My money would be on Lean’s 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia, or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (with his own Dr. Strangelove a close runner-up). But Kyle Smith makes a pretty strong case for Dr. Zhivago (coming out on Blu-Ray high-definition DVD next-week) being “the finest film of the 1960s and one of the greatest films ever made:”
If you’ve never seen this film, or never seen it on the big screen, don’t miss this rare opportunity. I call “Doctor Zhivago” the finest film of the 1960s and one of the greatest films ever made, fully the equal of (and in many ways more serious than and hence superior to, the romanticized and oblivious-to-implications ‘Gone with the Wind.’) I first saw it, as I suppose many of my generation did, on ABC’s Sunday Night Movies in the 1970s, and even as an adolescent I was taken with both the splendor of its heartbreak and the shivery effectiveness of the funeral scene at the start of the picture (it also had a profound effect on Steven Spielberg, who in “Poltergeist” offers an homage to the scene, in which Yuri wordlessly contemplates the death of his mother while a tree’s naked branches claw mercilessly at the window). In later years I came to realize the immense value of the film’s devastating portrayal of the Russian Revolution, an event of world-reorganizing calamity which has still barely attracted the notice of Hollywood (although I very much enjoy the way Warren Beatty explores it in his homage to both “Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Reds”). Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) is essentially apolitical but he is also an idealist and when he returns home from the war to Moscow to discover that the People have taken over his home and moved 15 families into it, he pauses to process this infomation and then says “It’s much better this way. More just.” When his slightly more cynical uncle (Ralph Richardson) laughs at this, Yuri insists, “but it is more just!”
There is a great deal of awakening in store for our hero as the Bolsheviks chase him first onto a train out of Moscow (cue one of the great rail sequences in cinema history — how to forget the sight when the packed-together refugees open the door of their cattle car and are confronted with a sheet of solid ice? Or the stench you can practically taste when the passengers shovel out the door the hay that is soaked in their own waste?)
The obvious symbolism of the train sequence in the middle of Dr. Zhivago echoes another totalitarian regime that made extensive use of their own railroad system to carry out its most sinister acts. And perhaps for that reason — the exceedingly rare Hollywood film (produced by MGM after all, despite Lean’s British imprimatur) to not just portray the Soviet Union in a bad light, but to tacitly equate it with Nazi Germany (how dare he!) — did American film critics savage Dr. Z. This of course was in sharp contradistinction to the praise they justifiably heaped upon Lawrence. After one more film (Ryan’s Daughter), Lean chose to sit out the entire 1970s on the sidelines in semi-retirement, and more’s the pity. Zhivago isn’t a perfect movie, but like Lawrence and Bridge on the River Kwai before it, it’s one of only a handful of thinking man’s epics, the likes of which a Hollywood lobotomized by political correctness seemingly cannot produce these days.