Doctor Zhivago

AFI Rank: #39
Year Released: 1965
Director: David Lean
Actors: Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness

Over three hours in length, this epic story absolutely earned its #39 spot on the AFI top 100 with its beautiful landscapes, fantastic acting, great score, and a storyline which sucks you in and holds you to the end. I've seen this film numerous times and as I grow older it becomes more and more poignant. Sharif is a sensitive poet who is raised by a wealthy family and becomes a doctor. He also is steered into marriage with Chaplin, the sweet girl he grew up with almost as a sister. But it's Christie who captures his passion, and soon he is spending time with both of them. This is all against the chaotic backdrop of the Russian Revolution, as the family's fortunes are pulled away from them piece by piece.

The complexity of the characters is one thing that always fascinates me here. Christie's mother is the kept woman of a rich, powerful man, and Christie tries to resist him. But it's not long before she's under his spell and in essence cheating on her mother with him. She lies to her fiance about what is going on as well. But it's hard to blame her, at seventeen, for being drawn in by his seductions. Chaplin is calm, even, doing her best to hold things together as the family disintegrates around her. And through it all, Sharif shines with an idealistic light, trying to hold fast to his ideals, but sometimes being quite blind to the realities of danger that are swirling around him.

The landscapes also capture me. This is definitely a movie to see in the highest quality version that you can get your hands on, on a wide screen TV. The gorgeous ice palace glistens in the sun, the onion domes crystalized. The Urals tower over the landscapes. The streets of Moscow go from glittering dinner party to violent attack location to run-down location of starving peasants. There's a strong sense of just how much things change over the years - and how much nature remains the same throughout it all. The world is changing, and yet the wolves still roam the winter plains, hungry for a meal.

I absolutely adore the movie. Even so, I always try to be fully objective in my reviews so I do want to point out two issues that, while fairly minor, still should be noted.

First, I am half Ukrainian and grew up surrounded by people from Ukraine and Russia. I'm sure that's part of why I love the movie, with its sounds, locations, and storyline. But it has always struck me as odd that the actors are all from places other than this part of the world. The lead character, Sharif, is Egyptian. It is fascinating to me that there were no Russian / Ukrainian / etc. actors. It's not like these actors didn't exist. Kirk Douglas was born "Issur Danielovitch" to parents from Belarus. Many superb actors hail from this part of the world. To me it would be like having a movie about feudal Japan but having all the characters played by Americans, when there are wonderful actors that more naturally fit into the parts. I'll say again that I love the actors they DID use. I'm just curious if they tried to cast "more authentic" people in the roles. Sharif, for example, had to have his eyes taped to fake the look which brings to mind uncomfortable similarities to Mickey Rooney / Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Second, this movie is far better than most in providing a well rounded cast of men and women. So many movies are 99% male with a token female or two. Here we have a wealth of great female roles, from the obvious Chaplin and Christie to the many secondary roles like Christie's mom and Chaplin's mom. But that being said, while there are tons and tons of male-male conversations, the women seem to only exist to talk to the men. Their purpose is to be a male interaction point. They hardly ever talk with each other! I think a Baroness talks with Christie's mom about the man who is keeping her. Chaplin's mom talks with her about how handsome Sharif is. So the tiny few times a woman talks with another woman, it's to add details about a man. That's it. It is just so eye opening to look at fantastic movies that have superb female leads and then to see what dialogue they're given. Then compare that with what the men have available.

Again I want to say that I love the actresses here, and have the highest respect for them. That's part of my point - that the men in the movie have all sort of opportunity to engage in great dialogue. But the women, just because they're women, have a far narrower range of opportunities given to them. The novel offers incredibly powerful female-female scenes, but they're all stripped out here.

An absolute must-see and must-own. You'll want to watch it as the years go by, and see just how much more you get out of it each time.

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AFI Top 100 Film Listing
Male vs Female Actors in the AFI Top 100
The Bechdel Test in the AFI Top 100