April 16, 1991—David Lean, a director whose quest for perfection led to two Oscars and influenced a generation of filmmakers, died of cancer in London at age 83.
This year is the centennial of the director’s birth (which occurred on March 25), and this is as good a point as any to try to examine his mastery of his medium.
The two widescreen blockbusters that won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962), are also fascinating character studies, satirical in spots, of how an extreme environment and the imperatives of war and modern politics combine to drive men mad. In contrast to the films of, for instance, Cecil B. DeMille during that time, they constitute thinking-man’s epics.
I find it fascinating that so many people in show business gravitate toward theater or film as a means of escape. Lean was no different in this regard.
His strict Quaker upbringing in a London suburb precluded any chance of going to the movies as a child. A charwoman who worked for his family got him interested in film as a youth with her descriptions and imitations of scenes in Charlie Chaplin films. “If you knew what the London suburbs were like, you will understand-it was very, very gray, and the movies were a journey into another world,” he recalled in an article published in American Film Magazine (March 1990).
Lean took no guff on the set—he and actress Judy Davis famously tangled during production of his last movie, A Passage to India (1984)—but more often than not, the results were worth it. That famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which a match blown out by Peter O’Toole gradually morphs into sunrise on an Arabian desert came about because Lean was willing to wait for as long as it took to get just the right shot. (That acute Lean eye also manifested itself in his private life: he was married six times, never for long, not just because of his difficult nature but because of his appreciation for the feminine figure.)
That Lawrence of Arabia scene also demonstrates that at the heart of the Lean style was mastery of blending wildly disparate shots into a seamless whole—a skill he developed even before he turned to direction, when he served as editor for some of the great British directors of the 1930s and early 1940s, including Anthony Asquith (Pygmalion), Gabriel Pascal (Major Barbara), and Michael Powell (One of Our Aircraft is Missing). His first directing credit was actually a co-credit with Noel Coward (who, despite writing screenplays and appearing on screen, had never directed a film himself) on the British wartime film In Which We Serve (1942).
Two Dickens adaptations increased his reputation in the film community after that: Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). In particular, the latter features a scene with a technique I would today’s directors would emulate more: Bill Sykes’ murder of Nancy. It may have been shot out of necessity because of film censorship code restrictions of the time, but it is masterful in how it induces the audience to use its imagination.
We never actually see the murder taking place, but we know it’s occurring because, once we see Sykes approaching Nancy and locking the door, we know something terrible is happening because of the dog that is trying frantically to scratch at the door to help the doomed young woman.
Given the frequency with which they worked and the brilliant results they achieved, I figured that Lean’s favorite actor would have been Alec Guinness. In fact, I was surprised to learn in listening to a TV interview some time ago, it was William Holden. The surprise didn’t come because I thought Holden was bad—far from it—but because of the infrequency with which they worked.
Lean praised Holden for his performance in Bridge on the River Kwai—totally professional, simply diving right into the scene, with no lengthy preliminaries. In contrast, for all the respect Lean clearly had for Guinness’ work, the actor exasperated him at points.
In the American Film piece, Lean notes that Guinness had originally been offered the role of the Irish priest in Ryan’s Daughter, but that the actor’s several pages of suggested changes (inspired by his conversion to Roman Catholicism) led Lean to offer the role to Trevor Howard instead. Given how Ryan’s Daughter dismally performed at the box office, Guinness probably felt this was no great loss. (Let it be immediately said that the latter film, shot in Ireland, deserves a reevaluation; critics seemed unduly delighted to toss bombs at a director whose Doctor Zhivago, along with Bridge and Lawrence, had been great moneymakers.)
What is a loss is the amount of great work that Lean had to give up in his last two decades. Financing difficulties forced him to cease work on a film about the mutiny on the Bounty, illness forced him to withdraw from Empire of the Sun before the property fell into Steven Spielberg’s hands, and death claimed him while he was in the last stages of pre-production that could have turned into one of his most fascinating literary adaptations, Joseph Conrad’s novel Nostromo.