omar Sharif
Julie Christie
Geraldine Chaplin
Rod Steiger
Alec Guinness
Bob Shorrocks
Music by Maurice Jarre
Cinematography Freddie Young, BSC
Nicholas Roeg
Editing by Norman Savage
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date(s) 22 December 1965
Running time 197 mins.
Country United Kingdom, United States
Language English
Budget $11 million
Gross revenue $111,721,910

Doctor Zhivago (Russian: До́ктор Жива́го) is a 1965 epic or drama-romance-war film directed by David Lean and loosely based on the famous novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak. It is also the eighth highest grossing film of all time adjusted for inflation. [1]



The film takes place for the most part during the tumultuous period of 1912-1921, the years which included World War I, the Russian Revolution, and Russian Civil War, as the regime of Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown and the Soviet Union established. A framing device, from which the film is narrated, takes place some time in the 1950s, though a specific date is never mentioned.

Julie Christie as Lara Antipova

The film's framing device involves Cheka General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) searching for the illegitimate child of his half brother, poet and doctor Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), and his mistress Larissa ("Lara") Antipova (Julie Christie). Yevgraf believes a young woman named Tonya Komarovskaya (Rita Tushingham) working on a dam project may be his niece. Around 1956, Yevgraf narrates the story for her, periodically appearing in it, though he rarely interacts with any other characters in the flashbacks.

Yevgraf tells Tonya the story of her father's life. Yuri Zhivago's father abandoned the family and Yuri's mother died when he was a child, leaving him only a balalaika. Left destitute, Yuri was taken in by his mother's friends, the Gromekos — Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and Anna (Siobhán McKenna)—and their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Gromeko was a retired medical professor living in Moscow. As a result, Zhivago was able to enter medical school, studying under Professor Boris Kurt (Geoffrey Keen). Though he is already a poet of some renown, Yuri did not think that he could support a family as a poet and decided to become a doctor. Lara, meanwhile, lives with her mother (Adrienne Corri), a dressmaker who is being "advised" by Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a corrupt attorney, who had also been the friend and business partner of Zhivago's father.

Lara became engaged to Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay). Originally an idealistic social democrat (Lara teasingly called him "an awful prig"), Pasha drifted into Left-wing extremism after being wounded by a saber-wielding Cossack during a peaceful protest. This left him with a conspicuous scar across his cheek which would mark him for life. That same evening, Komarovsky took Lara to a posh restaurant and then seduced her.

Lara became more deeply involved with Komarovsky, until her mother finally discovered their affair. As a result of the discovery, Lara's mother tries to commit suicide by swallowing iodine. Komarovsky discovered her and summoned help from Kurt and his assistant Zhivago, who thus encountered Lara for the first time.

When Pasha, now a dedicated Bolshevik, informed Komarovsky of his intentions to marry Lara, Komarovsky was not amused. He tried to dissuade Lara from marrying Pasha, and then violently raped her. In revenge, Lara took a pistol she had been concealing for Pasha, tracked Komarovsky down to a Christmas party and shot him in the arm. Although the diners wished to notify the police, Kamarovsky insisted that no action be taken against Lara, who was escorted out by Pasha. Although enraged and devastated by Lara's infidelity, Pasha could not bring himself to strike her. In the aftermath, they married and had a daughter, Katya Antipova.

The movie then skips ahead to the outbreak of World War I. Yevgraf Zhivago enlisted, intending to subvert the Imperial Russian Army for Lenin's Bolsheviks. Yuri, who was by this time married to Tonya Gromeko, became a battlefield doctor along the Eastern Front. Leaving his wife and her daughter, Pasha Antipov joined a volunteer regiment ("Happy men don't volunteer," Yevgraf is heard to say in voice-over), becoming one of the few officers the common soldiers trusted. However, he was declared missing in action and Lara enlisted as a nurse in order to search for him. Meanwhile, the February Revolution broke out and the soldiers began to kill their officers and desert en masse.

Traveling with a group of deserters, Lara again encountered Zhivago, who was with a column of replacement troops marching to the front. Zhivago enlisted the help of Lara to tend to the wounded. The two managed a makeshift hospital in a nearby dacha for the remainder of the war and are parted after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.

Dr. Yuri Zhivago, as portrayed by the Egyptian actor Omar Sharif.

After the war, Yuri returned to Moscow, learned that his mother-in-law had died and that the Gromeko's house had been divided into tenements by the new Soviet Government. Yuri met his son Sasha for the first time since the boy was an infant, and resumed his old job at the local hospital. Furious that his family lacked firewood for the family stove, one night Yuri stole wood from a fence, where he is spotted by his half-brother, Yevgraf, who was working for the CHEKA. Yevgraf followed him home, identified himself, and informed Zhivago that his poems have been condemned by Soviet censors as antagonistic to communism. After explaining that this put their whole family at risk for collective punishment, Yevgraf helped arrange for rail passes for their transport to the Gromeko estate at Varykino, in the Ural Mountains.

Zhivago, Tonya, Sasha, and Alexander boarded a heavily-guarded cattle train which contained a detachment of labor conscripts bound for the GULAG — including the hot-headed dissident intellectual, Kostoyed Amoursky (Klaus Kinski) — and a large contingent of Red Guards. At one point, the train passed through the village of Mink, which has been shelled by Red forces commanded by People's Commissar Strelnikov.

While the Urals train is stopped, Zhivago wandered away from the train, listened to the sound of a waterfall, and stumbled across Strelnikov's armored train sitting on a hidden siding. Believing that Yuri was about to assassinate the Commissar, the Red Guards arrested him and brought him before Strelnikov. To his amazement, Yuri immediately recognized the Commissar as Pasha Antipov. After a tense conversation, Strelnikov informed Yuri that Lara was alive in the town of Yuriatin — which was then occupied by the anti-communist White Army. He then allowed Zhivago to return to his family. A casual comment by the guard who took Zhivago back to his train revealed that most people interrogated by Strelnikov ended up being shot.

Zhivago's family arrived at Varykino, only to learn that their house had been boarded up with a sign indicating confiscation by the Soviet State, a.k.a. "the people". Out of fear of being executed as "counter-revolutionaries", they desisted from breaking into their own house and they decided to occupy the smaller guest cottage. The family lived a mundane life until the next spring, when Zhivago went into Yuriatin and discovered that Lara was still living there with Katya, and working as a librarian. The two re-acquainted themselves and surrendered to their longtime feelings, beginning an extra-marital affair. Zhivago felt deeply ashamed and was torn between Tonya and Lara, until Tonya became pregnant. Therefore, Yuri travelled to Yuriatin and broke off his relationship with Lara, only to be abducted and conscripted into service by communist partisans under Liberius (Gérard Tichy) while riding back to Varykino.

After serving with the Partisans for nearly two years, Zhivago deserted, only to learn that Tonya and the children had emigrated to Paris as White émigrés. He then walked through the snow to Lara's home at Yuriatin, where the two lovers rekindled their relationship and moved in together.

However, Komarovsky arrived one night and informed them that they were being watched by the CHEKA, due to Lara's marriage to Commissar Strelnikov, who had fallen from favor with the Soviet State. Komarovsky offered Yuri and Lara his help in leaving Russia, but they refused. Instead, they took Lara's daughter, Katya, to the Varykino estate, which had been left open and was frozen inside. Yuri began writing the "Lara" poems, which would later make him famous but incur government displeasure.

Komarovsky reappeared and told Yuri that Strelnikov was arrested and committed suicide while being walked to his execution. Therefore, Lara was in immediate danger, as she had only remained free to lure Strelnikov into the open. Zhivago scoffed at this, but Komarovsky informed him that Strelnikov had been arrested on the road only five miles from Varykino. Yuri agreed to send Lara away with Komarovsky, who had been appointed as Minister of Justice to the White government of Baron Ungern von Sternberg in Mongolia. Refusing to leave with a man he despised, Yuri remained behind.

Years later, Yuri returned destitute to Moscow, where Yevgraf obtained him a hospital job and bought him some new clothes. While riding a streetcar to his first day at work, Yuri saw a woman whom he recognized as Lara. Forcing his way off the tram, he ran after her, but suffered a fatal heart attack before she saw or noticed him.

Although denied an official funeral by the Soviet State, Yuri's poetry was already being published openly due to shifts in politics and his funeral was well-attended. Among the mourners was Lara, who was surprised and deeply saddened by her beloved's death. She approached Yevgraf and informed him that she had given birth to Yuri's daughter, but had become separated from her in the collapse of the Baron's Government in Mongolia. After vainly looking over hundreds of orphans with Yevgraf's help, Lara disappeared off the street during Stalin's Great Purge. "Perhaps in a labor camp," recalled Yevgraf, "A nameless number, on a nameless list which was later mislaid."

At the beginning of the film, Zhivago's mother died and he inherited her balalaika. His adoptive father informed him that his mother had a gift. The theme of artistic talent is repeated throughout the film, as Zhivago becomes a poet of great renown. At the end, set at a hydroelectric dam during the mid 1950s, Yevgraf is still uncertain whether the young girl Tonya Komarovskaya is Yuri's and Lara's daughter. The girl ends the meeting, denying that she is Yevgraf's niece, and leaves with her live-in boyfriend, an engineer. While walking away, the girl slings a balalaika over her shoulder, which catches the eye of Yevgraf. He calls out to her, "Tonya, can you play the balalaika?" Her boyfriend responds, "Can she play? She is an artist!" Yevgraf smiles and comments, "Ah, then, it's a gift."



This famous film version by David Lean was created for various reasons. Pasternak's novel had been an international success, and producer Carlo Ponti was interested in adapting it as a vehicle for his wife, Sophia Loren. Lean, coming off the huge success of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), wanted to make a more intimate, romantic film to balance the action- and adventure-oriented tone of his previous film. One of the first actors signed onboard was Omar Sharif, who had played Lawrence's right-hand man Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia. Sharif loved the novel, and when he heard Lean was making a film adaptation, he requested to be cast in the role of Pasha (which ultimately went to Tom Courtenay). Sharif was quite surprised when Lean suggested that he play Zhivago himself. (Peter O'Toole, star of Lawrence of Arabia, was Lean's original choice for Zhivago, but turned the part down; Max Von Sydow and Paul Newman were also considered.) Rod Steiger was cast as Komarovsky after Marlon Brando and James Mason turned the part down. Audrey Hepburn was considered for Tonya, while Robert Bolt lobbied for Albert Finney to play Pasha. Lean, however, was able to convince Ponti that Loren was not right for the role of Lara, saying she was "too tall" (and confiding in screenwriter Robert Bolt that he could not accept Loren as a virgin for the early parts of the film), and Yvette Mimieux, Sarah Miles and Jane Fonda were considered for the role. Ultimately, Julie Christie was cast based on her appearance in Billy Liar (1963), and the recommendation of John Ford, who directed her in Young Cassidy.

Since the book was banned in the Soviet Union, the movie was filmed largely in Spain over ten months,[1] with the entire Moscow set being built from scratch outside of Madrid. Most of the scenes covering Zhivago and Lara's service in World War I were filmed in Soria, as was the Varykino estate. Due to uncooperative weather in Spain, some of the winter sequences were filmed in Finland, mostly landscape scenes, and Yuri's escape from the Partisans. Winter scenes of the family travelling to Yuriatin by rail were filmed in Canada.

The "ice-palace" at Varykino was filmed in Soria as well, a house filled with frozen beeswax. The charge of the Partisans across the frozen lake was filmed in Spain as well; a cast iron sheet was placed over a dried river-bed, and fake snow (mostly marble dust) was added on top. Most of the winter scenes were filmed in warm temperatures, sometimes of up to ninety degrees Fahrenheit.

Novel vs. film

The film version of Doctor Zhivago is faithful to the novel in a general sense; the basic plot remains the same, and the story rarely deviates from the novel. However, many of the subplots — particularly regarding the novel's historical/political facets — were glossed over or edited down. Nearly half of the book's characters were excised while others had their parts significantly reduced (particularly Anna Gromeko, Pasha, and Liberius the Partisan commander). Other characters (most notably Kuril, the Bolshevik deserter, Commissar Razin, and Petya, the Varykino groundskeeper) were created as an amalgamation of characters from the book which had been excised from the film version. Many reviewers have criticized the film in particular for reducing the depiction of World War I to a mere five minute narration sequence, and a similar treatment of Zhivago's service with the Partisans, which took up nearly seventy pages of the novel.

Most of these cuts were made or advocated by David Lean; screenwriter Robert Bolt's original screenplay dealt with the political/historical aspects of the book in a more in-depth, if still abbreviated manner. The scenes of Yuri's service with and escape from the Partisans included scenes where Liberius executes mortally wounded Partisans. Zhivago's horse, after the escape, is killed for food by a group of homeless children, and Zhivago comes across a group of children who are, it is hinted, cannibalizing the bodies of their parents.

In the book, Pasha is a revolutionary dilettante and an apolitical military leader; his ultimate fall from grace is because he is not a true Bolshevik. In the film Bolt depicts him as an activist dissenting from hardcore Bolshevik orthodoxy from the beginning. He becomes a ruthless individual over the course of the story. Bolt wanted to include the book's scene where the disgraced Strelnikov returned to Varykino, met with Zhivago, and then committed suicide; Lean, however, decided to cut it out, and Strelnikov's fate was dealt with through dialogue spoken by Komarovsky.

The present-day subplot involving Yevgraf's interview of The Girl several decades after the story's main events was added as a narration/framing device to help move along the story. Omar Sharif later joked that it was added to reassure the audience that Yuri and Lara would ultimately get together, even though the audience would have to wait until two hours into the film for it to happen.


The film was entered into the 1966 Cannes Film Festival.[2]

Despite being a huge box office hit, Doctor Zhivago also gained a staggering amount of criticism from reviewers, largely for its length and depiction of the romance between Zhivago and Lara. The preview cut, which ran to over 220 minutes, was criticized for its length and poor pacing; Lean felt obliged to remove up to 17 minutes of footage before the film's wide release, and the missing footage has not been restored or located. Lean took these criticisms very personally, and claimed at the time that he would never make another film. However, numerous critics — including Richard Schickel and Anna Lee — defended Doctor Zhivago, and its box office success allowed Lean to write off his critics. Lean made Ryan's Daughter in 1970, then waited until 1984 to make his final film, A Passage to India (1984).

The film left an indelible mark on popular culture and fashion, and to this day remains an extremely popular film: Maurice Jarre's score – particularly "Lara's Theme" – became one of the most famous in cinematic history. Over the years, the film's critical reputation has gained in stature, and today Doctor Zhivago is considered to be one of Lean's finest works and is highly critically acclaimed, along with Lawrence of Arabia, Brief Encounter, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and A Passage to India.

As with the novel itself, the film was banned in the Soviet Union. It was not shown in Russia until 1994.

American Film Institute recognition


The film won five Academy Awards and was nominated for five more:[3]



  • Rod Steiger was on set for 12 months.
  • This film grossed more than all the other David Lean films put together.
  • Alec Guinness and David Lean quarreled frequently on the set. According to Guinness, Lean was 'acting the part of a superstar director' and frequently insulted Guinness' performance and him personally. This caused a rift to develop between the two and they would not work again until A Passage to India almost twenty years later.
  • Most of the exteriors were completely built inside as well to serve as interiors.
  • Rita Tushingham filmed her part in two weeks.
  • The scene where Zhivago and Lara meet amidst the army deserters was a deliberate homage to King Vidor's The Big Parade, which Lean cited as one of his favorite films.
  • David Lean avoided meeting any of the actors off the sets or after the shoot during the filming. He said each actor had their strong individual character and he did not want their characters to influence his vision of them in the movie.


  1. ^ Geraldine Chaplin appearance on the What's My Line?, episode 814. Originally aired January 2, 1966 on CBS. Viewed on September 10, 2007.
  2. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Doctor Zhivago". Retrieved 2009-03-07.  
  3. ^ "NY Times: Doctor Zhivago". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-26.  

External links

en:Doctor Zhivago (film)



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