BluRay/DVD Reviews

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO

By • May 6th, 2010 •

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How many of you readers have Lara’s Theme playing through your head as you start reading an article about DOCTOR ZHIVAGO? Here’s a majestic looking film, with a great cast and helmed by an ace director, and everybody remembers that haunting and romantic tune.

Warner Brothers has just re-released 1965’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO as a beautifully re-mastered Blu-Ray/DVD, alive with fun extras. Adapted from Boris Pasternak’s controversial 1958 novel of the same name, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO was a much gossiped about production decades before internet chatting about current productions became vogue. Its director, David Lean, had just conquered the film world with two stirring, highly successful, Academy Award winning epics – THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The exciting cast had come from all corners of the film world. The cream of the British New Wave Cinema – Julie Christie, Tom Courtney, and Rita Tushingham – turn in fantastic performances. American Rod Steiger is memorable as a villainous doctor. Actors from previous David Lean films such as Ralph Richardson and Alec Guinness shine here. The title role, of course, went to a relative newcomer to British and American films – Egyptian-born Omar Sharif. (MGM wanted Lean to cast Paul Newman)

ZHIVAGO is set amongst the first turbulent time in the 20th Century – the Russian Revolution. Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) is a Moscow medical student with a poet’s heart. While he marries the waif-like Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin, who is the spitting image of her dad, Charlie!), Zhivago witnesses the gilded and pampered world of elitist Russia fall and become bloodied during the 1917 Revolution. Fortunes and destinies completely reverse. The wealthy become shivering outcasts while the once sneered-upon revolutionaries become unsettling authority figures. Zhivago also falls in love with a nurse, the beautiful teenaged Lara (Julie Christie). Zhivago’s “poet’s heart” is given the test as he sees war, bloodshed, ruin and decay all around him.

Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young, who also lensed LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, made ZHIVAGO a visual feast. The expensive restaurant where Komanrovsky (Rod Steiger) seduces teenaged Lara is alive in reds. Night scenes glow in wintry blues and blacks. The “ice palace”, the once roomy estate now covered with ghostly white ice that Zhivago and Lara move into was based on a picture on a Russian postage stamp Art Director John Box found. Lean filmed his Russian epic in Spain. An early choice for shooting location was Yugoslavia. That went all bad when Lean and his location scouts were angered when they were thrown out of their hotel rooms to make way for visiting politicians’ prostitutes!

Lean may have made an epic, but his use of lingering close ups, tight point-of-view shots, mimicking Zhivago’s eyes, puts an emphasis on the human level of this narrative. It recalls Lean’s earlier, more character-driven films such as OLIVER TWIST and IN WHICH WE SERVE (The scene where Zhivago bids farewell to his patients and Lara is a restaging of a similar touching scene from IN WHICH WE SERVE.)

Despite reports that ZHIVAGO didn’t fare well at the box office first time around, the film has become one of the biggest money making motion pictures ever. It has endured many theatrical re-releases, which sadly means many inferior re-printings.

Also, a sore point for films with famous scenes, is that such key scenes are used for clips in movie documentaries and promotions. In order to do so, the negative for those portions of the film are used and re-used, and the famous scenes wear out faster than the rest of the film. The initial VHS release of ZHIVAGO was horribly muted and was in chopped-off pan and scan. Warner Bros’ DVD release of the film in 2002 was an improvement but was still lacking in some of the original color. By that time, the film’s original negative had sustained severe damage.

New digital technology has been used for this current Blu-Ray of ZHIVAGO. Along with working from the original 35mm camera negative, Freddie Young’s original camera and lab reports were utilized. There were obstacles – the camera negative had sprocket damage, meaning a frame-by-frame restoration had to be undertaken. About 40,000 frames (about 40 minutes of film) had incredible damage. These damaged frames were replaced with better film elements. Much credit for this Blu-Ray’s shine goes to Ned Price, Vice President of Mastering Warner Bros’ Technical Operations, with whom I had the pleasure of speaking at a press junket round-table and one-on-one in lower Manhattan..

The lovely Rita Tushingham, pictured here at a recent round table discussion for the DOCTOR ZHIVAGO re-release.   She recalled co-star Alec Guinness, wonderful sense of humor, and attending the New York Premiere with Rod Steiger and Tom Courtney.

I also had the great fortune, again thanks to Warner Home Video, to speak with Rita Tushingham, who plays Zhivago and Lara’s child (as a young adult) in very moving scenes that open and close Lean’s film. Ms. Tushingham was one of the key elements of the British New Wave in the early 60s, starring in unforgettable, melancholy films such as Sidney Furie’s LEATHER BOYS, Desmond Davis’ THE GIRL WITH GREEN EYES and Tony Richardson’s A TASTE OF HONEY.

“We filmed at the location, a large dam in Spain, for three weeks.” Ms. Tushingham recalled. “Today that same scene, with so many background elements such as extras and scenery, would have been done with a computer, which would have robed the scene of so much magic. I could never imagine David Lean falling back with such comments as ‘We can fix it in post.”

The Blu-Ray/DVD has numerous extras, as well as an extensive booklet. One extra is a 1995 TV documentary narrated by Omar Sharif. The clips used here give you an idea what the VHS of ZHIVAGO must have looked like. There were numerous documentaries made at the time of ZHIVAGO’s production which are available here. They show Geraldine Chaplin’s screen-test, the Russian sets being built near Madrid, press interviews with cast members, and an interview with David Lean. Lean always gave great, very down to earth interviews, as he does here, but my friend Shawna was watching the BluRay with me, and couldn’t figure out why he was talking and hugging himself at the same time. Shyness?

Overall, Warner Bros has given DOCTOR ZHIVAGO a breathtaking make-over! It’s a great personal drama, a truly well-crafted film made when “A Cast of Thousands” really meant something. You can now see, in this new mastering, where Freddie Young, in composing his close ups, often gives an extra burst of light to the characters eyes, emphasizing epic humanity as well as epic filmmaking.

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