The Ten Percent: Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Poster - Doctor Zhivago_02

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks, K. Dale Koontz and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law — the small portion of everything which is not crud. Sturgeon was right, of course. The vast majority of movies, television, writing, and art is crud, eminently forgettable and ultimately irrelevant, but there is always that tiny slice of the sublime. In this space, we’ve talked about comedy, drama, animation, horror, science fiction, musicals, and more. We get to do that because the Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – these rare gems last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

This week, “The Ten Percent” ascends to the heights of epic romance with a look at David Lean’s magnificent Doctor Zhivago (1965). Based upon the eponymous 1957 novel by Boris Pasternak, the film’s story spans some 40 years of 20th century Russian history, from the 1910s to the late 1940s/early 1950s of the framing device used at the beginning and end of the movie. The story traces the lives and love of Yuri Zhivago, an orphan raised by wealthy relatives in the heart of pre-1917 Revolution Moscow, and Lara Antipova, a poor, working class girl from an entirely different side of the Russian capital. Zhivago is a talented medical doctor and surgeon, but an even more gifted poet. Their socioeconomic classes, marriages, revolution, war, and exile all conspire to keep the two apart, but fate keeps throwing them together, and for one all too brief year or so, they are able to be together before the world throws them apart one last time.

Zhivago is played by a young Omar Sharif, whose breakout role came in 1962 as Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, another David Lean epic. Already an experienced and talented actor, Sharif brings a heartbreaking innocence and naivety to the role, backed by a core of goodness sheathed in steel. Lara, the subject of Zhivago’s great cycle of love poems, is brought to the screen by twenty-four year-old Julie Christie, breathtakingly beautiful, hurt, betrayed, and far more cynical than her Zhivago about the world and what it does to love, but, being essentially stronger than he, willing to risk it nonetheless. Fundamentally, as contemporary critics complained, Yuri and Lara spend much of the film at the mercy of much, much larger events, being acted upon instead of exercising agency in their own right. Yet this does not ring false. The years between 1910 and 1930 in Imperial Russia/The Soviet Union were a time when most of the people between the River Vistula in the west and the Pacific Ocean in the east were more often moved than movers. Indeed, one of the great themes of the film is that one of the only choices the two protagonists ever get to make is whether or not to be with each other. The fact that they chose to do so despite everything is a laughing spit in the eye of fate and the “historical inevitabilities,” a decision to cling to the most human of things in the most inhuman of worlds.

This determined belief in the value of the individual, and of individuality is the very core of both Pasternak’s and Lean’s visions. Yuri in particular refuses to accept that the individual must disappear in favor of the collective, and that the human heart must surrender to the realities of the industrial state. In this he shared much with his creator, for Pasternak’s novel was refused publication in the Soviet Union because it was deemed to be too critical of the Soviet system, and not in line with socialist realism. Smuggled out with Pasternak’s willing cooperation, it was first published in the West in Italian in 1957. Doctor Zhivago received international acclaim and popularity, and was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature, but Pasternak was informed by the Soviet government that, if he left the USSR to receive the prize, he would not be allowed to return. Rather than be exiled from his homeland, Pasternak didn’t go, and died of lung cancer in 1960. Until 1988, the only copies of Zhivago available in Russian and in Russia were cheaply hand-printed, illegal samizdat copies. In 1989, Pasternak’s son was finally permitted to travel to Stockholm and receive his father’s Nobel Prize. For all of the faults common to authors trying to survive in Stalinist Russia, Zhivago stands as Pasternak’s great humanist affirmation that more than states and wars and revolutions and treasuries, the individual soul is the single most valuable thing in the world.

Lean’s film suffered the same kind of censorship, and was not screened in Russia until 1994. Savaged by critics upon its release, the film nonetheless quickly became very popular with audiences, perhaps aided by the soundtrack album, which sold 600,000 copies during Doctor Zhivago’s first release. In fact, film score composer Maurice Jarre’s “Lara’s Theme” remains one of the most popular, and instantly recognizable, film scores in cinematic history. Today, adjusted for inflation, Doctor Zhivago is the 8th highest grossing film in history, and the second highest of all time for MGM, right behind Gone With the Wind. Lean’s sweeping vision is on full display in the film with panoramic landscapes, vast armies of extras, scenes of almost fairy tale intimacy, and the sense of history rolling like a juggernaut over everyone and everything. The cinematography is truly stunning, and still enraptures the viewer away into Yuri and Lara’s world with breathtaking ease. This is truly a masterpiece of epic filmmaking, and with the cast being “rounded out” by the likes of Rod Steiger and Sir Alec Guinness, the film’s three hours (including overture and intermission) fly by gloriously, and take their place firmly within the Ten Percent.

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago
Julie Christie and Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago


Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (spring 2017)You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.





2 Replies to “The Ten Percent: Doctor Zhivago (1965)”

  1. Just watched it in its entirety this Sunday. Magnificent film. Can’t believe it took me so long to see it. Now I want to read the book! I have it somewhere in a box.

    1. Be warned: the book is VERY different from the film, and can definitely be called “experimental literature.”

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