Sir David Lean (1908-1991) is often considered Britain’s greatest director. Alfred Hitchcock was also British of course, but while Hitchcock started his career in Britain, he made the majority of his films in Hollywood. Of his British films, only “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) and “The 39 Steps” (1935) could be listed among his top pictures. Lean on the other hand worked almost exclusively in the British film industry, and even his big budget Hollywood films were joint UK/US productions.
David Lean isn’t a familiar name to the general movie-going public these days as his last film “A Passage to India” came out in 1984. His career isn’t fodder for biopics and he isn’t the most talked about director among film critics and historians by a long shot. However, his career has had a profound influence on two opposite genres of film – historical epics and intimate character pieces.
The beauty and influence of Lean’s epics is often the first thing associated with him, and rightly so. The screen transition at the start of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) that begins with Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) blowing out a match and ends with the sun rising over the desert should be in chapter one of the book of cinematography. The climax of the Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is equally mesmerizing, as is the barren Russian winter landscapes of Dr. Zhivago (1965).
Another important, although often overlooked, aspect of Lean’s epics is his use of music. The visuals are so awe-inspiring that we often forget that part of what makes the visuals so memorable are Lean’s musical choices. There is a reason, after all, why people who have never seen Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai can recognize the theme music of those films.
Lean’s epics have had a profound impact on the films of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Baz Luhrmann, and even Mel Brooks, but what sets him apart from many epic filmmakers was his early mastery of intimate, character driven works. For example, his first great film, Brief Encounter (1945) is based on a one act Noel Coward play about the hidden tensions of 1930’s British suburbia. His adaptations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1945) and Oliver Twist (1948) are often considered the definitive film versions of these classics. Most of us have seen the famous “Please sir, I want some more” scene from Oliver Twist even if we haven’t seen the entire film.
David Lean’s progression from the intimate and theatrical, to the intimate and literary, to the sweeping and epic, is one of the most important such progressions in film history. Still, to those who are unfamiliar with his work, I would start with Lawrence of Arabia (although I’m a bit biased – it’s one of my favorite movies) and Bridge on the River Kwai, jump back to his Noel Coward/Charles Dickens works, and finish with Dr. Zhivago.
(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe