David Lean's epic film of Boris Pasternak's tragic but still heroic love story Doctor Zhivago is a great movie in every sense of the word "great." It may be the most famous movie love story. It is also quite long, but I would not wish to remove a moment. Although it is known most widely as a love story, it is also an individualist epic, partly because of its nature as a love story set in its circumstances.
It is the life story of the title character, Dr. Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif, definitive in the title role), as told by his surviving half-brother Yevgraf (Alec Guinness, deservedly one of David Lean’s favorite actors) to a young woman: Tonya Komarova (Rita Tushingham) whom he suspects to be the person for whom he is searching: Yuri’s daughter, his niece. He tells the story from the time of the death of Yuri’s mother when he is a small child until the end of Yuri’s life. After his mother dies, Yuri Zhivago is taken by Alexander Gromeko (Ralph Richardson, who is wonderful in this role) and his wife Anna (Siobhan McKenna) who was especially close to Yuri's mother. He grows up next to their daughter Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) as closely as a brother, but their relationship becomes deeper when they reach young adulthood during the period of World War I. Yuri Zhivago grows to be a poet and a healer: a man of great emotion and yet a man of peace.
In close parallel to Yuri’s story is that of Lara (Julie Christie, superb as Lara), the daughter of a widow, who now works as a seamstress for the Russian gentry. Through her mother she is exposed to Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger, a truly great performance as the despicable character) who seduces both women, inducing a suicide attempt by the mother. To prevent scandal for himself, Komarovsky attempts to save her life by involving a medical man, Yuri’s professor, who asks Yuri to assist him. Through this piece of misfortune Yuri is first brought into Lara’s life. Shortly after that at a party during the announcement of Yuri and Tonya’s engagement, Lara seeks to end Komarovsky’s insidious influence on her and her mother by shooting him. Yuri is impressed with both Lara and Pasha Antipova (Tom Courtenay), the young revolutionary who comes to rescue Lara and later marries her.
World War I intensifies the state-sponsored disruption of the story’s characters. Yuri meets Lara on a more personal level while they are both caring for the Russian wounded of World War I. Yuri is now married to Tonya but also has a developing love for Lara, though at this point it is not consummated. After the war has ended, Yuri returns to Tonya and Lara attempts to return to Pasha, but the revolution has begun. Pasha has become Strelnikov, a Red partisan, who leaves his life with Lara and their daughter behind.
The cast in this film is hard to equal. Lean’s direction is masterful in this epic as in his other successes: Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. Pasternak’s story is a classic. With the romance set amid the turmoil of the Russian revolution, the conflict of the individual (the personal, for which Zhivago’s poetry is so well-noted) with the State is stark. Although there are no illusions about a benevolent Czarist Russia, the Bolsheviks are generally shown as the monsters that they almost always were.
In this film, the seeker after a life of his own is time and again stymied by the forces of the State and its wars. Lives of individuals (e.g. Strelnikov) are swallowed by the political, as the personal is “sacrificed.” However, in contrast to the destruction engendered by the State, even amidst the catastrophes of World War I and the Russian revolution, Yuri and Tonya produce children. Zhivago and Lara have their romance. Zhivago produces his poetry, which is loved by the Russian people. Plus, later after the disasters of the main timeline of the story have been supplemented with Stalin and his works, Yevgraf Zhivago seems to find his lost niece, who has made a life for herself against all odds. Doctor Zhivago is a movie that shows the triumph of the human spirit, as individuals build their lives and fulfill their dreams even in the worst of situations. This is truly a great movie.