LEAN, DAVID – 101st ANNIVERSARY RETRO
EPICS AND CHAMBER DRAMAS NOW APPRECIATED
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
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
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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Lawrence of Arabia
Bridge on the River Kwai
David Lean Retrospective
Austrian Film Museum, Vienna
February 11 to March 4, 2009