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Lean, David (1908-1991)

Director, Writer, Editor

Main image of Lean, David (1908-1991)

Despite having directed only sixteen feature films during his forty-year career, Sir David Lean is one of the most popular and well-known of British film-makers. He was born in the first decade of the 20th century (25 March 1908, in Croydon, Surrey) and died in the last (16 April 1991, in London), and his films reflect the extent and influence of historical and societal changes across this period.

Lean's films can be loosely classified into two groups: the "ordinary" and the "epic". It is perhaps in his earlier melodramas, with their focus on the lives of "ordinary people" that one can most clearly sense something of the sensibility of an era, of a moment in time, rather than in the later epics, with their focus on dramatic landscapes, unusual heroes and extravagant mise-en-scène (though Doctor Zhivago is a notable exception).

Lean argued that a director must "deal with each scene as if it's the most important in the film. Clarity, clarity. The most important thing of all". Lean has often been called a great craftsman, and his films do indeed speak of a meticulous attention to detail: in the careful composition of each frame, in the precise and expressive use of sound and music, and in the nuanced performances drawn from each member of the cast.

However, Lean's expressive use of mise-en-scène moves beyond mere craftsmanship; the themes and concerns of each film are articulated variously through dialogue and plot, sound, colour, editing, music, chiaroscuro and lighting. If there seems to be too great an eclecticism in Lean's oeuvre for the director to be said to imprint a "signature style" on it, it is only because his films are concerned with the integration of style and theme, with the expression of character, emotion, mood and the particularities of space, place and period. In this sense his most successful films attain a level of organic, stylistic sophistication that guarantees their integrity as artworks.

Lean started his career in film in the late 1920s, as a clapper boy, and then as an editor - he edited around twenty-five films including The Night Porter (d. Sewell Collins, 1930), Pygmalion (d. Anthony Asquith, 1938), 49th Parallel (d. Michael Powell, 1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (d. Michael Powell, 1942).

In 1942 he directed his first film, with Noël Coward: In Which We Serve - a film about the crew of a destroyer who reminisce (in flashback) about their loved ones at home, as they cling to a raft and wait for rescue. It captures the intricate hierarchy that exists between crew members and, beyond the particular, between classes, and upholds (though not uncritically) values of duty, loyalty and responsibility over the pursuit of personal happiness and gain.

The next of three further collaborations with Coward, This Happy Breed (1944), continued this theme. The film is based almost entirely in the house inhabited by the lower middle-class Gibbons family in the period between the two World Wars. This almost theatrical use of delimited and confined space prioritises the everyday, familial events of the household (births, weddings, children growing up, family conflicts and reunions, deaths) over larger historical events and developments. So the exploration of broader concerns, such as politics and class, is undertaken through the portrayal of quotidian conflicts and negotiations between parents and children, siblings and spouses.

Blithe Spirit followed in 1945 - Coward's strange, dark comedy in which Elvira, the ghost of Charles Condomine's former wife, returns to the marital home and attempts to retrieve her husband from the clutches of his second wife, Ruth.

Shortly afterwards, Brief Encounter (1945) was released. Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) are the two protagonists who meet at a train station and who, despite being married to others, fall in love. The film traces their poignant rendezvous and charts the eventual demise of their doomed affair. The performances, dialogue and presentation of the story reflect the restraint of the two characters - a restraint both internally and externally created, for the film is even more interested in the rules and restrictions that the two lovers subject themselves to than it is in societal strictures. The exploration of morality is central: values of fidelity, trust, loyalty and history are weighed against those of spontaneity, romance, truthfulness and freedom. This co-existence of vital passions alongside admirable restraint is a recurring motif in Lean's films.

While literary adaptations are frequently criticised in comparison with their source novels, Lean managed to impress critics with Great Expectations (1946), despite some ruthless editing of Dickens's narrative. The film displays a fully developed visual style that was nascent in earlier films, with the expressive use of lighting, staging and sound summoning a world that is one stage removed from reality, exaggerated and impressionistic. Oliver Twist (1948) was slightly less well-received, and in America became caught-up in Jewish protests against British government policy in Palestine because of the supposed anti-Semitism of Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin.

Between 1949 and 1952, Lean directed films starring his third wife, Ann Todd. The Passionate Friends (1949), based on a novel by H.G. Wells, bore resemblances to Brief Encounter in its study of a married woman who has romantic feelings towards another man (again played by Trevor Howard). However, the similarities end there: though carefully crafted and performed, The Passionate Friends lacks the emotional intensity of Brief Encounter.

In 1950, Lean directed the intriguing Madeleine, a dark melodrama based on a real case that took place in the 1850s: that of Madeleine Smith, who was charged with poisoning her spurned lover. In 1952, Lean undertook his first production for Alexander Korda: The Sound Barrier - a well-received film about a pilot who manages to break the sound barrier. The expansive sky shots and impressive flight sequences reveal Lean's desire to undertake a rather more 'epic' style of film-making, but this was a desire not pursued until 1957, when he made The Bridge On the River Kwai.

1954 saw another Lean adaptation of a stage play - Hobson's Choice, by Harold Brighouse. The Hobson of the title is an overbearing bootmaker whose eldest daughter, Maggie, rebels and marries one of his poor but talented employees (Willie Mossop); Maggie and Willie then set up a rival bootmaking business, and Hobson is forced to accept the error of his ways. A wonderful film, this adaptation conjured a style that was at once expressive (reminiscent of Great Expectations) and comedic, notably in the opening sequence which moves from a tone of ominous foreboding to an unexpected, humorous climax. Lean elicited a performance from Charles Laughton, as a larger-than-life Hobson, that incorporated a palpable suggestion of exaggeration and self-parody without resorting to simplistic caricature.

Summer Madness/Summertime (1955), based on Arthur Laurents' play The Time of the Cuckoo, marked a change in Lean's work. It was shot entirely on location in Venice, allowing him to combine his love of travelling with his love of filmmaking. US financed, the film had a bigger budget feel and starred Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson, an American spinster who discovers new romance, friendship and greater self-confidence on holiday in Venice. More clearly in the melodramatic mode than the stylised Hobson's Choice (and perhaps less artistically accomplished for that) Lean's familiar expressiveness is nevertheless in evidence in this film, particularly in the use of colour to reflect Jane's changing feelings and perceptions.

If one was tempted to conclude that Lean was at his best when working on a smaller budget, in monochrome, and in the English context, his next three films challenged such a contention (though not conclusively). As Brian McFarlane writes: "More than any other English director, David Lean became associated with the epic, with vast exotic panoramas, with great elemental forces at work."

The Bridge on the River Kwai (UK/US, 1957) won Lean his first Oscar and enormous commercial and critical success. The film concerns prisoners of war held in a Japanese camp and forced to build a bridge over the eponymous river. It is impressive not simply for its scale and splendid photography, but also for its depiction of the relationship between the British officer, Colonel Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness), and his Japanese counterpart, Colonel Saito. McFarlane suggests that in Lean's epics there is a loss of "the human drama" - that these films forgo "the intense personal intimacy that had characterised the earlier ones", but at the centre of The Bridge on the River Kwai is the ambiguous and complex relationship between two proud men. Something frequently overlooked is the film's humour, most evident in its warm-hearted but gently critical exposition of "traditional" English values in Colonel Nicholson.

There was little humour in Lean's next venture, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), an Oscar-winning biopic of T. E. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole), but the same careful and incisive presentation of a morally ambiguous character is present. The film is visually stunning, the performances are considered and engaging, and the music is typically impressive and expressive, though one might feel that at over 215 minutes, its length betrays a touch of self-indulgence on Lean's part.

Doctor Zhivago (US/UK, 1965), on the other hand, can be forgiven its running time of over 200 minutes. Beautifully photographed, intricately structured and carefully paced, the film presents Zhivago's story within the context of the Russian revolution of 1917 and, although often classified as a "romance", is remarkable for its sensitive, intelligent and atmospheric depiction of a turbulent and crucial historical period in Russian history. The emotional import of events is captured and sustained through stylised understatement, such as in the moment when, in long shot, from the point of view of massed peaceful marchers, we see the sabres of armed Tsarist guards glittering in the dark, and hear the muffled sound of hooves in the snow as the ranks surge forwards towards us. The sequence is typical of the way in which this film places us with characters as they come to realise the terrible truth of a situation, or the drift towards dreadful events.

In 1970 Lean made Ryan's Daughter, a melodrama set in Ireland and loosely based on the plot of Madame Bovary. Audiences were unenthusiastic about the film, and many critics were openly hostile towards it. Lean's deliberately overblown style - representing the romantic viewpoint of its heroine, Rosy - was misunderstood and condemned as grandiose and extravagant.

Disappointed and hurt by the reception of Ryan's Daughter - and rich enough from the profits of Dr Zhivago not to have to work again - Lean didn't make another feature film for fourteen years, though during that time he fought hard to make a two-part epic telling the true story of the mutiny on the Bounty.

His final film, A Passage to India (1984) was generally well received and was a box-office success, although some critics complained that the more radical, anti-colonial aspects of E. M. Forster's novel had been lost in the adaptation from novel to film. Lean was nominated for Oscars for directing, adapting and editing the film, and in June 1984 he was knighted. He died of pneumonia on 16 April 1991 while he was making preparations to begin filming his adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo.

Brownlow, Kevin, David Lean (London: Faber and Faber, 1997)
McFarlane, Brian, 'David Lean' in An Autobiography of British Cinema (London: Methuen, 1997) pp. 354-5
Moraitis, Catherine, The Art of David Lean: A Textual Analysis of Audio-Visual Structure (Bloomington, Indiana: 1st Books Library, 2002)
Pratley, Gerald, The Cinema of David Lean (South Brunswick and New York: A. S. Barnes/ London: Tantivy Press, 1974)
Silver, Alain and James Ursini, David Lean and his Films (London: Leslie Frewin, 1974)
London Weekend Television, The South Bank Show, 'David Lean: A Life in Film', 1986.

Sarah Cardwell, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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From the BFI's filmographic database

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of ...One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)...One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

Documentary-style WWII drama about an air crew stranded in Holland

Thumbnail image of 49th Parallel (1941)49th Parallel (1941)

Wartime drama: a Nazi U-boat crew is stranded in Canada

Thumbnail image of As You Like It (1937)As You Like It (1937)

Britain's first sound Shakespeare feature film

Thumbnail image of Blithe Spirit (1945)Blithe Spirit (1945)

Noël Coward comedy about a ghost who won't stay still

Thumbnail image of Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

The first large-scale David Lean epic, a multi-Oscar-winning World War II saga

Thumbnail image of Brief Encounter (1945)Brief Encounter (1945)

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson start a great British romance

Thumbnail image of Doctor Zhivago (1965)Doctor Zhivago (1965)

David Lean's epic version of Boris Pasternak's novel

Thumbnail image of Ghost Camera, The (1933)Ghost Camera, The (1933)

Lively, inventive low-budget thriller about a camera holding a vital clue

Thumbnail image of Great Expectations (1946)Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean's definitive Dickens adaptation

Thumbnail image of Hobson's Choice (1953)Hobson's Choice (1953)

Charles Laughton stars in this definitive version of a much-filmed play

Thumbnail image of In Which We Serve (1942)In Which We Serve (1942)

David Lean/Noël Coward classic about a bombed WWII destroyer

Thumbnail image of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Spectacular David Lean epic about the desert adventurer

Thumbnail image of Madeleine (1949)Madeleine (1949)

David Lean's film about real-life alleged murderess Madeleine Smith

Thumbnail image of Money for Speed (1933)Money for Speed (1933)

Stirring 'quota quickie' about love and speedway rivalry

Thumbnail image of Oliver Twist (1948)Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean's definitive version of Charles Dickens' classic novel

Thumbnail image of Passionate Friends, The (1948)Passionate Friends, The (1948)

David Lean film about a woman who marries for money rather than love

Thumbnail image of Pygmalion (1938)Pygmalion (1938)

Oscar-winning adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's celebrated play

Thumbnail image of Sound Barrier, The (1952)Sound Barrier, The (1952)

Little-known David Lean film about ambition, courage and jet aircraft

Thumbnail image of Summer Madness (1955)Summer Madness (1955)

David Lean directs Katherine Hepburn in this Venice-set romantic comedy

Thumbnail image of This Happy Breed (1944)This Happy Breed (1944)

David Lean/Noël Coward film about a London family between the wars

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