Friday, 14 August 2009

Dr Zhivago

1966 - Dir.: David Lean
Shown at The FeckenOdeon on March 27th, 2004

More than anything else, "Doctor Zhivago" is a love story. In fact, as a critic of the day once commented, it may be the biggest, grandest soap opera ever produced, a criticism that at the time distressed the director no end. But it is a soap with the exalted breadth of a "Gone With the Wind." It too tells an intimate story of love and conflict set against the backdrop of a country in the throes of civil war. What raises it above the level of a mere romance is its expansive visual structure, its incredible and meticulous set design and the totally stunning cinematography by Freddie Young - all of which have yet to be equalled. David Lean was a wonderfully visual filmmaker with a great understanding of how to tell a story with the camera - and this film is a terrific example of his mastery of the craft.
The film is based on the lengthy novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak. English screenwriter Robert Bolt condensed the 700 pages of the original into a coherent script and was rewarded with an Oscar for best screenplay. The story doesn't illuminate "Zhivago's" vision of history the way the psychological portrait of T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia" makes sense of the historical events that film records. In "Zhivago," history is presented not as a subject for curious inquiry, but as an implacable, impersonal force that keeps mucking up the private lives of the protagonists.
The book had been banned in the Soviet Union for daring to contradict the "official" view of the formation of that super state. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for the work in 1958 but was forced by the authorities to turn the honour down. The book was not published in Russia until 1987 - nearly twenty years after this film had broken box office records world wide and twenty seven years after the author's own death.

"Doctor Zhivago" deservedly won a host of awards for Freddie Francis' breathtaking photography and John Box's amazing production design and costumes. The score by Maurice Jarre is film music on a symphonic scale - but will be perpetually remembered for the haunting "Lara's Theme". The film is regarded by many as the last truly great David Lean film and by some as the last truly great epic scale film. Such claims are probably somewhat exaggerated but "Dr Zhivago" is film making of a scale and depth rarely attempted since.
• The film was torn apart by critics when first released. Newsweek, in particular, made comments about 'hack-job sets' and 'pallid photography'. 'David Lean' was so deeply affected by these criticisms that he swore he would never make another film - though he soon retreated from this position when the box office returns proved that the critics were spectacularly out of tune with popular taste.
• Producer Carlo Ponti had bought the rights to the story years before with the intention of casting his wife Sophia Loren in the role of Lara. David Lean refused to use her because she was "too tall".
• The film was shot in Spain during the regime of General Franco. While a scene involving a crowd chanting Marxist slogans was being filmed (at Sam in the morning), police showed up at the set thinking that a real revolution was taking place and insisted on staying until the scene was finished. Apparently, people who lived near where filming was taking place had awoken to the sound of revolutionary singing and had mistakenly believed that Franco had been overthrown.
• The "ice house" was built amid the snows of Finland but was actually made out of wax.

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