Best known for his sprawling cinematic epics, particularly The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). He is also noted for the Dickens adaptations of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), as well as the romantic drama Brief Encounter (1945).
From 1956 to his death in 1991, David Lean completed five films. Three of them are in the American Film Institute’s Top 40 films of all time: “Lawrence of Arabia“, “Dr. Zhivago“, and “The Bridge on the River Kwai“.
Lean was as meticulous as Hitchcock in preparing every scene and every line of dialogue of his films. Though sometimes many years passed between films, Lean was working all the time, preparing. Though he was notoriously tough on his cast and crew — supposedly the inspiration for Peter O’Toole’s director in “The Stunt Man” — many of them came back for multiple Lean years.
Like Hitchcock, too, Lean had an extremely strict upbringing. Born into a Quaker family in England in 1908, he had to sneak into the movies until he was an adult. He worked as a clapper boy, eventually becoming an editor. (He edited “A Passage to India”, his last film.) His first films were adaptations of Noel Coward plays, including “Blithe Spirit”, ironically as confined a film as you can find. David’s next projects were exemplary versions of Dickens classics “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations”.
Unlike many contemporary epic directors, David Lean matched the breathtaking scope of his scenes with a mastery of complex central characters. “Doctor Zhivago” features a host of them. Alec Guinness’s Col. Nicholson in “Kwai” and Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence are two of the most conflicted, puzzled and enigmatic heroes that have ever strutted the wide screen.
These characters and their fascinating stories are the true source of the timelessness of Lean’s films, though we certainly appreciate the vastness of his canvas. Interestingly, the one thing the four epics have in common is an anti-imperialist view (though the targeted empire is certainly not always British). The Big Three also have a decidedly anti-war theme in common, in spite of “Kwai” and “Lawrence” exulting in more than their share of heroes.
Lean went through as many wives as he did epics: six. Though he kept mum about his private life, he paid the price for his “roaming eye”, never staying married for long. (One has to wonder about the sanity of wives four, five and six.)
Though he exuded the autocratic style and self-confidence of a big-picture dude, his vulnerability to criticism kept him in hiding for fourteen years after the poor critical reception to “Ryan’s Daughter“. A pity! Somehow, he forgot that his three epics won a combined total of 21 Academy Awards.
— Nate Lee