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Viewer Guide: “Doctor Zhivago” and “Emperor”

November 9, 2022 | Richard Peña


Doctor Zhivago (1965).

This week’s double feature begins with Doctor Zhivago, the epic 1965 romantic drama of the Russian revolution, directed by David Lean. 

Adapted by Robert Bolt from Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, despite its enormous scale Doctor Zhivago is essentially the personal story of a handful of characters caught up in historic events. Recounted in a flashback structure, the film opens with Soviet secret police lieutenant general Yevgraf Zhivago, played by Alec Guinness, searching for the lost daughter of his half-brother, Yuri Zhivago, the title character famously played by Omar Sharif. Yevgraf interviews a young worker named Tanya, played by Rita Tushingham, who he suspects is Yuri’s illegitimate daughter. In hopes of prompting Tanya’s memory, Yevgraf tells her his brother’s story, beginning with the death of Yuri’s mother and his adoption by family friends Alexander and Anna Gromeko, played by Ralph Richardson and Siobhán McKenna.  

Years later, as a young doctor living in Moscow, Yuri becomes engaged to the Gromeko’s daughter Tonya, played by Geraldine Chaplin, and gains acclaim as a poet. His privileged life is in stark contrast to the film’s other characters trudging through Moscow’s snowy streets, including Julie Christie as Lara, a 17-year-old who finds herself under the predatory gaze of her mother’s unsavory lover Victor Komarovsky, played by Rod Steiger. Komarovsky’s unwanted attentions also threaten Lara’s relationship with the idealistic Pasha Antipov, played by Tom Courtenay, whose revolutionary fervor soon puts him in harm’s way. As the looming Bolshevik revolution steadily gathers momentum to the surging strains of Maurice Jarre’s memorable score, the outbreak of World War I profoundly upends the lives of the film’s star-crossed lovers, sending each on a fateful odyssey from which there is no return. 

Boris Pasternak’s autobiographical novel Doctor Zhivago —banned in Russia until 1988 for being hostile to the Bolshevik revolution—was smuggled out for publication in Milan, with the film rights optioned by Italian producer Carlo Ponti as a movie vehicle for his wife, Sophia Loren. Having achieved a reputation as the master of the cinematic epic after helming Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean was the clear first choice to direct. Ponti granted Lean complete artistic control—with Lean immediately rejecting Loren to play Lara for being “too tall.” Lean turned to his Lawrence of Arabia screenwriter Robert Bolt to adapt the unwieldy novel, with Bolt greatly condensing the sprawling narrative. After Peter O’Toole passed on the title role, Lean offered it to Lawrence of Arabia’s other star Omar Sharif, much to the Egyptian actor’s surprise. To create a more Slavic appearance, Sharif wore a tight-fitting wig which also helped emphasize his cheekbones. Against studio wishes, Lean cast Julie Christie as Lara after screening clips of her breakout performance in Darling with her co-star Tom Courtenay, who also joined the Zhivago cast as Pasha.  

With location shooting not possible in Russia given the Cold War, production designer John Box’s enormous Moscow set was constructed on a ten-acre site outside Madrid. Filming continued over two years mostly in Spain, with some winter scenes filmed in Finland and Canada. An urban legend developed that Hungarian actress Lili Muráti lost her legs after falling under the train; in fact, while she did fall, she escaped serious injury. Receiving mixed reviews upon its release, the film was nevertheless the second biggest money maker of the year behind The Sound of Music, and actually saved MGM from bankruptcy. Nominated for ten Academy Awards, Zhivago won five, including Best Screenplay from Another Medium for Robert Bolt, and for Maurice Jarre’s famous score. 


Emperor (2012).

This week’s double feature continues with Emperor, a 2012 World War II drama directed by Peter Webber. 

A fictionalized account of actual events, Emperor stars Matthew Fox as Brigadier General Bonner Fellers, a member the U.S. Army’s Allied Occupation Force of Japan headed by General Douglas MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones. MacArthur’s contingent arrives in the rubble of Tokyo in late August 1945, just two weeks after Emperor Hirohito’s unconditional surrender has finally put an end to World War II. Having spent time in Japan, Fellers is tasked with arresting the leadership surrounding the Emperor who are now classified as war criminals, with his number one target being former Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo. But soon after Tojo and his subordinates have been detained, MacArthur’s mission is changed: the U.S. Justice Department removes Emperor Hirohito from its “protected” list, and gives MacArthur ten days to determine the Emperor’s guilt or innocence in the War. Was he in fact a God-like figurehead floating above it all, or actively directing Japanese military aggression? Realizing the complexity of the situation, MacArthur assigns Fellers with finding the truth—and proof—of the Emperor’s involvement. Owing to his knowledge of the country, Fellers seems like the best man for the job; however, his past involvement with Japan contains an intimate secret—a college romance with a Japanese woman named Aya Shimada, played by Eriko Hatsune. While helping plan for Japan’s future, Fellers must have to come to terms with his own Japanese past. 

Emperor premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. British director Peter Webber’s first feature film was the 2003 period drama Girl With a Pearl Earring, followed by Hannibal Rising in 2007. With Emperor, Webber returned to a historically inspired narrative, with some generous artistic license. In reality, General Bonner Fellers was 49 years old and married at the time of his participation in the U.S. Occupation of Japan, and although the romance between Fellers and Aya was a fictionalized embellishment, it actually was inspired by Fellers’ lifelong friendship with a Japanese woman he had met at college. The postscript titles state that Fellers was “demoted” to colonel in 1946, but in fact so were 211 other Generals as part of the U.S. Army’s planned reduction of “temporary” wartime appointments. In 1948, Fellers’ title was restored to Brigadier General after his retirement from the army. In 1971, Fellers was honored by Emperor Hirohito in recognition of his contributions to promoting friendship between Japan and the United States.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.  

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