The film was shot in Spain during the regime of Gen. Francisco Franco. While the scene with the crowd chanting the Marxist theme was being filmed (at 3:00 in the morning), police showed up at the set thinking that a real revolution was taking place and insisted on staying until the scene was finished. Apparently, people who lived near where filming was taking place had awoken to the sound of revolutionary singing and had mistakenly believed that Franco had been overthrown. As the extras sang the revolutionary Internationale for a protest scene, the secret police surveyed the crowd, making many of the extras pretend that they didn't know the words.
The film was torn apart by critics when first released. Newsweek, in particular, made comments about "hack-job sets" and "pallid photography." David Lean was so deeply affected by these criticisms (despite the popularity of the film with the general public) that he swore he would never make another film.
In the scene where Julie Christie slaps Rod Steiger, Steiger slaps her back. Steiger slapping her back was not in the script or discussed during filming, Steiger did it only during filming and the stunned reaction of Christie was genuine. When Rod Steiger kisses Julie Christie for the first time, her struggling and surprise is genuine because Steiger deliberately French kissed her, sticking his tongue into her mouth.
Omar Sharif had to undergo the daily inconvenience of having his eyes taped back and his hair straightened to disguise his Egyptian looks. He also had his hairline shaved up about 2-3 inches and his skin waxed, a process which had to be repeated every 3 days.
Hungarian actress, Lili Muráti, was seriously injured in the scene where she runs along side of the train and grabs Zhivago's (Omar Sharif) hand to be hauled aboard. But a miscalculation was made. Sharif had been instructed to grab and hold on to Murati's hand. "She started panicking", said Ernest Day, who was watching it all through the camera, "but he didn't understand her. She was trying to make him let go, and when she did finally wrench her hand away she stumbled and disappeared out of the viewfinder". Murati had bunched up as she had fallen so the train wheels had not severed her limbs. She was also wearing thick clothes, which protected her further. Her stumble can be clearly seen in the finished film.
After a month went by with Marlon Brando failing to respond to David Lean's written inquiry into whether he wanted to play Viktor Komarovsky, he offered the part to James Mason, who accepted. Lean, who had wanted to cast Brando as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and offered him roles in Ryan's Daughter (1970) and his unmade "Nostromo", decided on Mason as he did not want an actor to overpower the character of Yuri Zhivago. Mason eventually dropped out and Rod Steiger accepted the role. Steiger eventually would be involved in the filming of "Dr. Zhivago" for the better part of a year, which may have been a reason that both Brando and Mason shunned the role.
Carlo Ponti wanted to shoot the film in the Soviet Union, but the government refused his requests. David Lean visited Yugoslavia and the Scandinavian countries in search of locations. Both areas were too cold and the bureaucracy in Yugoslavia was too prohibitive. In the end, the majority of the film was shot in Spain.
Julie Christie hated having to wear the infamous red dress. Initially, she refused to even put it on until production designer John Box assured her that she looked absolutely beautiful in it. (David Lean would never have been able to be so complimentary about one of his actors, and indeed had instructed Box to try and win her round.)
Alec Guinness and David Lean quarreled frequently on the set of this film. According to Guinness, Lean was "acting the part of a super-star director" and frequently insulted Guinness's performance and him personally. This caused a rift to develop between the two and they would not work again until A Passage to India (1984) almost twenty years later.
David Lean had heard a piece of Russian music that he felt was perfect for the film but was unable to secure the copyright. So he tasked Maurice Jarre with coming up with a suitable theme for the film. Jarre submitted suggestion after suggestion, all of which were rejected by Lean. Eventually Lean told him to take off for the weekend with his girlfriend and to hole himself up in a cabin up in the mountains and make love for the entire weekend. This proved to do the trick as Jarre returned from his romantic break with "Lara's Theme".
David Lean's first choice for the title role was Peter O'Toole who declined, citing the grueling experience of having made Lawrence of Arabia (1962) with Lean. This created a rift between the two that was never fully healed.
Initially the film failed to make much impact at the box office, probably due to the critics' lukewarm reception to it. Indeed the first three weeks returns were considered to be a disaster, despite a million dollars being spent on publicity. David Lean remarked at the time that "you could hurl boulders in the theater and not hurt anyone". Gradually, audiences started to pick up, probably due to the incredible popularity of Maurice Jarre's "Lara's Theme".
Although publicity material said that the Moscow set built in Canillas was half a mile long, the actual length of the street with tram line was merely 160 meters. To make this short street look longer, they built it on a slope, made the street narrower at the end, and made the height of the buildings shorter there. These are the standard procedures in building movie sets. In addition, David Lean allowed to take photos of the set only with wide lenses not to reveal the actual size.
A ten-acre replica of Moscow was built in Canillas, a suburb of Madrid. It included a cobbled 800-yard street with trolley cars, a train viaduct, a replica of the Kremlin and 60 shops and houses circling a giant plaza.
According to Freddie Young, before he reluctantly agreed to take the director of photography job following an exhausting collaboration on Lawrence of Arabia (1962), David Lean had a major falling-out with the previous director of photography, Nicolas Roeg, over creative differences. After Young took over, an additional two weeks of photography was required to re-shoot the scenes that Roeg had shot.
The charge of the Partisans across the frozen lake was actually filmed in temperatures in excess of 30 degrees C (or 90 degrees F). A cast iron sheet was placed over a riverbed and then covered with fake snow (mainly marble dust).
Producer Carlo Ponti originally bought the rights to the novel so that he could cast his wife, Sophia Loren, in the role of Lara. David Lean, however, did not want to use Loren, claiming that she was 'too tall' for the role.
The shooting exceeded the ten month schedule because of David Lean's wish to capture the different seasons during which the story took place. Filming took place during one of the mildest winters in Spain, leading to delays and the need to simulate snow with marble dust and plastic snow in the height of summer. The actors had to have their faces dabbed by make-up artists every few minutes because of their sweating.
When David Lean told the studio that he wanted Maurice Jarre to provide the score, he was told, "Maurice is very good on sand, but I'm sure we have someone better on snow." Jarre, of course, won the Oscar for best original score for this film.
Igor Girkin, the leader of the Russian-backed rebels in Eastern Ukraine who was complicit in shooting down the Malaysian commercial airplane in 2014, adopted the nom de guerre of Strelkov after Pasha, the ruthless character played by Tom Courtney.
Geraldine Chaplin's first filmed scene was when her character reads out a letter to Ralph Richardson. Although she pulled off the scene, Chaplin was very fortunate that the camera didn't pick up on the fact that she was shaking throughout.
Although this was a large epic on the scale of David Lean's previous film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), it was not shot in Super Panavision or other large film format. It was shot in standard 35mm Panavision anamorphic. The 70mm prints were blow-ups from the 35mm negative. Lean actually wanted to shoot the film in 70mm, but claimed that MGM refused as it would have been too expensive.
The film's principal location in Spain was the C.E.A. Studios, near Madrid's international airport. Production designer John Box and his crew spent six months turning the ten-acre studio into a reproduction of Moscow between 1905 and 1920. Included in the set were a half-mile long paved street, trolley lines, an authentic replica of the Kremlin, a viaduct with real train engines, a church and more than 50 businesses. Publicists touted the set as the largest ever built for a film.
For Zhivago's trip through the Russian Steppes, John Box constructed sets in the mountains north of Madrid. This required diverting the course of a river to fit Lean's vision and building miles of fresh railroad tracks.
Many winter scenes were shot in the summer, when actors had to withstand temperatures climbing to 116 degrees while muffled in Russian furs. Costume designer Phyllis Dalton had to keep strict watch over the extras to make sure none of them were shedding layers of clothing to cool off. Omar Sharif would later note, "We had an army of make-up assistants who every two minutes came and dabbed you because we were sweating profusely."
Not only did the mild winter mean no snow; the fields started turning green too early. The crew used white paint, plaster dust and even white plastic sheets to create many of the film's snow-filled vistas.
For the scenes in which Zhivago and his family suffer through a tortuous train ride to their summer home in the Urals, the company shot in Finland and Canada with the full cooperation of Finnish State Railways and the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.
Although David Lean had championed Julie Christie to studio executives, during early days of filming he had a hard time getting what he wanted out of her. Rather than give her time to explore the role, he kept at her to get exactly what he wanted. When they returned to the hot Spanish locations after time in icebound Finland, she finally collapsed under the pressure. Gradually, however, they developed a working rapport. Lean took to visiting her in her apartment in Madrid and was quick to accept her suggestions for the script. By the time production had finished, they had forged a lasting friendship, though they would never work together again.
When the film received only mixed reviews, MGM President Robert O'Brien committed another $1 million to advertising. Publicity trumpeted the picture as a cross between War and Peace (1956) and Gone with the Wind (1939). They even suggested that exhibitors play only music from the film before and after screenings and not sell concessions while the picture was running, though it's doubtful that any theatre managers gave up the chance for lucrative profits in that area. Helped by strong word-of-mouth, the film took off at the box office, becoming MGM's second-highest grosser to date, behind Gone With the Wind but ahead of Ben-Hur (1959).
For the film's 30th anniversary in 1995, the Turner Entertainment Company (TEC) created a new print to be used for a theatrical reissue and new home videos. Over the years, the heavy demand for prints around the world had left the original negative worn and scratched, forcing MGM to use duplicate negatives for some sequences. Fortunately, the original negative had not suffered from color degeneration, so technicians simply had to create new printing masters that eliminated the scratches They also returned to the original sound elements to create a new soundtrack that was then recorded in DTS Digital Stereo. When the new version premiered at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences® some viewers thought the film looked even better than it had at its premiere.
The winter scenes did not go as planned due to the unusually mild winter, and they were instead mostly filmed in summer in temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with marble dust and plastic snow standing in for actual snow and the actors' profuse sweating requiring frequent makeup touchups. Some of the winter sequences, mostly landscape scenes and Yuri's escape from the partisans, were filmed in Finland. Winter scenes of the family travelling to Yuriatin by rail were filmed in Canada.
Since the film takes the viewpoint of the dreamy poet Zhivago, the physician side of Zhivago is rarely in evidence. Zhivago writes poems for Lara near the end of their relationship, but the audience never hears the poems. Zhivago's poetry is included in a supplement at the end of the novel, and critics carped that the film, unlike the book, is shorn of the poetry, and that showing a writer at work is inherently boring.
The final scene, in which a rainbow appears over a dam as the final credits were rolled onscreen, was criticized as being "pro-Soviet" by more conservative critics, who felt it was signifying that the Soviet Union had a bright future. Robert Bolt, who adapted the novel, was a one-time member of the British Communist Party (leaving the Party in 1947) and well-known leftist who was prominent in the nuclear disarmament campaign, itself seen as a surrogate of the Cold War struggle between the West and the Soviet Bloc. Since David Lean was apolitical, the shot likely was created due to the beauty of its image, not as political symbolism.