Cast: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger
Oscar Wins: Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Bolt), Best Cinematography, Color (Freddie Young), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color (John Box, Terence Marsh, Dario Simoni), Best Costume Design, Color (Phyllis Dalton), Best Music, Original Score (Maurice Jarre)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Tom Courtenay), Best Director (David Lean), Best Sound (A.W. Watkins, Franklin Milton), Best Film Editing (Norman Savage)
SUMMARY: In the Soviet Union, KGB Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhiago (Alec Guinness) calls a young woman named Tanya Komarova into his office. He explains to her that he believes she is the long-lost daughter of his (deceased) half-brother, Dr. Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (Omar Sharif). Dr. Zhivago is also a famous poet, most renowned for his poems about a woman named Lara. Lieutenant Zhivago believes that this woman, Larissa “Lara” Antipova (Julie Christie) is Tanya’s mother. Tanya has no memory of her childhood before she was found at the the age of 8, so Lieutenant Zhivago tells her the story of her father’s life in an attempt to jog her memory. Yuri Zhivago was orphaned as a young child, after which he was adopted by family friends, the Gromekos. The Gromekos have a daughter about Yuri’s age, named Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). As they grow older, Tonya and Yuri grow very close; when she returns from a trip in 1913, she begins a relationship with Yuri, who is in medical school. Lara, the daughter of a dressmaker, becomes involved with Victor Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a much older man who was once in business with her father (who may also be having a relationship with Lara’s mother). However, she believes herself in love with Pavel “Pasha” Antipov (Tom Courtenay), and idealistic young man who advocates for a revolutionary reform. One night, Pasha is participating in a peaceful demonstration when the large crowd is suddenly attacked by Cossacks, who ride through the crowds attacking people with their sabers. Pasha is wounded in the attack, and flees to Lara’s house. This experience only furthers his radical beliefs, and he becomes extremely left-wing. Not long after, Lara’s mother discovers Lara’s affair with Komarovsky, and tries to overdose on pills. Komarovsky finds her in time, and quietly summons a doctor. The doctor is a former professor of Yuri’s, and happens to be talking to Zhivago when the call comes in: he asks Zhivago to come along with him. Though Yuri does not see Lara face-to-face, he observes her through a smoked glass window, and is able to figure out her relationship with Komarovsky. After her mother’s suicide attempt, Lara decides to end things with Komarovsky and marry Pasha. Komarovsky tries vehemently to talk her out of marrying Pasha, and eventually forces himself on her. At a Christmas party a few days later, Lara bursts in and shoots Komarovsky in the wrist. Yuri, Tonya and her family are all at the party, and Yuri recognizes Lara; he is also the one who treats Komarovsky’s wound. Pasha suddenly arrives and escorts Lara from the party. Though he is stricken by the news of her relationship with Komarovsky, he marries her anyway, and they soon have a daughter named Katya. When World War I breaks out a few years later, Yuri is sent to the front as a doctor. Tensions have already begun to mount between those loyal to the Czar and the Bolsheviks, and soldiers are starting to rebel. Pasha has also joined the army, but is reported missing after an attack on German lines. In an attempt to locate him, Lara becomes a nurse, and journeys to the front lines. The two meet again in 1917, during the February Revolution. At first, their relationship is strictly professional, as Yuri is the only doctor and Lara one of the few nurses in the area. They are eventually taken to a field hospital, which they run together for six months. During this time, Lenin returns to Moscow to lead the Bolshevik uprising (he was actually sent there by the Germans, who hoped to start a revolution that would knock Russia out of the war). When Russia does pull out of the war, the field hospital is closed, and both Yuri and Lara prepare to return to their families. Though they have fallen in love, they choose not to act on their feelings, primarily so that Yuri can stay faithful to his now-wife, Tonya.
Yuri returns to his family – Tonya, their son Sasha, and Tonya’s father Alexander – in Moscow, only to find that their large house has been commandeered by the new Soviet government, and has been divided up into a number of apartments. It is also during this time that Yuri meets his half-brother, Yevgraf, for the first time. Yevgraf is a member of the new Soviet government, and informs Yuri that his poems have been condemned because they do not conform to party standards. Yuri, who seems to have no political affiliation or slant (indeed, he seems to be completely clueless about current politics), is confused by this, but is mostly overjoyed to finally meet his brother. Yevgraf also tells the family that Yuri is a watched man, and that it would be better for them to get out of the city. With his help, they arrange to go to their country estate in the Ural Mountains, Varykino. The train that takes the family to the country travels through country that is being “secured” by the infamous Bolshevik commander Strelnikov. When taking a brief walk during the journey, Yuri is surprised to find that Strelnikov is actually Pasha Antipov. Through Antipov, he learns that Lara is now living in Yuriatin, a town not far from Varykino. When the family does arrive at Varykino, they discover that the house has been heavily damaged by the war; they instead take up residence in a cottage on the property. Life goes well for them there: they are able to grow their own food, and they are mostly unbothered by the war. However, Yuri gets restless, and is encouraged by Tonya to go into Yuriatin. Though he resists for some time, Yuri eventually does go into town, and runs into Lara. They return to her apartment, where they finally consummate their relationship. Yuri begins making frequent trips into Yuriatin, under the guise of going shopping, etc. However, when he learns that Tonya is pregnant with their second child, he goes to Lara for the last time. He breaks off their relationship, telling her that he will never come back. As he is returning home, Yuri is abducted by Communist partisans, who have been spying on him: they know he is a doctor, and forcibly conscript him into the army. Yuri is forced to leave immediately, without telling anyone what has happened to him. He stays with the unit for two years, until one day he abruptly deserts and begins walking home. When he finally makes it back, he immediately goes to Lara. From her, he learns that in the process of looking for him, Tonya had discovered the affair; she, Sasha and her father had then returned to Moscow. Rather than becoming angry, Tonya left Lara with a letter for Yuri, telling him that the family was being deported to Paris. Yuri decides to stay in Russia with Lara. They live happily for a while, until Komarovsky suddenly reappears one day. He tells them that they are under surveillance, both because of Lara’s marriage to the infamous Strelnikov and because of Yuri’s poetry and army desertion. Komarovsky offers to help the pair (and Lara’s daughter Katya) leave Russia, but they refuse. They decide instead to go to Varykino, where they hope they will have a little bit longer together before being discovered. They move into the snow-covered (inside and out) main house, where Yuri begins writing the “Lara poems”. Again, they live happily for some time, but eventually Komarovsky comes back. He tells them that Lara is now in even greater danger: the government had allowed her to live because they believed that Strelnikov might return to her (where they could then capture him). However, Strelnikov is now dead, meaning that they have no use for Lara. Komarovsky again offers to help them flee, but Yuri refuses; Lara refuses to go without Yuri. In a private conversation, Komarovsky is able to convince Yuri of the need to get Lara out of Russia. He agrees, making her believe that they will all leave together, but in reality he stays behind at Varykino as she and Katya leave with Komarovsky. Unbeknownst to Yuri, Lara is pregnant with his child. Some years later, Yevgraf manages to track down his brother again in Moscow. He helps Yuri get back on his feet, and gets him a job. On the way to this job, Yuri sees a woman he thinks is Lara from a bus window. He tries to run after her, but has a heart attack and dies in the middle of the street. Lara attends the funeral, where Yevgraf connects with her. He learns that she had given birth to Yuri’s child, a daughter, but had lost her during a government collapse in Mongolia (where they had fled to). Together, they visit orphanages in an attempt to find the girl, but are unable to locate her. Eventually, Lara disappears; Yevgraf believes that she died in a labor camp. Back in the present, Tanya Komarova is still not convinced of her parentage, though Yevgraf seems fairly certain. As she leaves his office, he questions her about the balalaika she carries – one that he knows Yuri’s mother was an expert at. He is told that though self-taught, Tanya is a master at the instrument. His belief in her parentage finally confirmed, Yevgraf tells Tanya that it must be a gift, then smiles at her as she walks away.
MY TAKE: I have always thought of this movie as the one who tried to steal the glory from The Sound of Music, my all-time favorite movie. It seems to be revered as a great classic, and while The Sound of Music is also a well-respected classic, it sometimes seems to have the “but . . . it’s a musical” stigma attached. The Academy disagreed, and awarded the Best Picture Oscar to The Sound of Music, and I have to agree with their decision. Obviously, I’m biased, but even from an impartial (as impartial as I can be) standpoint, this movie is not as good. It is very well-made and well-cast, and the story is interesting. However, both times that I have watched it, I have come away with the belief that Yuri and Lara are both idiots. I find them both to be unsympathetic for a couple of reasons. First of all, they are both cheating on their spouses. In Lara’s case, she probably thinks her husband is dead, but she obviously doesn’t have a problem carrying on multiple relationships at a time, because she’s done it before. In Yuri’s case, though, he seems to actually love Tonya, who is an ideal wife and mother. There is absolutely no strain or discord in their marriage – in fact, Yuri gets Tonya pregnant in the middle of his affair with Lara, proving that he’s a total tool — so his betrayal of her really pissed me off. In addition, both of them have children that they seem to basically ignore. Then, for the icing on the cake, rather than think of their children (in Lara’s case) or their family (in Yuri’s case) and leave Russia, as advised, they decide to go live together in a decrepit mansion and write poetry. In the middle of the freaking Russian winter. And the Russian Revolution. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with these two?! It’s butt-cold, there’s a nasty revolution going on around you, and all you can do is sit around and make goo-goo eyes at each other? What little respect I had for them pretty much vanished after that. In a sense, it is a tragic love story, but mostly (for me) it came across as a romance that was doomed from the beginning. They picked the exact wrong time and place to have an affair, and they compounded the mistake by not having the sense God gave a goose.
Fun fact: Omar Sharif’s real-life son Tarek played the young Yuri Zhivago.
Rod Steiger, who plays Komarovsky, also plays Marlon Brando’s brother in On the Waterfront. He’s the recipient of the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech.
RATING: Hard to say – it’s an impressive film, but the main characters are morons.
P.S. The Sound of Music is way better.