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.
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.