Towards the end of the century, the American Film Institute and the British Film Institute released lists of the top 100 films of the 20th Century. He’s the most honored director on the British Film Institute list with Brief Encounter at #2, Lawrence of Arabia at #3, Great Expectations at #5, Bridge on the River Kwai at #11, Doctor Zhivago at #27, Oliver Twist at #46, and In Which We Serve at #92. Additionally, he has three films on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 epics list with Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai.
It’s not surprising that astute British cinemaphiles might have missed some of Lean’s earlier films because to many Americans and casual movie goers, Lean is known for the glorious epics that he made over the latter half of his career. None of the six films he made from 1957 to 1984 clocks in at less than two hours and forty minutes.
In a way, Lean is one of the most avant-garde directors I have watched because of the sheer length of his films. Although Lean appears to be a traditionalist in terms of narrative, there is something uncompromising about going to a studio and declaring “I’m going to make a film about a relatively obscure World War I general, it will have no women, and it will be three and a half hours long!” I watched Lawrence of Arabia as a high school freshman for a history assignment on Lawrence. I remember thinking “hmmm, shouldn’t this movie have ended by now?” but I certainly thought it was interesting. Perhaps, it was the novelty of seeing a different kind of film that was clearly a product of its period. The next year, our European History teacher decided to show the film in class over several periods and our reaction was, “yes it’s a pretty movie, but seriously, it’s this long?!”
A couple weeks ago, I was visiting my father at his swimming pool when he was conversing with some friends. I was reading a book review on the Russian Revolution from the Sunday newspaper and asked him what the Russian revolution was and his friends started telling me I should watch Doctor Zhivago. I mentioned that although I liked some of David Lean’s films, some of them like Lawrence of Arabia are excruciatingly long and one of them said “yes, but there’s not a wasted minute in it.”
This past week, I watched the first half of Doctor Zhivago (I plan on watching the second) and I have to agree with his assessment. The film isn’t bloated but narratively ambitious in a way that few are. Like his other epics, it’s a film that’s uninterested in telling a simple three-act narrative to get one to a happy ending: Lean is somewhat Altmanesque in weaving a tapestry but in a more linear fashion towards an end goal. It’s a film that meanders but it builds up story and character as it veers away from the main arc. The imagery in David Lean’s films are often striking and not simply in terms of cinematography. Watching Doctor Zhivago, I’m struck by the way Pasha (Tom Courtenay) is framed with his scarred face or of the scene in which Yevgraf (Alec Guiness ) trails the titular character through dark alleyways or the military march in which Pasha loses his gun or the image of Yuri being bombarded by peasants who have cordoned off his own home or…well, you get the point.
Additionally, Lean directed a whole slew of praised films before his epic phase that were largely adaptations of beloved literary works. His first three films he directed solo were adaptations of Noel Coward plays. He followed this by two Charles Dickens novels—Great Expectations and Oliver Twist—that are considered two of the best and most faithful cinematic adaptations of Dickens’ work. Ironically, some critics would take issue with his later deviation from the source material in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.
Lean was born in Croydon, England in 1930. He was raised in a Quaker household where he was not allowed to see movies due to his religious upbringing. At Quaker School, Lean was a mediocre student but he displayed a passion for photography though his parents discouraged him from making a career out of it. After working for his father’s accounting firm, he was convinced by a friend to follow his passion to be a cinematographer and worked from Gaumont British Studios in 1927. He eventually worked his way up a series of jobs to editor before Noel Coward himself invited him to co-direct and eventually direct solo his productions. He was known for being autocratic (closed off to outside input) on sets but not overly difficult on actors. Another Oscar-winning director. Kevin Costner, was inspired by his films in thinking that an epic was ideal.
In addition to directing, he was also the founder of the production company CineGuild with Roland Neame. In addition to 28 Academy Awards being awarded to his films, he was knighted in 1984 and received an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award a year before his death in 1991 at the age of 83. Another interesting distinction: In 1970, he was Hollywood’s all-time top directorial grosser (adding the money made from all his films; a title Spielberg holds today). He did plan an eventual retirement in Tuscany but he was working until the day he died on the unfinished film Nostromo. He asked for his ashes to be buried in the three places he loved most: Tahiti, Tuscany, and India.
Films I’ve Seen:
I’m making my way through my 5th. I’ve seen Summertime, Lawrence of Arabia, Passage to India, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago.
Bridge on the River Kwai – My favorite war film. It’s lush, it’s rich in story, and conveys the senseless tragedy of war with just one scene that has remained etched in my mind. It also has a quartet of indelible characters: William Holden pulls on the charisma as a soldier roped in for one last mission, Geoffrey Horne plays a green-eyed private with a palpable sense of fear and naiveté about killing another person; Alec Guinness is a morally complex man with an ironclad sense of integrity that leads him astray ever so gradually, and Sessue Hayakawa is a worthy sparring partner.
Passage to India – A story about the grandeur of India (circa 1928) and the racial prejudice, conflicts in national loyalty and sexual repression that lurks underneath. For a film that starts out centering around one character—a stuffy British magistrate played by Nigel Havers– almost entirely irrelevant by the end of the story, this is a film that’s extremely fluid and doesn’t feel draining time-wise.
I am ok with leaving this section blank if I don’t think anything’s overrated. I thought Summertime was uneventful and lackluster but I was assuming that film was panned. TCM.com classified it as a hit, though, so yes, Summertime. It’s basically Katharine Hepburn having a Connecticut socialite’s version of a spring break experience in Venice with a hot local. The film has its moments and there’s something slightly interesting about just how unapologetic the film is at hewing so closely to the Latin lover archetype with the male lead.
If Brief Encounter is the #2 all-time film according to the BFI, who am I to doubt them? One of David O Russell’s favorite films (or at least in in 2016) is Hobson’s Choice. Ryan’s Daughter is another epic but one that even the critics felt didn’t justify its long running time, so maybe?
Filmography as Director (17 films)
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