WolfmanOz at the Movies #40

A master filmmaker

David Lean was born on March 28th, 1908. During the course of his life he directed 16 films over a period of 42 years from 1942 to 1984. Although the number of films he directed was relatively small, the quality of output across his films rank him as one of the greatest of all film directors.

He began in cinema as a movie editor in the 1930s and made his directorial debut in 1942 with In Which We Serve which he co-directed with Noël Coward. This would be the first of four collaborations with Coward which also included This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter. The last of which has since become a classic, one of the most highly regarded British films of all-time in its understated depiction of two middle-aged lovers.

Then he made arguably the two best film versions of Charles Dickens novels with Great Expectations, released in 1946 and Oliver Twist in 1948.

A trait was now emerging with Lean with his near perfect ability to assemble and direct great casts, whilst, ironically, he was also known for being a tyrant with his actors and actresses.

Lean understood fully that telling a story cinematically required several components: a quality script, precise editing, dramatic composition, structured sound and a great cast. Nothing was overlooked or neglected.

By Lean’s standards, his following three films were of a lesser quality, The Passionate Friends, Madeleine and The Sound Barrier; but he was back to top form with Hobson’s Choice – with a splendid Charles Laughton in the lead.

In 1955 with the release of the lovely romantic drama Summertime starring Katherine Hepburn at her radiant best, Lean began to make internationally produced films financed by the big Hollywood studios which led to 1957’s The Bridge On The River Kwai.

Based on the novel by Pierre Boule it told the story of Allied POWs trying to survive a Japanese prison camp during WWII and where the resolute British CO, drives his men to build a bridge for the Japanese as therapy.

This magnificent and ironic war drama won seven Academy Awards including Best Film and Director for Lean. Alec Guinness’s brilliant performance also won him a Best Actor Oscar.

The climax and ending of the film, is justly famous.

Lean followed up Kwai with Lawrence Of Arabia in 1962 which I have already posted previously.

A miracle of a film

Following Lawrence, Lean released Doctor Zhivago in 1965 which was his biggest box-office success. Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak it tells the story of a physician and poet who in spite of being happily married falls in love with a beautiful and abandoned young woman, and he struggles to be with her during the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War.

In 1970 came Ryan’s Daughter a sprawling romantic drama set against the backdrop of Ireland’s struggles against the British in 1916. At the time, critics savaged the film and Lean which devastated him so much he was put off from making films for fourteen years. Although the film was overlong it still shone with the usual Lean trains of a superb cast and gorgeous cinematography.

Lean’s last film was A Passage To India released in 1984 which was both a critical and financial success.

He died of throat cancer on April 16th, 1991.

As a craftsman, Lean was in a league of his own. He served an extensive apprenticeship in the late 1920s and 1930s learning the film craft in many a film he was involved at Gaumont Studios that ultimately saw him as a director striking that very fine line between commercialism and artistry.

Lean was notorious for his perfectionist approach to filmmaking. Director Claude Chabrol quiped that he and Lean were the only directors working at the time who were prepared to wait “forever” for the perfect sunset, but whereas Chabrol measured “forever” in terms of days, Lean did so in terms of months !

David Lean is one of my top three filmmakers of all-time.

Enjoy.

22 thoughts on “WolfmanOz at the Movies #40”

  1. A trait was now emerging with Lean with his near perfect ability to assemble and direct great casts, whilst, ironically, he was also known for being a tyrant with his actors and actresses.

    If you want perfection from actors, perhaps you have to be a tyrant!

    🙂


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  2. Using the wonderful Colonel Bogey March is memorable.
    Emaciated soldiers whistling a hidden “up you” to the Japanese whist maintaining marching discipline despite their physical condition and sub standard kit – they were tough men indeed.


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  3. I rate This Happy Breed above Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter, the last of which has become a bit of a self-parody. I also reckon his earlier films are better than his latter, when he went all big budget super-vista-pana-rama-jama Event Movies and got a bit boring. It’s a pity he didn’t try his hand at Hitchcock style thrillers (he may have done, but I can’t recall any), Powell-Pressburger Red Shoes/Black Narcissus types, or maybe even just a Powell Peeping Tom picture.


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  4. “Then he made arguably the two best film versions of Charles Dickens novels with Great Expectations, released in 1946 and Oliver Twist in 1948.”

    Yep……in fact I’d like to watch Lean’s Great Expectations again, it’s been many years.

    Last year I watched Doctor Zhivago for the first time in decades. It hadn’t lost any of its majesty. Once again, it took my breath away, because it is the one western film that managed to convey the utter brutality and devastation of the Russian Revolution and the civil war that followed. I also believe that the divine Omar and the equally divine Julie were perfectly cast.

    They don’t make films like Lean’s anymore.


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  5. Agree with TT that This Happy Breed is an outstanding film, precisely because of its understated style combined with stellar performances from all concerned. That and Hobson’s Choice are probably my favourites, for similar reasons.

    The lavish productions of later years are deservedly famous, but to me not as engaging as these smaller films where the characters really have to carry the whole thing.


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  6. Bulla from Fiji !

    This Happy Breed also is probably the only film where Robert Newton gives an understated and restrained performance. It’s still a fine film depicting the life of a low-to-middle class family between the wars.

    I agree with Cassie in that Doctor Zhivago is arguably the best film depiction of the horrors of the Russian Revolution. In the clip I posted Zhivago is asked what he will do – his reply “just live” sums up what I’m sure most people would have felt.

    Whenever I watch the film I always hope that Yuri and Lara could find happiness in the end, up of course they don’t.

    I love both Lean’s earlier films and his latter epics as even his epics never lost the human touch with his characters despite filming on a huge canvass. After all Lawrence Of Arabia is at its heart a character study.


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  7. The film was actually shot in Sri Lanka. In real life, the bridge wasn’t really over the Kwai, but over another river, called (from memory) the Mae Klong. The Thais, being eminently practical, later renamed the river and called it the Khwai … so the bridge is, in effect, in the right place.

    The war cemetery at Kanchanaburi is an eye-opener. It is huge, and immaculately maintained by the Thais in homage to the fallen. The day we were there we saw gardeners manicuring the lawns with scissors!

    Hellfire Pass, part of the railway, is a powerful memorial to the sheer hell the prisoners and slave labour worked, lived and died in. Just looking at my photos this morning gave me shivers.


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  8. This Happy Breed also is probably the only film where Robert Newton gives an understated and restrained performance. It’s still a fine film depicting the life of a low-to-middle class family between the wars.

    A late best friend of mine was a second cousin of Robert Newton (my friend was 30 years younger than Newton, and 25 years older than me) who he knew personally at the height of his fame.


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  9. Thanks for this piece on David Lean

    “Summertime” is a gorgeous film; to see Venice in the fifties would have been marvellous
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  10. I love Lean’s films – British drama done in a confined space and little money and his fims in the 40 and 50 were fascinating.

    Then with Hollywood he went epic – any the charaters werfe relatable and how the did things in the world.

    The Kwai Bridge – I stil lrember the bolts in the bridge and sturdiness of the contraction – unbeleivably good.

    As for sounding like a twat – what happened to that brigde – I allways though it was a waste if it was blown up.

    By the way the feloow who was chosen to blow it up – when asked what job does he do he said accountant – I add up the figures in one column check them and then go the next column.
    At a young age < 12 and realising my maths was slipping waaaaaaaaay behind – i though I could do this.
    So her I am.

    O h the horror, the horror.


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  11. We are re-watching Lawrence at the moment! Lean is, as you say, one of the greats.
    Back when he was producing/directing his masterpieces, it took years for some films to make it to Australia. I recall seeing Bridge on the River Kwai some time around 1965 in George Street Sydney, Larence of Arabia later than that, and Dr. Zhivago later again.
    It’s an interesting side issue to note the long career of Alec Guiness. You can see him in so many films, and one I like particularly is Malta Story (1953), beautifully shot in black and white on location.


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  12. Ryan’s Daughter would only be “overly long” for people with attention span deficit syndrome.
    Some interesting background stories emerged about it later.


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  13. Old School Conservative says: October 13, 2022 at 9:52 am
    Using the wonderful Colonel Bogey March is memorable.
    Emaciated soldiers whistling a hidden “up you” to the Japanese whist maintaining marching discipline despite their physical condition and sub standard kit – they were tough men indeed.

    Apparently that entire scene is complete falsehood. An obscenity.


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  14. Apparently that entire scene is complete falsehood. An obscenity.

    A movie taking liberties with the truth?
    I’m shocked, shocked to find that movies are not documentaries.

    Irrespective of how the film maker portrayed the men, IRL they were very tough indeed.


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  15. Though Lean’s “big movies” are timeless and thrilling, I absolutely adore Hobson’s Choice and have watched it too many times to count. While Charles Laughton is magnificent, so too are John Mills as Will Mossop and Brenda de Banzie, in I think one of only two roles she was cast in, as Hobson’s eldest daughter, Maggie.

    The scene of Will listening at the window as Maggie informs his landlady and her daughter – Will’s current “spoken for” – that he has so much promise and will go far with her help and support is really sublime acting – Will speaks no words and yet everything of the moment is conveyed with just facial expressions – and a testament to Lean’s direction. You get the instant realisation that this is the first time Will has ever heard anyone saying something good about him.

    As well, the scenes of Will’s and Maggie’s wedding night and then the next day with Maggie rushing out to cook their first breakfast, but Lean breaking what could have ended up with too much sentimentality with the entrance of their very first paying customer, shows Lean’s ability to cast a spell, break it, and cast anew.

    As to Laughton, he fully immerses himself in the title role, which could be said for every main character in every Lean film.

    Hobson’s choice is faultless.


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  16. Wolfie, I just watched that scene from Dr Zhivago.

    Hearing Tom Courtney say: “The private life is dead,” summarises perfectly our own time and the “wrong think” that is now claimed of any adherence to a personal religious belief – see Andrew Thorburn.

    When I was at school we were taken to the cinema to see Nicholas and Alexandra. It’s high time that Dr Zhivago is shown to high school students as a foil to, and understanding of, the growing secular totalitarianism all around us.


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  17. Re Dr. Zhivago, the Varykino estate at Yuriatin is acutally in the middle of Spain.
    The filming of the final “winter” scenes there was done in about 100F summer heat. The “snow” was wax. Must have been sheer hell for the actors, rugged up as if it was -40C & sweltering worse than being in a sauna.


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