Lean, David: Centennial of Oscar-Winning Master (Lawrence of Arabia)

Lean’s career has reached the point where the modest virtues of Brief Encounter ad Great Expectations have been inflated with the hot air of Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai, films as pointlessly obscure in their way as that most muddled of all murder mysteries, Madeleine–Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

David Lean, born March 25, 1908, was one of the world’s most famous filmmakers, having directed two of cinema’s most popular and honored epic spectacles, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and “Lawrence of Arabia”(1962), both Oscar-winning and blockbuster films.

Lean began as a clapperboard assistant, then worked as an editor on newsreels, including Gaumont Pictures and Movietone. His feature film career began in 1935 with “Escape Me Never.”

Len edited Gabriel Pascal’s productions of George Bernard Shaw plays, “Pygmalion” (1938) and “Major Barbara” (1941), both starring Wendy Hiller, and Powell & Pressburger’s “The 49th Parallel” (1941) and “One of Our Aircraft is Missing” (1942).

His first work as filmmaker was as co-director with Noel Coward on “In Which We Serve” (1942), after which he adapted several of Coward’s plays into films, including “This Happy Breed” (1944), “Blithe Spirit” (1945) and, best of all, “Brief Encounter” (1945).

These were followed by two acclaimed Charles Dickens adaptations: “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948). In 1952, he made “The Sound Barrier” (1952) a collaboration with the playwright Terence Rattigan. He followed with a version of “Hobson’s Choice” (1954), based on the play by Harold Brighouse.

“Summertime” (1955) marked a new direction in for Lean, as it was shot in color on location in Venice. The movie starred Katharine Hepburn as a middle-aged American woman who has a romance while on holiday in Venice.

In the following years, Lean made the blockbusters for which he is best known: “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), for which he won the Oscar Award, followed by another for “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). Despite mixed reviews, “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) was another hit.

Following the moderately successful but critically dismissed “Ryan’s Daughter,” in 1970, he did not direct another film until “A Passage to India” (1984), which would be his last. He was knighted in 1984.

Lean was in the midst of planning an epic of Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo,” when he died from cancer, April 16, 1991. He was 83. Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield, and Anthony Quinn were among those set to star in the film.

Other films Lean wanted to to make included: “The Wind Cannot Read” (1958), “The Bounty” (1984), “Out of Africa” (1985), and “Empire of the Sun” (1987), which Spielberg eventually directed.

Lean’s critical reputation has shifted over the years. While his early British films have generally great acclaim, his epics have been the cause of much controversy and discussion. Some critics, including Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, disliked Lean’s epics as a whole, arguing that they were visual spectacles with no depth.

Director Franois Truffaut once referred to Lean’s films dismissively as “Oscar packages,” while Crowther criticized Lean’s epics as having a “chocolate-box view of history”. Others felt that while Kwai and Lawrence were accomplished films, his later epics-Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter were attempts to replicate his previous successes.

However, major directors like Spielberg and Scorsese admired Lean’s epic films, claiming he was one of their primary influences. Both helped in 1989 to restore Lawrence. Moreover, Lean’s films were extremely popular with the audience: Kwai, Lawrence, and Zhivago are among the highest-grossing films of all-time.

Lean cited John Ford as one of his favorite directors, and used that director’s masterpiece “The Searchers” (1956) in particular as a reference point while shooting his epic films. Another major influence was King Vidor’s silent “The Big Parade” (1926), which he referenced in “Doctor Zhivago.”

Lean worked with Alec Guinness on six of his films. The two frequently fought with each other; Lean had adapted Guinness’s stage version of “Great Expectations” for the screen for his second film, and thus felt responsible for Guinness’s screen career; Guinness resented this assertion. The actor’s combative personality clashed with Lean’s authoritarian attitude, but despite their differences, the two men held each other in high respect and continued to work together.

Other actors who often worked with Lean include John Mills, Trevor Howard, Omar Sharif, Jack Hawkins, Celia Johnson, Ralph Richardson, Kay Walsh, Ann Todd, and Claude Rains.

Lean wished to work with Marlon Brando, in such roles as Victor Komarovsky in Doctor Zhivago (played by Rod Steiger) and the Major in Ryan’s Daughter, and was also planning for him to be in his production of Nostromo which he had planned before his death.

Lean did not want to cast Brabdo in the title role in Lawrence, as he preferred a British actor, unlike producer Spiegel, who wanted Brando and not newcomer Peter O’Toole. The rest is history. O’Toole’s part as an eccentric filmmaker in “The Stunt Man” was reportedly loosely based on Lean during “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Among his favorite actors were: Charles Laughton (star of “Hobson’s Choice”), William Holden (“Bridge on the River Kwai”), Claude Rains (“The Passionate Friends,” “Lawrence of Arabia”), Katharine Hepburn (“Summertime”), Trevor Howard and Alec Guinness (who appeared in many of his productions).

Lean was a long-term resident of Limehouse, East London. His home on Narrow Street is still owned by his family. He was married six times, and divorced five. They were: Isabel Lean (19301936); Kay Walsh (19401949); Ann Todd (19491957); Leila Matkar (19601978); Sandra Hotz (19811984); and Sandra Cooke (19901991), who survived him.

Widely acclaimed, David Lean was voted the ninth greatest film director of all time in the 2002 British Film Institute (BFI) “Top Directors” Poll. He was the recipient (and nominee) of multiple Oscar Awards (see companion piece).


In Which We Serve (1942)
This Happy Breed (1944)
Blithe Spirit (1945)
Brief Encounter (1945)
Great Expectations (1946)
Oliver Twist (1948)
The Passionate Friends (1949)
Madeleine (1950)
The Sound Barrier (1952)
Hobson’s Choice (1954)
Summertime (1955)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Ryan’s Daughter (1970)
A Passage to India (1984)