American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
When David Lean's "Doctor Zhivago" was released in 1965, it was pounced upon by the critics, who found it a picture-postcard view of revolution, a love story balanced uneasily atop a painstaking reconstruction of Russia. Lean was known for his elaborate sets, his infinite patience with nature and climates, and his meticulous art direction, but for Pauline Kael, his "method is basically primitive, admired by the same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride." Sometimes one must admit one is precisely that sort of person. I agree that the plot of "Doctor Zhivago" lumbers noisily from nowhere to nowhere. That the characters undergo inexplicable changes of heart and personality. That it is not easy to care much about Zhivago himself, in Omar Sharif's soulful but bewildered performance. That the life of the movie is in its corners (the wickedness of Rod Steiger's voluptuary, the solemn pomposity of Tom Courtenay's revolutionary). That "Lara's Theme," by Maurice Jarre, goes on the same shelf as "Waltzing Matilda" as tunes that threaten to drive me mad.
And yet the stage has running water, and the horses look real enough to ride. "Doctor Zhivago," restored and revived for its 30th anniversary, is an example of superb old-style craftsmanship at the service of a soppy romantic vision, and although its portentous historical drama evaporates once you return to the fresh air, watching it can be seductive. Consider, for example, the early shot of the red star glowing above the dark tunnel opening where the workers march in and out. The shot of a child peering through a frosted pane with the claws of branches tapping against it. The cavalry charge on the Bolshevik marchers. Or the way snow crystals dissolve into flowers, and a flower dissolves into Lara's face.
Lean did nothing less than recreate Moscow and its countryside at the time of the Russian revolution, using locations in Spain and Canada (which supplied the vast landscape with the tiny train making its way across it). He accepted the challenge of setting most of the key scenes in winter, with all the attendant difficulties of photographing snow (both artificial and real). There is a moment when Zhivago and Lara enter the abandoned dacha, and the snow and frost have preceded them, turning everything into a winter fairyland. It is a scene where you simultaneously think about the skilled set decoration, and catch your breath at the beauty.
The story is based on Boris Pasternak's novel, much praised on its publication in 1958 as a daring defiance of Russian censorship.