Dr. Zhivago: The Story Behind the Style

With the arctic weather producing feet of snow and sub zero temperatures here in New England and down the coast, there have, understandably, been numerous online references to Dr. Zhivago, David Lean’s 1965 classic.

Dr. Zhivago ice palace interior

Based on Boris Pasternak’s Russian Revolution love story, the film is not only one of the most beautiful epics ever filmed but one of the most fascinating. With its anti-Soviet views, the novel was censored in Pasternak’s own country but ultimately published in Europe in 1957.

ice palace in Dr. ZhivagoThe CIA evidently saw it as the perfect opportunity to discredit their Cold War enemy and covertly helped Pasternak win the Nobel Prize as well as smuggled a Russian language version of the novel into the Soviet Union, where it was a cult hit.

doctor zhivago moscow setOn the heels of his epic success, Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean saw Dr. Zhivago as the perfect opportunity to tell another exotic historical saga. While Lean always preferred to shoot on location, filming in the Soviet Union was obviously impossible. What many don’t know is almost the entire movie was actually filmed entirely in Spain, outside of Madrid, where it took 18 months to build the sets, including two full-scale 1922 Moscow street scenes, above, and below, with the cast sitting in front. Some of the winter snow scenes, including the famous train ride, were filmed in Finland and Canada.

dr. zhivago cast

It was set designer John Box, who earned an Oscar for the film, and jack-of-all-trades production designer Eddie Fowlie, who managed to create the winter scenes in the height of Spanish summer. Thousands of tons of marble dust were used to emulate the Siberian landscape. And inside the famous ice palace at Varykino, at top, hundreds of rolls of cellophane were used to cover the furniture which were then covered with dripped wax. The snowy floors were achieved with salicylic acid powder and soap flakes.

doctor zhivago varykino in springLean was well known as a perfectionist and it took over 800 craftsmen (including 120 plasterers, 210 carpenters, 60 masons, 25 tubular steel specialists, 30 painters, 20 electricians and more than 300 back-up technicians) in three countries to complete the film with a final production budget of $14 million. While the winter scenes may have seemed the most daunting, the crew had to plant 7,000 daffodil bulbs for the spring scenes at Varykino. But because the Spanish winter was so mild that year, they started blooming prematurely in January, had to be dug up, put into storage and replanted later in the season.

Geraldine Chaplin andd Julie Christie in Doctor ZhivagoLean was just as particular about the costumes, down to the undergarments. Costume designer Phyllis Dalton, who had worked with Lean on Lawrence of Arabia, earned an Oscar for her influential designs.

Phyllis Dalton drawing for Dr. Zhivago costume

Dr. Zhivago costumesNot only were the costumes crucial in defining the social transformation during the Russian revolution, from white Russian luxury to proletariat practicality, but were a huge influence on fashion designers, most notably Yves Saint Laurent,

Yves Saint Laurent Russian Collection 1976who a decade later created his iconic Russian Collection. With generous inclusions of frog closures, soutache, braiding and fur hats and trim are a clear nod to the spirit of the film.

Yves Saint Laurent Russian Collection

This is really the tip of the iceberg ;-)  of this legendary film, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015 with many more stories that could be told.With Oscars for cinematography, writing adapted screenplay, production design, original music score (Maurice Jarre) and costume design, Dr. Zhivago is a film worth revisiting on a cold snowy afternoon.


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21 Responses to Dr. Zhivago: The Story Behind the Style

  1. A wonderful peak behind the scenes of my all time favorite movie. Everything about this movie is, still, so beautiful. Thank you Stacey.

  2. franki parde says:

    This movie STILL haunts me! When I hear that train whistle in the distance on these snowy mornings my thoughts immediately turn to those snowy scenes. The epitome of bittersweet…franki

    • NetHawk says:

      Nice to see a few fans of the film here. I love it too. My daughter’s name is Larissa, that says everything, right?

  3. Kathryn Nelson says:

    After having just planted 100 daffodils this weekend at my home, I cannot begin to imagine the crew that had to plant 7,000…only to dig them up and replant later. Woof! What a great behind-the-scenes read. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Cynthia White says:

    One of the most visually stunning movies ever. Thank you for sharing this!

  5. If you enjoyed Dr. Zhivago, the first season of Seyit ve Sura is another visually stunning production. It’s on Netflix, and was shot in Moscow and St. Petersburg, in a couple of palaces. It takes place in pre-revolutionary Russia, with lovely costumes and wonderful interiors. Adapted from a true story, it was the most expensive Turkish production ever made. The snowy exterior scenes are evocative of Dr. Zhivago, especially the opening sequence.

    Thanks for sharing the nuts and bolts of the set production of Varykino. Great to know how they achieved that “frozen” look. And I own that YSL belt shown in the last photograph. Good post!

  6. Mary Schumacher says:

    I have seen it 10 times and can never get enough of it! The history, the scenery, the love story, perfect!

  7. I was thinking about that frozen house these past days, so thank you for the gift of this fascinating post. I was overcome when this film first came out. Later read the book. Today, I can’t go through a frigid winter without thinking of the film and especially that house.

  8. Stacey –
    I recall reading an interview with David Lean – talking about the visual language of the film. The contrast he draw was incredibly interesting. He said, if the scene was a violence and shooting – the colours were amazingly saturated and he strove to make it the most beautiful image. If the scene was about love or passion, the colour was practically removed entirely – thus the frigid ‘snow palace.’

  9. Sheila says:

    Awsome detail information on an amazing film. I will need to see it again. Thanks.

  10. Sheila says:

    My goodness just started watching Seyit Sura movie it’s wonderful. So glad I read about it here in a comment. It’s great…

  11. Brooke Beebe says:

    Fascinating story. My husband was in Madrid at the time and visited the set of Dr. Zhivago, but all he can remember is meeting Julie Christie, and finding that she wasn’t that attractive, but rather plain. It is amazing what the camera can do to certain faces.

  12. JOHN LARSEN says:

    This is still my favorite movie ever made which I saw when I saw it at the movies at age 13 over 50 years ago. The story, the acting, Alec Guinness’s narration of the story and the cinematography and set design were magnificent. The scenes with
    Rod Stieger and Julie Christie were wonderfully acted, the opening Scene with Geraldine Chaplin in her Beautiful Winter Costume at the Train Station was “style” stunning. The Scene’s of Varykino when they arrive in the Sleigh and see it in the distance which seemed to be lit by a full moon were haunting and unforgettable. Inside this Summer house (I forget the Russian name for it in the movie) after it succumbed to winter were equally beautiful and unforgettable. The theme music set an elegant and romantic tone to the story within the momentous upheaval of Russian history from this time.

  13. June Emmert says:

    Thanks for reminding me of this excellent film. Plan to watch it again. I also have the book.❤️

  14. Jan Sitts says:

    Cant say anything except my very favorite movie of all times….

  15. Dianne O. says:

    Just ADORE this movie – watched it too many times to count (and can quote from it as well!). :-) Love these “behind the scenes” photos and info. Here’s another tidbit: David Lean asked Peter O’Toole to play “Yuri Zhivago” – but O’Toole refused. He didn’t want to go through another long production like he had done in “Lawrence of Arabia” – but this time in the snow. He and Lean didn’t talk for decades after that. (Can’t imagine anyone else in this role but Omar Sharif!)

    Also read an article recently that “movies like ‘Lawrence’ and ‘Zhivago’ couldn’t be made today” because the movie studios wouldn’t want to pay so much $$$ for production costs. Alas, they’d use CGI instead of the real thing. :-(

    Would love to know how they did some of the other scenes – especially Yuri “walking home” after he escaped from the partisans through those miles of snow-covered landscapes.

  16. Jim says:

    Great background, thanks! Side story: Dr. Z has long been a favorite. As a U.S. soldier in Europe in the 60’s, I searched for a music box that played “Theme from Dr. Zhivago” without success. Finally, in Switzerland, a saleswoman told me they didn’t have that, but did have one that played “Lara’s Theme”. We still have the music box!

  17. Daniel says:

    Years ago I traversed the entirety of Russia starting in the far East going westward via the Trans-Siberian train. As I gazed out of the train car window at the passing landscape that seemed endless, the forest, grasslands and countless tiny Russian villages, I couldn’t help but hear the theme music from “Doctor Zhivago” constantly in my head.

  18. Mica Jones says:

    Wow. Amazing recreation of A Russian Winter in the countryside. I must rent the movie from Amazon tonight! It has been at least 10 years since I last saw Zhivago. As someone mentioned; the haunting train whistle invokes a mental picture of the movie and the “long train ride.” It deserved all the awards and accolades it recieved.

  19. Cynthia says:

    I loved the film/ saw it five times! I named my daughter Laura – wanted to name her Lara but her father refused – so I named her the closest name to that I could. It was just a breathtaking film which started a love of Russian literature which has lasted a lifetime.

  20. Terrence K. Johnson says:

    As wonderful as my first viewing sixty-five years ago. Great acting and wonderful set production.

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