“Doctor Zhivago” won five Academy Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Musical Score.
After the triumphant success of "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1962, director David Lean was engaged by MGM and producer Carlo Ponti to bring Boris Pasternak's epic tale of bittersweet love in revolutionary Russia to the screen in 1965.
Having first experienced the film on television, via a worn 16mm TV print, Warner's DVD presentation is a remarkable revelation: exquisite colour shading, atmospheric and often poetic cinematography, and dreamy close-ups of the emotionally strained characters. In glorious Panavision, it's impossible not to be moved by the deep brown eyes of Sharif, and Christie's hypnotic, emerald gaze.
The film, contained on both sides of Disc 1, has Dolby Digital 5.1 English and French language tracks, though besides some effective panning and rear surround effects during battle and train sequences, the 5.1 mix is fairly calm. Lean used silence and ambient sound in the same manor as the actors performances: carefully paced, with beautifully choreographed pauses, sustained tones, and mounting tension.
Maurice Jarre's Oscar-winning score, like his music for "Lawrence of Arabia," is surprisingly sparse. Lean wisely saved score material for key scenes and visual motifs, and Jarre's music is given a great deal of space to tingle, surge and swell to full blossom, enveloping the audience in thrilling 5.1. For admirers of Jarre's music, the entire score is also accessible in 5.1 on a separate track as well.
The remaining audio track is reserved for commentaries by Omar Sharif and Lean's widow, Sandra Lean, and Rod Steiger ( recorded separately). It's obvious that talking for more than 3 hours is impossible, so there are occasional gaps of 5 minutes or more between the Sharif/Lean and Steiger's segments. Though some anecdotes were already heard in the TBS documentary, the film's running time permits them to be enjoyed with longer variations.
Sharif and Lean are very succinct in recalling production memories, and David Lean's widow offers several personal observations on her husband's approach to filmmaking, plus a touching revelation of his rough childhood and mean-spirited Quaker parents. Steiger's acting observations are often contrasted (rather amusingly) with Sharif's own explanation of his own technique, plus those of veterans like Sir Ralph Richardson, and newcomer Geraldine Chaplin. (It's a shame Julie Christie wasn't able to participate in either the TBS documentary or commentary track, as the overall production details are too testosterone-based, though perhaps Christie felt her work spoke for itself.)
The bountiful extras on Disc 2: First off is “Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic,” an original 1995 TBS documentary, hosted by Omar Sharif. The actor's genial recollections are intercut with interviews from Steiger and a still captivating Chaplin. Set Designer John Box and Costume Designer Phyllis Dalton contribute several anecdotes, and screenwriter Robert Bolt, interviewed before his death, also adds a few words. Composer Maurice Jarre also discusses how "Lara's Theme," arguably his best-known composition, came to be one of the decade's musical sensations.
TBS's documentary used vintage footage culled from several MGM promo featurettes, and Warner has chosen to include the original documentaries and source materials for avid cinephiles. The longest (and parent) documentary, "Zhivago: Behind the Camera With David Lean," originally produced by London's Thomas Craven Film Corporation, is in remarkably good condition: besides some very minor scratches, the footage is vivid, sharp, and colourful, as if seemingly stored in an ideal environment for 36 years; even the cropped 1.33:1 segments from the finished film are very clean. Though the information is obviously publicity-centric, director Lean has several segments in which he addresses the camera directly, telling us of his Russian filmic odyssey.
Serving as a template, most of the remaining documentaries re-use segments from the above, but occasionally expand - visually and factually - upon specific production aspects. "David Lean's Film of Doctor Zhivago" offers some biographical details on Boris Pasternak, though the short documentary seemed to have functioned as an extended preview for movie patrons interested in a 'reserve engagement at the Hollywood Paramount theatre.' "Moscow in Madrid," the 3rd documentary, is a re-edit of material dealing with the recreation of Moscow in Spain, and offers little new material. "Pasternak" begins with some interesting details on the writer's Nobel Prize, though the documentary inevitably becomes a straight advert.
More fascinating is the inclusion of pre-New York City Premiere interviews with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. If you've ever seen the Maysles brothers' documentary, "Meet Marlon Brando" (1966), the "Zhivago" footage, filmed in a local Egyptian restaurant, similarly reveals how the press junkets of 1965 are just as trying and maddening for actors today. Unlike the Maysles film, however, the inclusion of the raw footage - with hand claps for later synchronizing - reveal an articulate Sharif, enthusiastic and highly personable; and an exhausted Christie, who is asked remarkably daft and intrusive questions. The main interviewers are CBC's G. Pratley, Edith Christie, WXYZ Detroit's Phil Rogers (for "Ten Around Town"), and WFIL's Rex McKenzie (who blows his chance with Sharif by conducting what may be the most inept interview on record).
As seen in the TBS and vintage 1965 documentary, Geraldine Chaplin's screen test - in colour - is also included, as are 4 featurettes. Essentially powder puff pieces, "This Is Julie Christie" and "This Is Omar Sharif" show the stars smiling, posing , and looking very serious with director Lean. "This Is Geraldine Chaplin" and "Chaplin in New York" almost exclusively focus on the actresses' enigmatic smile, with the latter offering footage of Chaplin modeling a few 60s outfits.
The remaining extras are the film's original general release trailer, text menus with graphics for the main cast and their respective filmographies, and a list of the film's numerous awards.
One feature that seems to be missing from the DVD release, however, are the "Vintage Audio Track Interviews," listed on the box but absent on both discs. To promote the film, MGM originally issued a pair of vinyl LPs with various interviews from the film's premiere. Whether the missing audio is derived from these recordings or was something entirely different remains a curious mystery (or boo-boo). Otherwise, "Doctor Zhivago" is a feast for the film's admirers - just set aside a good 8 hours of your life to get through most of the set.
© 2001 Mark R. Hasan