DOCTOR ZHIVAGO Anniversary Edition Blu-ray Review

     May 9, 2010

A classic is a classic is a classic. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is one of the most successful films of all time. Will it be a classic like the Lord of the Rings films seem geared to be? Is a film like Brian De Palma’s Blow Out a classic? Is it the moniker? Are all Criterion Collection films classics? Perhaps it’s just cultural saturation with a dollop of either instant or eventual critical respect. For the most part anniversary releases are just to drum up some money, and keep people interested in something they may have forgotten, so that a film is well known enough to get an anniversary release just means it has made money, or found something of an audience.

Is David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago a classic? Is a classic transcendent of quality? Zhivago isn’t top three Lean, and it may not be top five. But it was very successful upon release and it has its fans, even if it has never been a critical darling like Laurence of Arabia or Brief Encounter. Omar Sharif stars as the titular Doctor, who charts the rise of communism in Russia as he watches Lara (Julie Christie) as she almost marries a man who goes hard for the communists (Tom Courtenay), is taken by an older gentleman, and her mother’s lover Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), and then finds herself the lover of Zhivago, even as he’s married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Truly, it’s an epic film and my review of Doctor Zhivago on Blu-ray after the jump.

I had seen the film before, in a 30th Anniversary edition on laserdisc, and watched it at home. The film is more about the change in the country, and Lean finds little good with the original Communists, who hoped to equalize the classes but left most unsatisfied. Since the main characters are rich, there is a great culture shock for them when the revolution comes. Zhivago and his family flee for the mountains, and achieve a quiet life, but when Lara ends up moving nearby, Zhivago – who’s known her, but never been romantically attached to her – falls into an affair. But just as Zhivago decides to leave Lara alone, he’s taken in as a doctor for troops looking to squash rebellion, but eventually just lays waste to everything in their path.

I wasn’t a fan of the film when I saw it the first time, and I watched it again hoping that it was just because I was a teenager, and the film didn’t hook me as it is 200 minutes long, and leisurely paced. And then I saw some raves the picture received for this release, and I was hoping I would fall in love with it. I didn’t. I really wish Douglas Sirk had directed it, because I think the family and some of their concerns are based out of being rich, and being forced to live as equals sucks for them, and the film takes their side. But where it’s sort of fun to watch Scarlet O’Hara suffer, there’s none of that moral ambiguity here, and so it’s a slow slog of watching Russians suffer with their stiff upper lips.

There are things to enjoy, but Lean doesn’t have a great story here, nor does he seem to understand Russia. I do like that no one bothers to attempt a Russian accent. The person who absolutely pops off screen and steals the movie is Rod Steiger. Steiger is an actor who could go over the top like whoa, but here he serves as the most alive person on screen, and it enlivens the picture every time he interacts with anyone. He plays a villain and possibly a rapist, but even though he’s distasteful, Steiger manages to give him reasons and enough brio that Omar Sharif’s Zhivago looks like a cardboard cutout when they share the screen. And Maurice Jarre’s score is justly famous, though echoes some of his other scores (like Laurence of Arabia, and Top Secret!). And though Julie Christie is a stunning beauty, she could also act and she knows how to convey with those piercing eyes of hers. There’s often interesting currents in Lara, many of which only come to the surface through he looks and pauses.

I watched it again, and though there are touches, and great cinematography, I was mostly bored yet again. And I felt bad. Then I read Pauline Kael’s review: “This isn’t art, it’s heavy labor.”And then I talked to two critic friends, and they both thought it was not very good. The truth of the matter is that some classic films don’t sink in on first viewing, partly because of age, or context, or whatever, so it’s often worthwhile to keep trying – I recently found my love for 8 ½ after years of not digging it. But Zhivago is never going to be that film for me, and regardless of the labels attached, even Ebert only recommended the re-release for its old school craftsmanship. Such is the legacy of some classics.

Warner Brothers presents the film on Blu-ray on one disc, in widescreen (2.40:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound. The transfer here can’t compare to the theatrical presentation, there’s something about the scope of films like this that no monitor can do justice to, but the 1080p transfer is gorgeous, and the soundtrack is fine (it was upped to 5.1 for the theatrical re-release). Extras on the first disc include a commentary by Steiger, Omar Sharif, and Sandra Lean (the late director’s wife). There’s also “A Celebration” (40 min.), which gets filmmakers like Nicholas Meyer, Gary Ross, Taylor Hackford, Martin Campbell, and Kathleen Kennedy (among others) to talk about their love for the film. This was done specifically for this release, while everything else is either from the original DVD or laserdisc release. Disc two kicks off with “Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic” (60 min.) that has Omar Sharif as host and interview subject on the making of the film, and was done for the 30th Anniversary.

The rest is all from the original release, including featurettes “Zhivago: Behind the Camera with David Lean,” (10 min.) and ”David Lean’s Film of Doctor Zhivago” (7 min.). What makes all this interesting it that it was shot with film, and likely played before other movies. Continuing on a similar front are “Moscow in Madrid” (4 min.) on the shooting locations and “Pasternak” (9 min.) on the author of the novel. Then there’s period interviews with Julie Christie (10 min.) and Omar Sharif (19 min.) and it shows that junket questions haven’t changed in 45 years (my favorite question is “How was it working with Geraldine Chaplin?” and Julie Christie responds “well, we didn’t have any scenes together.”) Speaking of, “Geraldine Chaplin’s Screen Test” (3 min.) is included, then “This Is Julie Christie” (1 min.) “This Is Geraldine Chaplin” (1 min.), and “This Is Omar Sharif” (2 min.), which highlights the actors and their work on this film and wraps with a piece called “Chaplin In New York” (2 min.). Basically, these are old school EPKS. There’s a re-release trailer, and still galleries listing the film’s awards, and cast and crew. Entering the cast and crew section there are audio comments from the cast and crew. The film also comes in a handsome digibook case, with a 50 page booklet.

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