When The Dark Knight Rises was released in 2012, Sight & Sound ‘weighed up’ the film and balanced 20% of the film as Doctor Zhivago (18% Star Wars, 15% Metropolis, etc).
The idea that the new Batman film is similar to a David Lean classic, starring Omar Sharif, seemed a fascinating prospect. Single-handedly directing me to Doctor Zhivago, and lifting my own expectations for The Dark Knight Rises, I can confirm it is indeed a contributing influence. Zhivago is a glorious sprawling epic, portraying the entire life of Dr Yuri Zhivago (Sharif) during the Russian revolution and his longing, desperate love for Lara (Julie Christie). But it was famously panned by the critics. Bosley Crowther (“a sad romance that seems as far away from Russia as the surging revolution seems from them”) and Pauline Kael (“This isn’t art, it’s heavy labour”) both leading the pack in damning reviews.
Spanning an enormous period, Doctor Zhivago portrays the night before World War I, in Moscow, and carrying through the conflict and on to the Russian revolution with a coda set post-World War II. Neatly the tale is bookended by the questioning of a young woman, rumoured to be the daughter of Zhivago. But we’re not sure – and nor is Zhivago’s half-brother, the interviewer Yevgraf (Alec Guinness, Lean’s “Good luck charm”). We’re shown how Yuri’s upbringing is comfortable, with a father who is happy to show him the ropes of medicine. This skillset becomes integral to the war effort as Yuri is stationed in a hospital that helps the wounded soldiers. Lara (Julie Christie) is a nurse herself, and her own circumstances are much worse. A young woman, Lara’s glowing blonde hair and tender heart, is sought by her mother’s womanising lover. The elder man, Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), takes advantage of her inexperience and dependency on him and a brief romance begins. This is where Yuri witnesses their affair. While Lara is in a relationship with revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay), Yuri himself is married to Tonya (Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, Geraldine), and the Russian Revolution only pulls Lara and Yuri further apart. Will they ever find each other again amongst the trauma of war and untie the tangled relationships they’re now trapped within?
The love-that-can-never-be of Lean’s Brief Encounter meets the war genre of The Bridge on the River Kwai, with the sole-character, biographical (based on the best-selling novel by Boris Pasternak) structure of Lawrence of Arabia. Add to this the unforgettable ‘Lara’s Theme’ of the soundtrack and you have an established classic, combining all the greatest skills of David Lean in one package. Doctor Zhivago, though framed by the love between Yuri and Lara, reveals the slow destruction of Russia, as men are sent to war and the revolution turns the tables on the upper classes. The promise of equality is a rouse to, in fact, direct the wealth elsewhere, and we see the fatal consequences of the new order (there’s that link to The Dark Knight Rises).
It’s tricky to love. A long film, requiring an interval to split it up (akin to Gone with the Wind) this is an experience more than throwaway entertainment. Screenwriter Robert Bolt had to whittle down Pasternak’s 700 page poem into an accessible and manageable script. John Box, the set designer, combined with Bolt’s exquisite writing made sure that the weightier themes of politics outside of Western Europe, is the backdrop to the love between two people. Doctor Zhivago began a moustache-twirling trend and the name, Lara, became a popular choice for families following the release. David Lean, with Academy Awards for Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai, was onto another winner. From the stunning seasons to the hauntingly beautiful palaces, Doctor Zhivago is a cinematic pleasure that needs to be experienced on the big screen.