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On the eve of the 101st anniversary of his birth (March 25, 1908), David Lean is being honoured by the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna, in collaboration with the BFI National Archive, with a programme mainly consisting of newly restored prints.

His epic works of the 1950s and 60s such as The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia turned British filmmaker David Lean into an icon of international cinema, but in more recent years, his earlier films have also received a lot of attention. From today's vantage point, many of these subtle chamber dramas and literary adaptations rank amongst Lean's finest achievements.

"a director's director"

David Lean was always a "directors’ director". Colleagues of his, from Billy Wilder to Wong Kar-wai, have expressed their debt to him and paid homage to him in their works. Strangely enough, in a curious contrast to the judgment of filmmakers and the popular audience, certain critical quarters have continued to hold Lean in low esteem. For these critics, Lean is a solid craftsman at best, a manufacturer of anonymous, "coldly impersonal" films, as Andrew Sarris put it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, these labels might better be applied to Carol Reed, Lean's main rival to the title of "Great British Film Director" during the classic era. Excepting the special case of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Lean is probably the sole English director of this period who truly fulfils the criteria of an auteur. While it's true that he mostly employed literary sources for his films, his mere sixteen features are staged with a mixture of emotional drive and cool, perfectionist control which are virtually unparalleled in narrative cinema. In addition, his oeuvre also pursues a constantly varying Leitmotiv: a fascination for the foreign and exotic (sexuality, change of location, non-European cultures).

Lean was born into the family of a well-off financial auditor in the London suburb of Croydon on March 25, 1908. As a Quaker, Lean was not permitted to enter a cinema until the age of 17; notwithstanding this proscription, he was given a 16mm film camera when he was 14. It served as an early school of seeing which later evolved into his legendary sense of visual composition. At age 19, Lean began working as a messenger boy for British Gaumont, where he was able to hone his equally famed talent for precise montage, and soon became a sought-after Editor. He edited Michael Powell's war drama The 49th Parallel, assisted Anthony Asquith on the adaptation of Pygmalion, and was finally hired in 1942 by Noel Coward as co-director for the brilliant Navy drama In Which We Serve. The collaboration with Coward was to last for three further films, up to the early masterpiece Brief Encounter. Contrary to his ‘authoriarian’ reputation, Lean would remain loyal to a large circle of trusted artistic collaborators throughout many projects, including screenwriter Robert Bolt, cinematographer Freddie Young, composer Maurice Jarre, and actors such as Alec Guinness and John Mills, to name just a few.

"first creative period"

Lean's first creative period was marked by tragic romances (Brief Encounter, 1945, The Passionate Friends, 1949) and family dramas (This Happy Breed, 1944). These are unsentimental studies of everyday life in England between the wars; their humanist realism looks ahead to Britain’s socially critical "Kitchen Sink Cinema", but their stylised visual language indicates a different sensibility: the theatrical origins of the material involved completely recede from view. Lean’s international breakthrough is also closely associated with two outstanding literary adaptations: Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), both based on works by Charles Dickens. Filmed in starkly contrasting black and white, these ballads give the bigger-than-life texts their due without diminishing a single nuance of their sharp critical edge.

Lean’s forays into comedy (Blithe Spirit and Hobson's Choice) were, although successful, never continued, while two little-known, “intermediary” works pointed the way towards the director’s most famous period which was yet to come. Madeleine (1950), which describes the trial of an alleged murderess without ever resolving her guilt beyond any shadow of a doubt, is the first of Lean’s films which, despite their seemingly classic, rounded form, revolve around unsolved mysteries. For example, does The Bridge on the River Kwai glorify or criticise the British officer’s ethos? Who was Lawrence of Arabia really? And what exactly happened in the Marabar Caves (in A Passage to India)?

"the mould for the epics"

Even more than the Venice-set Summertime, which became Lean's first international production, The Sound Barrier (1952) cast the mould for the epics which would soon cement the director's status. Of all of these films, The Bridge on the River Kwaiis certainly the most concentrated work, Lawrence of Arabia the most multi-layered, Doctor Zhivago the most successful, and Ryan's Daughter the most underrated. ? It took Lean a full fourteen years to recover from the negative critical reaction to this Irish version of Madame Bovary; due to this shock, legendary projects such as a new, two-part version of Mutiny on the Bounty were never realised, and it wasn't until A Passage to India in 1984 that Lean achieved a triumphant late comeback. Shortly before he was to begin shooting his dream project Nostromo (based on the Joseph Conrad novel), David Lean succumbed to cancer on April 16, 1991.

Published January 29, 2009


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David Lean

Lawrence of Arabia

Bridge on the River Kwai

David Lean Retrospective
Austrian Film Museum, Vienna
February 11 to March 4, 2009

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