The film was released to critical acclaim and won three Academy Awards, including Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score for arranger-conductor John Williams. It was nominated for several more, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Topol as Tevye, and Best Supporting Actor for Frey, who played Motel Kamzoil the Tailor. Both Topol and Frey had previously performed in stage productions of the musical; Topol as Tevye in the London production and Frey in a minor part as Mendel, the rabbi's son, on Broadway.
The film's plot largely follows that of the musical from which it is adapted.
In 1905, Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman living in the Ukrainian village of Anatevka, a typical shtetl in the Pale of Settlement of Imperial Russia, compares the lives of the Jews of Anatevka to a fiddler on the roof, using tradition to "scratch out a pleasant, simple tune" without breaking their necks. In town, Tevye meets Perchik, a radical Marxist from Kiev. Tevye invites Perchik to stay with his family, and offers him food in exchange for Perchik tutoring his daughters.
Tevye arranges for his oldest daughter, Tzeitel, to marry Lazar Wolf, a wealthy butcher. Tzeitel is in love with her childhood sweetheart, Motel Kamzoil, and begs her father not to make her marry Lazar Wolf. Although he is initially angry, Tevye realizes that Tzeitel loves Motel and yields to his daughter's demands. In order to convince his wife Golde that Tzeitel should not be married to Lazar Wolfe, Tevye claims to have had a nightmare. He says that Golde's deceased grandmother told him Tzeitel is supposed to marry Motel, and that Lazar Wolf's late wife, Fruma-Sarah, threatened to kill Tzeitel if the two are married. Golde concludes that the dream was a message from their ancestors, and Tzeitel and Motel arrange to be married.
Meanwhile, Tevye's second daughter, Hodel, and Perchik begin to fall in love. They argue over the story of Leah and the place of old religious traditions in a changing world. The two dance together, which is considered forbidden by Orthodox Jewish tradition. Perchik tells Hodel that they just changed an old tradition.
At Tzeitel and Motel's wedding, An argument breaks out after Lazer Wolf, who is persuaded by his male friends, to gives the newlyweds gifts, when Tevya wants to say something to him, about what the good book says, Lazer refuses to listen to him, arguing that the wedding should have been his all along, until the Rabbi advises everyone to sit down. Minutes later, another argument breaks out over whether a girl should be able to choose her own husband. Perchik addresses the crowd and says that, since they love each other, it should be left for the couple to decide. He creates further controversy by asking Hodel to dance with him. The crowd gradually warms to the idea and Tevye and Golde, then Motel and Tzeitel, join in dancing. The wedding proceeds with great joy. Suddenly, the military presence in the town and the constable arrive and begin a pogrom. The constable stops the attack on the wedding celebration after Perchik is wounded in the scuffle with the Tsar's men; however, he allows the men to continue destroying property in the village. Tevye and the immediate family stand still, until Tevye angrily orders them to clean up instead of standing around. Tevye silently asks why God allowed this to happen to them.
In its original theatrical release, the film was shown with an intermission and entr'acte music.
Months later, Perchik prepares to leave Anatevka for the revolution. He proposes to Hodel, and she accepts. When they tell Tevye, he is furious that they have decided to marry without his permission, but he again relents because they love each other. Tevye tells Golde his reasons for consenting to their daughter's marriage, which leads them to re-evaluate their own arranged marriage. Tevye and Golde ultimately realize that, despite having been paired by a matchmaker, they do love each other.
Weeks later, Perchik is arrested in Kiev and is exiled to Siberia. Hodel decides to join him there. She promises Tevye that she and Perchik will be married under a canopy. Meanwhile, Tzeitel and Motel become parents, and Motel finally buys the sewing machine for which he has long scrimped and saved.
Tevye's third daughter Chava falls in love with a Russian Orthodox Christian named Fyedka. Tevye tells Chava to be distant friends with Fyedka, because of the difference in their religions. When Chava eventually works up the courage to ask Tevye's permission to marry Fyedka, Tevye tells her that marrying outside the family's faith is against tradition. He forbids her from having any contact with Fyedka or from even mentioning his name. The next morning, Fyedka and Chava elope and are married in a Russian Orthodox church. Golde learns of the marriage when she meets up with the priest. When a grief-stricken Golde tells Tevye about the marriage, he tells her that Chava is dead to the family and that they shall forget her altogether. Chava asks Tevye to accept her marriage. In a soliloquy, Tevye concludes that he cannot accept Chava marrying a non-Jew. He accuses her of abandoning the Jewish faith and disowns her.
One winter day, the Jews of Anatevka are notified that they have three days to leave the village or be forced out by the government. Tevye, his family and friends begin packing up to leave, heading for various parts of Europe, Palestine, and the United States. Lazer Wolf plans to emigrate to Chicago, to live with his former sister in law, whom he detests, but has no other living options. Lazer and Tevya share one last embrace before departing. Yente, the Matchmaker, plans to emigrate to Jerusalem, Palestine, and says goodbye to Golde with an embrace before departing. Tevye receives letters from Hodel mentioning that she is working hard while Perchik stays in the Siberian prison. It is hoped that when Perchik is released, they will join the others in the United States. Chava and her husband Fyedka come to Tevye's house and tell the family that they are leaving, being unable to stay in a place that would force innocent people out. They head to Kraków, Poland. Tevye shows signs of forgiving Chava by murmuring under his breath "And God be with you," silently urging Tzeitel to repeat his words to Chava. Golde calls out to Chava and Fyedka, telling them where they will be living in New York.
The Constable silently watches as the mass evacuation of Anatevka takes place. The community forms their circle at a crossroad one last time before scattering in different directions. Tevye spots the fiddler and motions to him to come along, symbolizing that even though he must leave his town, his traditions will always be with him.Norman Jewison: (uncredited) as the Rabbi in the "Tevye's Dream" sequence (singing "Mazel Tov")
The decision to cast Topol, instead of Zero Mostel, as Tevye was a somewhat controversial one, as the role had originated with Mostel and he had made it famous. Years later, Jewison explained that he felt Mostel's larger-than-life personality, while fine on stage, would cause film audiences to see him as Mostel, rather than the character of Tevye.
Principal photography was done at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire, England. Most of the exterior shots were done in SFR Yugoslavia—specifically in Mala Gorica, Lekenik, and Zagreb within the Yugoslav constituent republic of Croatia. Isaac Stern provided the violin solos.
Director Norman Jewison has a cameo as a rabbi during Tevya's dream sequence.
The film follows the plot of the stage play very closely, retaining nearly all of the play's dialogue, although it omits the songs "Now I Have Everything" and "The Rumor (I Just Heard)". Lyrical portions of "Tevye's Dream (Tailor Motel Kemzoil)", were omitted to avoid repetition. Changes were also made in the song "Tradition," with the film omitting the dialogue between Reb Nachum the beggar (who, in the film, cannot speak) and Lazar Wolf as well as dialogue spoken by Yente and Avram. In addition, in the film, two men argue about whether a horse claimed to be six years old was actually twelve, rather than whether the horse was actually a mule.
Seven additional scenes were added to the film:
- The Constable gets orders from his superior for a "demonstration" against the Jews (referred to by the superior as "Christ-killers") in Anatevka.
- Perchik is arrested at a workers' rally in Kiev.
- Golde goes to the priest to look for Chava (described by her in the stage production).
- Motel gets dressed for his upcoming wedding to Tzeitel.
- The Rabbi and his students inside the synagogue receive news of the arrival of Motel's new sewing machine.
- The Rabbi takes the Torah out of the ark inside the synagogue for the last time. He weeps and chants quietly about having to abandon the synagogue.
- Tevye feeds his animals in the barn for the final time. He tells his lame horse to take care of his leg and to treat his new owner and master well.
The scene with Hodel and Perchik, where he plans to leave to start a revolution, was extended in the film. A new song intended to be sung by Perchik was recorded ("Any Day Now"), but was omitted from the final print; however, it was included in the 2004 re-released soundtrack. When the film was re-released in 1979, 32 minutes were cut, including the songs "Far from the Home I Love" and "Anatevka".
In the film, Tevye and Lazar Wolf discuss Wolf's proposed marriage to Tzeitel in Wolf's home, while in the stage version, the two meet in a tavern. The film shows Wolf's home as filled with golden artifacts. Prior to Wolf entering the scene, Tevye speaks to a female servant, who tells him not to touch anything.
Although a faithful adaptation of the original stage version, Fiddler scholar Jan Lisa Huttner has noted several differences between stage and screen. She argues that changes in American culture and politics and developments in Israel led the filmmakers to portray certain characters differently and to offer a different version of Anatevka. For example, the Broadway production cast Bea Arthur as a tall, booming Yente, while the film portrays Yente as tiny and timid. Huttner also notes that the "Chagall color palette" of the original Broadway production was exchanged for a grittier, more realistic depiction of the village of Anatevka.
Because the film follows the stage musical so closely, and the musical did not have an overture, the filmmakers chose to eliminate the customary film overture played before the beginning of most motion pictures shown in a roadshow-style presentation. However, there is a solo by the Fiddler played over the opening credits (after the conclusion of "Tradition"), there is an intermission featuring entr'acte music, and exit music is played at the end after the closing credits.
The film was a success, earning United Artists profits of $6.1 million, plus distribution profits of $8 million.
On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an 81% rating based on 37 reviews, with an average of 7.7/10.
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