Doctor Zhivago (1965) was the first major western film to capture the turmoil of the Russian Revolution, leading the way for such later epics as Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Reds (1981).
Winning out over several other producers, Carlo Ponti bought the film rights to Boris Pasternak's Nobel Prize-winning novel Doctor Zhivago from its Italian publisher in 1963. At the time, David Lean was the only director who seemed capable of pulling off such a large-scale production. On the strength of his international success with Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Ponti hired him and gave him complete artistic control.
Lean's first choice for the title role was Peter O'Toole, who had risen to stardom with his performance in Lawrence of Arabia. Having suffered through two years of shooting in the desert, however, O'Toole was loath to commit to a similarly grueling film shoot in what promised to be dauntingly cold climates, so he turned the film down.
Then, Lean turned to the other actor who had risen to stardom in Lawrence, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. The casting was a surprise to everybody, including Sharif. He had asked his agent to propose him for the role of Pasha, the student revolutionary who becomes Zhivago's nemesis. Tom Courtenay would win an Oscar& nomination for his performance in that role.
After considering several other actresses for the lead, Lean chose British newcomer Julie Christie, over the studio's objections. He based his choice on one scene in Billy Liar (1963), in which she played opposite Courtenay and a few clips from Darling (1965), which was currently in production and would go on to win her international acclaim and an Oscar®.
Lean also had to fight to cast Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of the legendary Charlie Chaplin, as Zhivago's wife, Tonya. With the exception of an uncredited bit in her father's Limelight (1952), it was her first appearance in an English-language film.
It took two years to film Doctor Zhivago. Over 800 craftsmen in three countries worked on the film. The final production budget was $14 million, twice what the film's backers had agreed to.
The film's principal location in Spain was the C.E.A. Studios, near Madrid's international airport. Production designer John Box and his crew spent six months turning the ten-acre studio into a reproduction of Moscow between 1905 and 1920. Included in the set were a half-mile long paved street, trolley lines, an authentic replica of the Kremlin, a viaduct with real train engines, a church and more than 50 businesses. Publicists touted the set as the largest ever built for a film.
For Zhivago's trip through the Russian Steppes, Box constructed sets in the mountains north of Madrid. This required diverting the course of a river to fit Lean's vision and building miles of fresh railroad tracks.
Lean originally wanted to shoot each of the film's scenes in the appropriate season, so he scheduled a ten-month shoot. Unfortunately, he arrived in Spain during one of the country's mildest winters ever. After repeated delays that added $2.5 million to the budget as he waited for snow, he finally had to shoot during the warmer months.
Many winter scenes were shot in the summer, when actors had to withstand temperatures climbing to 116 degrees while muffled in Russian furs. Costume designer Phyllis Dalton had to keep strict watch over the extras to make sure none of them were shedding layers of clothing to cool off. Sharif would later note, "We had an army of make-up assistants who every two minutes came and dabbed you because we were sweating profusely."
Doctor Zhivago was the second of three films teaming David Lean with playwright Robert Bolt. Bolt had previously saved the Lawrence of Arabia (1962) script. Their third collaboration would be Ryan's Daughter (1970), starring Bolt's wife, Sarah Miles.
Along with the reissue of Gone With the Wind (1939), Doctor Zhivago saved MGM from bankruptcy in the mid-'60s. It also marked a new path for the historical epic. Previous films had simply focused on the scope of world-shaping events. With Zhivago director David Lean and scriptwriter Robert Bolt brought a new romantic sensibility to the epic. That Victorian ideal would inform such later blockbusters as Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), Lady Gray(1986) andTitanic (1997).
Doctor Zhivago was nominated for ten Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Tom Courtenay). It won for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Freddie Young), Best Art Direction (John Box), Best Costumes (Phyllis Dalton) and Best Score (Maurice Jarre).
Producer: Carlo Ponti, David Lean, Arvid Griffen
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Robert Bolt, Boris Pasternak (novel)
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Film Editing: Norman Savage
Art Direction: Terence Marsh, Gil Parrondo
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cast: Omar Sharif (Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara), Tom Courtenay (Pasha Strelnikov), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya), Rod Steiger (Komarovsky), Alec Guinness (Yevgraf).
C-200m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller