David Lean - Director

Nationality: British. Born: Croydon, Surrey, 25 March 1908. Education: Leighton Park Quaker School, Reading. Family: Married 1) Kay Walsh, 1940 (divorced 1949); 2) Ann Todd, 1949 (divorced 1957); 3) Leila Matkar, 1960 (divorced 1978); 4) Sandra Hotz, 1981 (marriage dissolved 1985). Career: Clapperboard boy at Lime Grove Studios under Maurice Elvey, 1926; camera assistant, then cutting room assistant, 1928; chief editor for Gaumont-British Sound News, 1930, then for British Movietone News, from 1931; editor for British Paramount, from 1934; invited by Noel Coward to co-direct In Which We Serve , 1942; co-founder, with Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cineguild, 1943 (dissolved 1950); began association with producer Sam Spiegel, 1956; returned to filmmaking after fourteen-year absence to make A Passage to India , 1984. Awards: British Film Academy Award for The Sound Barrier , 1952; Commander Order of the British Empire, 1953; Best Direction, New York Film Critics, 1955; Oscar for Best Director, and Best Direction, New York Film Critics, for The Bridge on the River Kwai , 1957; Oscars for Best Director and Best Film, for Lawrence of Arabia , 1962; Officier des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1968; Fellow of the British Film

David Lean
David Lean

Institute, 1983; Fellow of the American Film Institute, 1989. Died: In London, 16 April 1991.

Films as Director:


In Which We Serve (co-d)


This Happy Breed (+ co-adapt)


Blithe Spirit (+ co-adapt); Brief Encounter (+ co-sc)


Great Expectations (+ co-sc)


Oliver Twist (+ co-sc)


The Passionate Friends ( One Woman's Story ) (+ co-adapt)




The Sound Barrier ( Breaking the Sound Barrier ) (+ pr)


Hobson's Choice (+ pr, co-sc)


Summer Madness ( Summertime ) (+ co-sc)


The Bridge on the River Kwai


Lawrence of Arabia


Doctor Zhivago


Ryan's Daughter


A Passage to India

Other Films:


Escape Me Never (Czinner) (ed)


As You Like It (Czinner) (ed)


Dreaming Lips (Czinner) (ed)


Pygmalion (Asquith and Howard) (ed)


French without Tears (Asquith) (ed)


Major Barbara (Pascal) (ed)


49th Parallel (Powell) (ed); One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (Powell) (ed)


By LEAN: articles—

" Brief Encounter ," in The Penguin Film Review (New York), no. 4, 1947.

"David Lean on What You Can Learn from Movies," in Popular Photography (Boulder, Colorado), March 1958.

"Out of the Wilderness," in Films and Filming (London), January 1963.

Interview, in Interviews with Film Directors , edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

Interview with S. Ross, in Take One (Montreal), November 1973.

Interview with Graham Fuller and Nick Kent, in Stills (London), March 1985.

Interview with J.-L. Sablon, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), June 1989.

On LEAN: books—

Phillips, Gene, The Movie Makers , Chicago, 1973.

Pratley, Gerald, The Cinema of David Lean , New York, 1974.

Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, David Lean and His Films , London, 1974.

Castelli, Louis P., and Caryn Lynn Cleeland, David Lean: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1980.

Anderegg, Michael A., David Lean , Boston, 1984.

Sesti, Mario, David Lean , Florence, 1988.

Silverman, Stephen M., David Lean , London, 1989.

Silver, Alain, David Lean and His Films , Los Angeles, 1992.

Brownlow, Kevin, David Lean , New York, 1996.

On LEAN: articles—

Lejeune, C.A., "The up and Coming Team of Lean and Neame," in New York Times , 15 June 1947.

Holden, J., "A Study of David Lean," in Film Journal (New York), April 1956.

Watts, Stephen, "David Lean," in Films in Review (New York), April 1959.

"David Lean, Lover of Life," in Films and Filming (London), August 1959.

Alpert, Hollis, "The David Lean Recipe: A Whack in the Guts," in New York Times Magazine , 23 May 1965.

Lightman, Herb, "On Location with Ryan's Daughter ," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), August 1968.

Kael, Pauline, "Bolt and Lean," in New Yorker , 21 November 1970.

Thomas, B., "David Lean," in Action (Los Angeles), November/December 1973.

Pickard, Ron, "David Lean: Supreme Craftsman," in Films in Review (New York), May 1974.

Andrews, George, "A Cinematographic Adventure with David Lean," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), March 1979.

Kennedy, Harlan, and M. Sragow, "David Lean's Right of Passage ," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1985.

Combs, Richard, "David Lean: Riddles of the Sphinx," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), April 1985.

Levine, J.P., "Passage to the Odeon: Too Lean," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 14, no. 3, 1986.

"David Lean," in Film Dope (London), March 1986.

McInerney, J.M., "Lean's Zhivago : A Re-Appraisal," in Literature/ Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 15, no. 1, 1987.

"Master of Spectacle: David Lean Leaves a Legacy of Movie Epics," obituary in Maclean's , 29 April 1991.

Powers, J., "Imperial Measures,"in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 2, June 1991.

"David Lean: Un cinéaste dans le silence," in Cinéma 91 (Paris), no. 479, July-August 1991.

Hudson, H., "Dreaming in the Light," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 5, September 1991.

Horton, Robert, "Jungle Fever," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1991.

McFarlane, B., "David Lean's 'Great Expectations': Meeting Two Challenges," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 20, no. 1, 1992.

Sragow, Michael, "David Lean's Magnificient 'Kwai,"' in Atlantic Monthly , February 1994.

Brownlow, Kevin, "The Making of David Lean's Film of The Bridge on the River Kwai ," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 2, June 1996.

* * *

There is a trajectory that emerges from the shape of David Lean's career, and it is a misleading one. Lean first achieved fame as a director of seemingly intimate films, closely based on plays of Noel Coward. His first directorial credit was shared with Coward, for In Which We Serve. In the 1960s he was responsible for extraordinarily ambitious projects, for an epic cinema of grandiose effects, difficult location shooting, and high cultural, even literary, pretention. But, in fact, Lean's essential approach to the movies never changed. All of his films, no matter how small or large their dimensions, demonstrate an obsessive cultivation of craft, a fastidious concern with production detail that defines the "quality" postwar British cinema. That craft and concern are as hyperbolic in their devices as is the medium itself. Viewers surprised at the attention to detail and composition in Ryan's Daughter , a work whose scope would appear to call for a more modest approach, had really not paid attention to the truly enormous dimensions of Brief Encounter , a film that defines, for many, intimist cinema.

Lean learned about the movies during long years of apprenticeship, gaining particularly important experience as an editor. It is clear, even in the first films he directed with (and then for) Coward, that his vision was not bound to the playwright's West End proscenium. This Happy Breed , a lower class version of Cavalcade , makes full use of the modest terraced house that is the film's prime locus. The nearly palpable patterns of the mise-en-scène are animated by the highly professional acting characteristic of Lean's early films. Watching the working out of those patterns created by the relationship between camera, decor, and actor is like watching choreography at the ballet, where the audience is made aware of the abstract forms of placement on the stage even as that placement is vitalized by the individual quality of the dancer. The grief of Celia Johnson and Robert Newton is first expressed by the empty room that they are about to enter, then by the way the camera's oblique backward movement respects their silence.

It is in Brief Encounter that the fullness of the director's talent becomes clear. This story of chance meeting, love, and renunciation is as apparently mediocre, conventional, and echoless as Flaubert's Madame Bovary. What could be more boringly middle-class than the romantic longing of a nineteenth-century French provincial housewife or the oh-so-tasteful near adultery of two "decent" Britishers? In both cases, the authorial interventions are massive. Lean conveys the film's passion through the juxtaposition of the trite situation against the expressionistic violence of passing express trains and the wrenching departure of locals, against the decadent romanticism of the Rachmaninoff score, and most emphatically against one of the most grandiose and hyperbolic exposures of an actress in the history of film. The size of Celia Johnson's eyes finally becomes the measure of Brief Encounter , eyes whose scope is no less expansive than Lawrence's desert or Zhivago's tundra.

Lean's next two successes were his adaptations (with Ronald Neame) of Charles Dickens novels, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Again, intimacy on the screen becomes the moment of gigantic display. The greatness of Pip's expectations are set by the magnitude of his frightful encounter with an escaped convict who, when he emerges into the frame, reminds us all what it is like to be a small child in a world of oversized, menacing adults. A variation of this scale is also seen in Pip's meeting with mad Miss Havisham, in all her gothic splendor.

Lean's next few films seem to have more modest ambitions, but they continue to demonstrate the director's concern with expressive placement. Of his three films with his then-wife Ann Todd, Madeleine most fully exploits her cool blond beauty.

A significant change then took place in the development of his career. Lean's reputation as a "location" director with a taste for the picturesque was made by Summertime , an adaptation of the play The Time of the Cuckoo , in which the city of Venice vies with Katharine Hepburn for the viewer's attention. It is from this point that Lean must be identified as an international rather than an English director. The subsequent international packages that resulted perhaps explain the widespread (and unjust) opinion that Lean is more of an executive than a creator with a personal vision.

The personality of Lean is in his compulsive drive to the perfectly composed shot, whatever the cost in time, energy, and money. In this there is some affinity between the director and his heroes. The Colonel (Alec Guinness) in The Bridge on the River Kwai must drive his men to build a good bridge, even if it is for the enemy. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) crosses desert after desert in his quest for a self purified through physical ordeal, and viewers must wonder about the ordeals suffered by the filmmakers to photograph those deserts. The same wonder is elicited by the snowy trek of Dr. Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and the representation of life in early twentieth-century Russia.

That perfectly composed shot is emblemized by the principal advertising image used for Ryan's Daughter —an umbrella floating in air, suspended over an oceanside cliff. This is a celebration of composition per se, composition that holds unlikely elements in likely array. Composition is an expressive tension, accessible to viewers as it simultaneously captures the familiar and the unfamiliar. It is the combination that makes so many viewers sensitive to Brief Encounter , where middle-class lives (the lives of filmgoers) are filled with overwhelming passion and overwhelming style. Laura and Alex fall in love when they go to the movies.

—Charles Affron

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