Doctor Zhivago on DVD

Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guinness, Tom Courtenay, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Rita Tushingham. Directed by David Lean. Aspect ratio: 2.35 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French). Two discs. 200 minutes. 1965. Warner Home Video 6557. PG-13. $29.98.

Director David Lean made many films, but he is best remembered for the three he made between 1957 and 1965: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). All three have been released within the past year in pristine DVD transfers, most recently Doctor Zhivago.

Zhivago, the most melodramatic of the three films, treads perilously close to soap opera—as more than one critic pointed out on its initial release. The story of a man in love with one woman (his wife, Tanya, played by Geraldine Chaplin) and obsessed with another (the soulful Lara, played by Julie Christie), it unfolds against the sweeping backdrop of the Russian Revolution. Films of love stories intertwined with major historical events were hardly new when the film was adapted from Boris Pasternak's best-known novel, and if more recent productions are any indication, the epic romance is unlikely to ever go out of style.

You can argue that Zhivago is overlong, that composer Maurice Jarre's balalaika-heavy score, glorious though it sounds for the first hour or two, does not wear well ("Lara's Theme" was to the '60s what "My Heart Will Go On" was to the '90s), and that Omar Sharif's take on the lead role is too passive and passionless (the "Making of" documentary on disc 2 explains that this approach was Lean's idea). But the story is never predictable, some of the performances are memorable (Rod Steiger, in particular, threatens to burn a hole right through the screen in what may well have been his best movie performance), and the lush, widescreen cinematography is consistently involving.

The DVD captures all of this. In fact, of the three Lean films mentioned, this may be the most successful transfer, sonically and visually. The picture is generally sharp, the colors rich and true, and edge enhancement distracts only rarely. The images fall a hair short of the very best DVD presentations of newer films. As for the sound, if you don't expect a modern soundtrack, you won't be disappointed. There's little serious surround activity, and the bass, while comfortably full-bodied when it needs to be (mostly in a long sequence involving trains), never threatens to overdrive a subwoofer. But the music sounds cleaner and more natural than in The Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia, both of which (and particularly the latter) can sound shrill and edgy. Both overture and intermission music are included, and while they're unlikely to send chills down an audiophile's spine, they might just show you—or remind you—of what an "event" a movie could be 37 years ago.

The film extends over both sides of the DVD-14 disc 1 (two layers on one side, one layer on the other), with the side break at the intermission. If you select "Play Film" from the main menu, you'll see a brief introduction by Omar Sharif before the overture. If this grows tedious with multiple viewings, you can skip it, and the overture as well, by going to the chapter menu and selecting the beginning of the film.

The only extras on disc 1 are music-only and commentary tracks, the latter featuring Sharif, Steiger, and Sandra Lean. If you don't have time to sit through the full 200-minute movie again just for the extended commentary, I suggest viewing only the scenes with Steiger, whose comments are by far the most interesting.

The remaining extras are on disc 2. The only one I found worthwhile was Doctor Zhivago: The Making of a Russian Epic. The rest are shorter documentaries that were clearly produced concurrent with the movie and come across as promo pieces, often with the sort of "Cast of Thousands, Runs for Minutes!" hyperactive announcer common to the era. They also repeat a lot of material found in Making of a Russian Epic or the disc 1 commentary, and sometimes both. Also included are a short, moderately interesting biography of Boris Pasternak and old, dull interviews with Sharif and Christie. But Making of more than makes up for such filler. Despite Sharif's overly fussy narration, it's one of the most interesting and informative such documentaries I've seen on a DVD.

But you'll want Doctor Zhivago, first and foremost, for the film itself. If it disappoints at all, it's only in comparison with Kwai and Lawrence. If you haven't seen it, you should. And if your only experience of it is from a dingy pan&scan televised print in mono sound, you really haven't seen it at all.