NPR did an interesting segment today on how special effects were achieved in movies before George Lucas and his computers came along. First on the list was Dr. Zhivago, which is one of those movies I always think of when asked to name a personal favorite. Turns out the famous Ice Palace scenes were accomplished with dripping wax and cold water and glittering flakes of marble. I had no idea.
I know; Dr. Zhivago is not very true to Pasternak’s novel and it’s laughable as Russian history, but it always strikes a chord with me. I was quite taken with the whole Ice Palace bit, but that’s just one of at least a dozen truly memorable moments. It’s one of the very few movies that can be said to have heroic scale, epic sweep or whatever you want to call it. I like that in a film. In Dr. Zhivago, you feel the tragic passage of time — and I’m not talking about the 3 hours and 20 minutes it actually runs. While the theme of star-crossed, abiding love can get a bit corny in places, Alec Guiness’ closing line — “Ah. Then it’s a gift” — always gets me a little misty-eyed.
One scene I’ve always been curious about, and it’s such a subtle effect I’m not surprised NPR didn’t mention it: After watching Lara leave the makeshift hospital, Yuri goes back into the room and passes a vase of sunflowers. After he leaves the scene, a couple of petals drop to the table. This has always amazed me, because it seems impossible to stage — the sunflowers, which have come to represent Lara, just drop their petals at precisely the right time. I don’t know how David Lean did it and maybe I don’t want to know. But as an effect, that one is about as special as it gets. You could watch any number of Transformers movies and never even come close.