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Doctor Zhivago (film)

Doctor Zhivago (Доктор Живаго) is a 1965 drama-romance-war film directed by David Lean and loosely based on the famous novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak.


The film takes place for the most part during the tumultuous period of 1905-1921, the years of Bloody Sunday and the 1905 Revolution, World War I, the Russian Revolution, and Russian Civil War, as the regime of Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown and the Soviet Union established. A framing device, from which the film is narrated, takes place in the mid-to-late 1950s, though a specific date is not mentioned.

The film's framing device involves Police General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness) searching for the love child of his brother, poet and doctor Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), and his mistress Larissa ("Lara") Antipova (Julie Christie); Yevgraf believes a young woman named Tonya Komarovskya (Rita Tushingham) working on a dam project, (referred to as "The Girl" in the credits) may be his niece. Yevgraf narrates the story for her, periodically appearing in it, though rarely interacts with any other characters in the flashbacks.

Yevgraf tells the girl the story of his brother's life. Yuri's parents died when he was very young—the opening scene is the burial of Yuri's mother—leaving him only a balalaika, and he went to live with the Gromekos—Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and Anna (Siobhán McKenna)—and their daughter Tonya (played as an adult by Geraldine Chaplin), whom Zhivago later marries. Gromeko was a retired professor living in Moscow, and so Zhivago is able to enter medical school, studying under Professor Boris Kurt (Geoffrey Keen). Though he is already a poet of some renown, Yuri does not think that he can support himself as a poet and decides to become a doctor. Lara, meanwhile, lives with her mother (Adrienne Corri), a dressmaker who is being "advised" by Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a lawyer with political connections, who had also been the friend and business partner of Zhivago's father.

Lara is friends to Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtenay), an idealistic young man, who is wounded by a saber-wielding Cossack during a peaceful protest, leaving a conspicuous scar across his cheek which would mark him for life. Pasha allowed the wound to scar, partly out of machismo and partly because his low social status does not entitle him to medical attention. That same evening, Komarovsky had taken Lara to a posh restaurant (in lieu of her mother, who is ill) and then seduced her.

Lara becomes more deeply involved with Komarovsky, until her mother finally discovers their affair and tries to kill herself by swallowing iodine. Komarovsky discovers her and summons help from Kurt and his assistant Zhivago, who sees Lara for the first time.

When Pasha, now a dedicated Bolshevik, tells Komarovsky that he intends to marry Lara, Komarovsky tries to dissuade Lara from doing so, and then rapes her. After he points out to Lara that her enthusiastic cooperation with the act is proof that she is nothing but a slut. In revenge, Lara takes an illegal pistol she had been holding for Pasha, tracks Komarovsky down to a Christmas party (where Zhivago and Tonya announce their engagement) and shoots and wounds him (in the arm). Kamarovsky insists that she be released and shouts, "get her out of here"; Lara is escorted out by Pasha, who had followed her into the party, and who then learns of Lara's seduction and infidelity.

The movie then jumps ahead to August 1914: World War I. Yevgraf enlists, intending to subvert the war effort for the party in order to help start the Revolution among a defeated people; Yuri (now married to Tonya) and Professor Kurt become medical officers; and Pasha joins a volunteer regiment as well, becoming one of the only men that the soldiers trust. Pasha is supposedly killed in a battle on the Eastern Front, while Lara joins as a nurse in order to look for him as the Revolution breaks out and the Russian army begins to desert en masse.

Travelling with a group of deserters, Lara meets Zhivago, who is with a column of replacement troops marching to the front; the replacement soldiers mutiny, kill their officers, and join the deserters, and Zhivago enlists the help of Lara to tend to the wounded. The two manage a makeshift hospital in a country estate for the remainder of the war and are parted at war's end.

Yuri returns to Moscow, finding that his Aunt Anna is dead and that the Gromeko's house has been apportioned by the revolutionary government to accommodate 20 or 30 other people. Yuri meets his son Sasha for the first time, and resumes his old job at the local hospital, but is furious that his family is lacking in basic fuel and food. One night, while he tries to steal wood from a fence for his family stove, he is spotted by Yevgraf who follows him home. Yevgraf informs Zhivago that his poems have been condemned by the government as antagonistic to the new ideology, putting their whole family at risk for collective punishment. He helps arrange for rail passes for their transport to the Gromeko estate at Varykino, in the Urals.

Zhivago, Tonya, Sasha, and Alexander board a heavily guarded cattle train which includes a detachment of labor conscripts—including the hot-headed anarchist intellectual, Kostoyed Amoursky (Klaus Kinski)—and a large contingent of Red Guard soldiers. At one point, the train passes through the village of Mink, which has been shelled by Red forces commanded by a People's Commander Strelnikov; at the end of Act One, Strelnikov is revealed to be Pasha. While the Urals train is stopped, Zhivago wanders away from the train, listening to the sound of a waterfall, and stumbles across Strelnikov's armored train sitting on a hidden siding. He is arrested and brought to Strelnikov (recognized by him as Pasha) as an suspected assassin. After a tense conversation, Yuri reveals that he saw Strelnikova at the Christmas party; Strenikov tells Yuri that Lara is alive in the town of Yuriatin — which is currently occupied by forces of the White Army — and lets Zhivago go back to his train (and family). A casual comment by the guard taking him back to his train reveals that most people interrogated by Strelnikov end up being shot.

Zhivago's family arrives at Varykino but finds their main house has been boarded up with a sign indicating confiscation by the Soviet regime, aka "people". Out of fear of being executed as "counter-revolutionaries", they desist from breaking into their own house. However, they decide to occupy the smaller guest cottage. The family lives a mundane life until the next spring, when Zhivago goes into Yuriatin and discovers that Lara is the local librarian. The two reacquaint themselves and begin a sexual relationship. Zhivago is torn between Tonya and Lara, until Tonya becomes pregnant; Yuri travels to Yuriatin and breaks off his affair with Lara, only to be captured and conscripted into service by Red partisan troops under Liberius (Gerard Tichy) while riding back to Varykino.

After serving with the Partisans for nearly two years as a medical officer, Zhivago deserts, only to find that his family has left Russia and emigrated to Paris; he goes to Lara's home in Yuriatin, and is welcomed by Lara. The two renew their relationship, but Komarovsky arrives one night and informs them that they are being watched by the Bolsheviks, due to Lara's marriage to Strelnikov (who is now out of favor with the government). Komarovsky offers Yuri and Lara his help in escaping, but they refuse; the two go with Lara's daughter, Katya, to the Varykino estate, which has been left open and is frozen inside. Yuri begins writing the "Lara" poems, which would later make him famous but incur government displeasure. Komarovsky reappears, telling Yuri that Strelnikov has killed himself while being walked to his execution, and that Lara is now in immediate danger. She was left unarrested only to lure Strelnikov into a trap. Zhivago scoffs at that, and Komarovsky advises him that to the contrary, Strelikov was arrested on the open road only five miles from Varykino. Yuri agrees to send Lara away with Komarovsky who has been appointed as Minister of Justice in Mongolia, but Yuri remains behind.

Years later, almost an invalid, Yuri retuns to Moscow, where Yevgraf gets him a hospital job and buys him some clothes. While riding a tram to his first day at work, he sees a woman he recognizes as Lara, forces his way off the tram, and runs after her. He suffers a fatal heart attack in the street; she walks on without seeing or hearing him. Lara comes to his funeral, surprised and saddened by his death. Lara had become separated from her and Yuri's child when revolution broke out in Mongolia, and enlists Yevgraf's help, which is unavailing. After looking over hundreds of orphans, she gives up. By that time, Zhivago's work has been allowed to circulate due to change in party policy and his burial has been widely attended, despite being denied a state funeral.

At the beginning of the film, Zhivago's mother dies (the film opens at her funeral) and he inherits her balalaika. His adoptive father tells him that his mother had a gift. The theme of artistic talent is repeated throughout the film, as Zhivago becomes a poet of great renown. At the end of Yevgraf's story, the girl ends the meeting, denying that she is Yevgraf's niece, and leaves with her boyfriend. Yevgraf notes that the girl has a balalaika on her back. After being informed that the girl plays well without having had any lessons, Yevgraf says about her talent: "Ah, then, it's a gift." He is now convinced that the girl is indeed the daughter of Yuri and Lara, lost in Mongolia, thus bringing a coda to the framing device.



This famous film version by David Lean was created for various reasons. Pasternak's novel had been an international success, and producer Carlo Ponti was interested in adapting it as a vehicle for his wife, Sophia Loren. Lean, coming off the huge success of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), wanted to make a more intimate, romantic film to balance the action- and adventure-oriented tone of his previous film. One of the first actors signed onboard was Omar Sharif, who had played Lawrence's right-hand man Sherif Ali in Lawrence. Sharif loved the novel, and when he heard Lean was making a film adaptation, he requested to be cast in the role of Pasha (which ultimately went to Tom Courtenay). Sharif was quite surprised when Lean suggested that he play Zhivago himself. (Peter O'Toole, star of Lawrence, was Lean's original choice for Zhivago, but turned the part down; Max Von Sydow and Paul Newman were also considered.) Rod Steiger was cast as Komarovsky after Marlon Brando and James Mason turned the part down. Audrey Hepburn was considered for Tonya, while Robert Bolt lobbied for Albert Finney to play Pasha. Lean, however, was able to convince Ponti that Loren was not right for the role of Lara, saying she was "too tall" (and confiding in screenwriter Robert Bolt that he could not accept Loren as a virgin for the early parts of the film), and Yvette Mimieux, Sarah Miles and Jane Fonda were considered for the role. Ultimately, Julie Christie was cast based on her appearance in Billy Liar (1963), and the recommendation of John Ford, who directed her in Young Cassidy.

Since the book was banned in the Soviet Union, the movie was filmed largely in Spain over ten months, with the entire Moscow set being built from scratch outside of Madrid. Most of the scenes covering Zhivago and Lara's service in World War I were filmed in Soria, as was the Varykino estate. Due to uncooperative weather in Spain, some of the winter sequences were filmed in Finland, mostly landscape scenes, and Yuri's escape from the Partisans. Winter scenes of the family travelling to Yuriatin by rail were filmed in Canada.

The "ice-palace" at Varykino was filmed in Soria as well, a house filled with frozen beeswax. The charge of the Partisans across the frozen lake was filmed in Spain as well; a cast iron sheet was placed over a dried river-bed, and fake snow (mostly marble dust) was added on top. Most of the winter scenes were filmed in warm temperatures, sometimes of up to ninety degrees Fahrenheit.

Book vs. Movie

The film version of Zhivago is faithful to the book in a general sense; the basic plot remains the same, and storywise there are relatively few deviations from the novel. However, many of the subplots - particularly regarding the novel's historical/political facets - were glossed over or edited down. Nearly half of the book's characters were excised while others had their parts significantly reduced (particularly Anna Gromeko, Pasha, and Liberius the Partisan commander). Other characters (most notably Kuril, the Bolshevik deserter, Commissar Razin, and Petya, the Varykino groundskeeper) were created as an amalgamation of characters from the book which had been excised from the film version. Many reviewers have criticized the film in particular for reducing the depiction of World War I to a mere five minute narration sequence, and a similar treatment of Zhivago's service with the Partisans, which took up nearly seventy pages of the novel.

It should be noted that most of these cuts were made or advocated by David Lean; screenwriter Robert Bolt's original screenplay dealt with the political/historical aspects of the book in a more in-depth, if still abbreviated manner. The scenes of Yuri's service with and escape from the Partisans included scenes where Liberius executes mortally wounded Partisans. Zhivago's horse, after the escape, is killed for food by a group of homeless children, and Zhivago comes across a group of children who are, it is hinted, cannibalizing the bodies of their parents.

Perhaps the biggest change in characterization is of the Pasha character. In the book, Pasha is a revolutionary dilettante and an apolitical military leader; his ultimate fall from grace is because he is not a true Bolshevik. In the film, however, Bolt depicts him as a hardcore Bolshevik from the beginning, though his character still develops into a more ruthless individual over the course of the story. Bolt wanted to include the book's scene where the disgraced Strelnikov returned to Varykino, met with Zhivago, and then committed suicide; Lean, however, decided to cut it out, and Strelnikov's fate was dealt with through dialogue spoken by Komarovsky.

The present-day subplot involving Yevgraf's interview of The Girl several decades after the story's main events was added as a narration/framing device to help move along the story. Omar Sharif later joked that it was added to reassure the audience that Yuri and Lara would ultimately get together, even though the audience would have to wait until two hours into the film for it to happen.


Despite being a huge box office hit (and being nominated for, and winning, several Academy Awards), Zhivago also gained a staggering amount of criticism from reviewers, largely for its length and depiction of the romance between Zhivago and Lara. The preview cut, which ran to over 220 minutes, was criticized for its length and poor pacing; Lean felt obliged to remove up to 17 minutes of footage before the film's wide release, and the missing footage hasn't been restored or located. Lean took these criticisms very personally, and claimed at the time that he would never make another film. However, numerous critics - including Richard Schickel and Anna Lee - defended Zhivago, and its box office success allowed Lean to write off his critics. Lean made Ryan's Daughter in 1970, then waited until 1984 to make his final film, A Passage to India (1984).

Lean's production of Zhivago has stood the test of time. The film left an indelible mark on popular culture and fashion, and to this day remains an extremely popular film: Maurice Jarre's haunting score - particularly Lara's Theme - became one of the most famous in cinematic history. Over the years, the film's critical reputation has gained in stature, and today Zhivago is considered to be one of Lean's finest works and is highly critically acclaimed, along with Lawrence, Brief Encounter and Bridge on the River Kwai.

As with the novel itself, the film was banned in the Soviet Union. It was not shown in Russia until 1994.

American Film Institute recognition


  • The inside of the ice palace was composed mainly of specifically formed wax.
  • Rod Steiger was on set filming for 12 months.
  • This film grossed more than every other film David Lean had directed put together.
  • Alec Guinness and David Lean quarreled frequently on the set of this film. According to Guinness, Lean was "acting the part of a super-star director" and frequently insulted Guinness's performance and him personally. This caused a rift to develop between the two and they would not work again until A Passage to India almost twenty years later.
  • Most of the exteriors were completely built inside as well to serve as interiors.
  • Rita Tushingham filmed her part in two weeks.
  • There is a debate among some fans as to whether the blonde girl that Zhivago sees walking on the street at the end is actually Lara, or just someone who looked like her. While greater tragedy and irony could be reflected in such scene if in fact the girl was not Lara, it was in fact Julie Christie who played the girl in the scene, and Lara did appear at the funeral immediately afterwards.
  • The scene where Zhivago and Lara meet amidst the army deserters was a deliberate homage to King Vidor's The Big Parade, which Lean cited as one of his favorite films.


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