Zhivago’s Zeitgeist

In 1965, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO made a ton of money, more than all the other David Lean films lumped together, but it was created in its own chaos, and its production blemishes and secrets were covered up in make up and costume, conspiracies, politics, and egos.

Everyone wanted to shoot it in Russia, but the regime of Alexei Koygin would not allow an imperialist film based on a banned novel to be filmed there, so the cameras were set up mostly in Spain, with some shots done in Finland substituting for Siberia. The finished film, considered a classic love story, was not shown in the Soviet Union until 1994.

Director:                   David Lean

Writer:                      Boris Pasternak (novel)

Robert Bolt (screenplay)

Cinematography:     Freddie Young


Omar Sharif             Yuri

Julie Christie            Lara

Geraldine Chaplin    Tonya

Rod Steiger              Komarovsky

Tom Courtenay         Pasha

Alec Guinness          Yevgraf

Rita Tushingham       The Girl

Carlo Ponti bought the rights to the novel, and then hired the entire production crew who had made LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, wanting to cast his wife, Sophia Loren, to play Lara– but Lean turned her down, saying

She was too damned tall.”

David Lean wanted Peter O’Toole to play Yuri, but O’Toole was still angry about the experience he had with Lean on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The producers wanted Albert Finney to play Yuri, but Lean was still angry at him for turning down the title role in LAWRENCE. Later Dirk Bogarde and Max Von Sydow were considered for Yuri.

Lean wanted Marlon Brando to play Komarovsky, but Brando never returned his calls, so James Mason was cast, later dropping out before Rod Steiger snagged the role. Jane Fonda, Yvette Mimieux, and Sarah Miles were all approached to play Lara, but Lean had seen BILLY LIAR, and politicked for Julie Christie, wisely. He wanted Audrey Hepburn to play Tonya, but was so impressed with newcomer Geraldine Chaplin’s audition, he cast her on the spot.

Pasha: They rode them down, Lara–women and children, begging for bread. There will be no more peaceful demonstrations.

The Moscow scenes were shot in Canillas, a suburb of Madrid, on a ten acre site, with a replica of the Kremlin stately towering.

Gromeko: They’ve shot the Czar and all his family. What a savage deed. What’s it for?

Zhivago: It’s to show there’s no going back.

Tagline: A love caught in the fire of revolution.

Now let’s see, Yuri, the good doctor, was married to Tonya, an aristocrat. Lara was married to Pasha, who left her to become a revolutionary. Komarovsky lusted after Lara, and Lara became the muse for Yuri as poet, star-crossed love mired in the blood bath of dialectical materialism.

While shooting in Spain in 1964, this was still the regime of Gen. Francisco Franco, who sent his secret police to hang around the set, and infiltrate the crowd scenes. During a major crowd scene shot at 3 a.m., the extras were singing the Revolutionary Internationale so loudly, townsfolk came out of their homes mistakenly believing that Franco had been overthrown.

Pasha: Yuri, I used to admire your poetry, but I should not admire it now. The personal life is dead. History killed it.

At nineteen years old, watching the film, I did not like Omar Sharif’s watery eyes or Arabic accent, and I felt that Julie Christie had been better in John Ford’s YOUNG CASSIDY– but I did enjoy the fantasy of someday becoming a writer, and the spirit of revolution was rampant midst the melodrama and twisted history lesson, better served years later in Warren Beatty’s REDS. I was raised in a very liberal family, and the patriots of this drama seemed contrived and pale to me.

Still some semblance of sanity prevailed, and decades later most of us remember the romance, the tragic love story, and have let the limp politics loose in the wind. Even the Academy sensed the truth, only giving Oscars for cinematography, screenplay, and musical score–honoring none of the acting, directing, or popularity; and we are left with a salient fact– Varykino is actually a city to the west of Moscow, but it is not to the east in Siberia as the film portrays.

Glenn Buttkus

January 2011


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