In my early career, I would often hire technicians who had worked with David Lean just to hear anecdotes of his working habits. The ongoing game was: “What would David Lean do with this shot? What lens would he use? How would he move his actors?”, and so on. Of the many directors I admire, it is David Lean with whom I feel a great affinity. It is therefore a great pleasure to be able to express my admiration for him as a film-maker and to honour the friendship we shared during the last eight years of his life.
Born in the Edwardian era, Lean experienced first-hand the decline of the British Empire. He lived through two world wars and matured as an artist during the 50s, when Britain was being forced to re-examine her new role. His natural taste was for a mixture of the nineteenth-century novel and landscape painting of the same period — something he never tried, or wanted, to change. But having grown up during the demise of British influence in the world, he also had an acutely critical view of British society.
So Lean’s work contains an interesting paradox: the strong visual and literary legacy of British culture, which he loved and understood so well, combined with biting insights into the ludicrous aspects of a nation being forced to accept a less important role in the world. A perfect example of this ability to illustrate Britain’s dilemma is the portrayal of the colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Here is a man using the military discipline that was the result of hundreds of years of British tradition to survive the hardships, torture and degradation of being a Japanese prisoner of war, yet whose addiction to that same discipline and tradition has turned him mad. The man is both a hero and a fool — a remarkable device to illustrate the state of Britain as she clung to meaningless tradition in a futile attempt to save her identity in the face of declining power.
Lean offered us magnificent images and simple stories. He introduced the landscape into the emotions and dreams of his audience, and with his exquisite sensitivity to the balance between the landscape and his characters held us spellbound for the duration of the film. He had a childlike attitude to life, open and always interested in other people’s opinions. A good listener.
He was brought up in the shadow of his younger brother, Tangye, who was a brilliant scholar. David consequently felt an outcast in the family — the reason, no doubt, why for the rest of his life, he identified with the ‘outsider’. He loved flowers and animals and spoke often of his childhood holidays in Cornwall. He was particularly affected by the light in that part of the world and by the eccentricity of the local people. A preoccupation with light and ‘nutters’: elements that are always to be found in his films.
He also spoke of his grandfather a great deal. He was an engineer and inventor. Among other things, he invented the famous hydraulic pump that rescued Brunei’s ship Great Eastern (the Victorian equivalent of Concorde) as it lay ignominiously trapped in the Thames mud before its launch. This early involvement with his grandfather led to a lifelong fascination with machinery, from a boyhood love of trains to the later, almost sensual relationship with the camera. This childhood passion for trains never left him. A favourite game while filming Brief Encounter (1945) was for he and Celia Johnson, arms around each ‘other, to stand as close as they dared to the edge of the platform on Carnforth station, to wait for the night express steam train The Royal Scot to rush past.
The train plays a central role in many of Lean’s films. In Doctor Zhivago (1965), the train carrying Lara’s husband, who has become an ardent revolutionary, represents the new movement that is forging its way through Russia. In Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Lawrence is seen running along the top of the derailed train after it has been blown up, suddenly aware of his power; the image of his strutting· silhouette on top of the train as he gathers his Arab supporters around him is a turning point in his character. In The Bridge on the River Kwai, there is the obsessive building of the railway bridge by the colonel, culminating in its explosion and the train hurtling down into the river, symbolising the futility of the man’s endeavours. In Summer Madness (1955), the train is initially simply the way of getting to and from Venice, yet at the climax it is used as the bitter-sweet means of separating the two lovers. And in Brief Encounter, the entire story revolves round the arrival and departure of trains: pressure of time on an illicit romance.
This childlike quality, expressed in an almost simplistic view of good and bad which was so admired in films like Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) at the beginning of Lean’s career, was to become the subject of violent criticism following Ryan’s Daughter (1970). After the opening of the film in New York, Lean was invited to a lunch at the Algonquin Hotel to discuss the film with a gathering of New York critics. It soon became apparent that this was not going to be an open debate, but a full-blooded attack, not only on the film, but on Lean himself. He was accused of being out of touch with modern audiences’, ‘only fit for making 16mm films — maybe in colour’ and ‘being overtly sentimental and blowing up a slight story to epic proportions’. The fact that Ryan’s Daughter is the retelling of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary seemed to have escaped the critics’ attention.
So this coven of self-appointed executioners, led by Pauline Kael, dismissed Lean as ‘second rate’ and ‘out of date’. Although it could be argued that Ryan’s Daughter lacks complexity, it is undeniably romantic and extraordinarily beautiful. It contains the true hallmark of a David Lean film: simple poetry. In my view, the only problem with the film is that it was made at a time when film-making was going through radical changes. Lean never seemed to take on board the way cinema was beginning to deal with the realities of life. There had already been films like This Sporting Life (1963) by Lindsay Anderson and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1963) by Tony Richardson, while the French ‘new wave’ movement was well established. A return to an overtly romantic style was seen as anachronistic, especially alongside Lindsay Anderson’s damning look at English public school life in If… (1968). I think the historical context of a film can be as important as the film itself, and this, I believe, is the reason for the downfall of Ryan’s Daughter.
Perhaps because film is such a young art form, we don’t have the objectivity to contain such diverse styles as Truffaut, Lean, Tarkovsky and Spielberg without having to make judgments about which is best. In painting, we can hail an exhibition by Constable while at the same time be amazed at the mysterious beauty of the paintings by the Boyle family. But I think this criticism applied more then, when Ryan’s Daughter was made, than it does now.
The result of this devastating attack was a self-imposed exile from film-making for a period of fifteen years, during which time Lean travelled the world, visiting among other countries Kenya, India and Tahiti, where he spent a good deal of time. While living in Tahiti he became familiar with the language, discovering the word Pwew — an expression the Tahitians use when they are particularly upset about something and spiritually ‘disappear’ until things get better. David Lean went Pwew for fifteen years.
When his self-esteem was finally restored and his spirit refreshed, Lean returned to making films with his adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1984). It is an illustration of the frailty of the man that he took those words so much to heart. Frailty may seem a strange way to describe a man whose reputation on set was as the ‘gentle dictator’; though to some, perhaps not so gentle. A man driven to achieve the perfect realisation of his ideas and ruthless in that pursuit. A man who found it easier to put his feelings into his characters than into his own relationships. A wanderer who was able to portray the great forces of nature — the sea, the sky, snow and ice, the desert and the jungle on his vast screen.
It was often said that David Lean had no time for actors, but there is no doubt that he had a way of extracting remarkable performances. Charles Laughton and Claude Rains were two actors he particularly loved working with. He thought Laughton had a ‘magical’ presence on film and found him a truly eccentric man. While trying to discover a succinct expression of his character in Hobson’s Choice (1953), Lean came up with the notion of “lead in your feet and bubbles in your head”, which describes Laughton’s performance exactly. But you can’t talk about David Lean’s films without thinking also of Alec Guinness and John Mills, both of whom began their cinema careers with Lean and worked continually with him, giving some of their best performances under his direction. Guinness had a renowned love/hate relationship with Lean, which may well have contributed to the quality of his work; John Mills remained one of his closest friends from the early 40s until his death.
Lean always had a clear idea of how his characters should be portrayed and would not accept much deviation. He had a reputation for being tough with his actors and for refusing to let them indulge in “their natural propensity for histrionics”. Yet once the rules were laid down, Lean allowed his actors considerable space for interpretation and he showed a genuine understanding of their exposed position in front of the camera. What he required most was “horsepower”, which was his description of that harnessing of energy, available to be tapped, but not always revealed.
Lean would set his actors in the landscape by giving them the feeling of being in that time and at that place. This is where the talent of a great director comes in — setting a scene (mise en scène), creating a climate, painting a picture within the story and at the same time never losing the telling of that story. “Deal with each scene as if it’s the most important in the film”, he would say. “Clarity, clarity. The most important thing of all. Always make it clear what your intention is”.
There was always a long gestation period between Lean’s films. More often than not, it would take four or five years for a project to be chosen, considered, scripted and rescripted, ached over; then the struggle for finance and finally the preparation for production. He liked to work with the same crew whenever possible and created a kind of David Lean repertory company. Among the members of his ‘rep’ were Robert Bolt, with whom he worked on four films (Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, Lawrence of Arabia, Nostromo), Freddie Young, John Box, Maurice Jarre, Wynn Ryder and Maggie Unsworth, who worked with him from In Which We Serve (1942) until his last film. It was Freddie Young who said: “Most directors know nothing about photography”, meaning that David Lean did. One only had to look at his personal photographs to see where the inspiration for his cinematography came from.
David Lean’s skills as an editor are legendary. It was during his collaboration with Michael Powell on 49th Parallel (1941) that these skills first came into play. Powell, faced with thousands of feet of film and a sick editor, found himself in a difficult situation. Someone suggested Lean, who, after viewing the material, said, “You need an editor!” His outstanding ability as an editor is constantly in evidence; in particular I admire his brilliant use of montage. The teaching of Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1938), the journey by jet to Cairo in The Sound Barrier (1952) and Charles Laughton’s drunken game with the moon in Hobson’s Choice are outstanding examples of his skill.
Another feature of Lean’s editing skill is the way he thrusts his audience into the story within a few minutes of the lights going down. Images like the pregnant woman struggling across the heath through a violent storm in Oliver Twist; the early moment when Magwitch grabs Pip in the graveyard during the first few minutes of Great Expectations and the prologue of The Sound Barrier, where the spitfire pilot attempts to break through. “Grab them within the first five minutes” was Lean’s philosophy, and grab them he did. One of my favourite moments, though, is towards the end of A Passage to India, where the boat engine stops to denote the death of Mrs Moore. A simple device, but very moving.
If gaining Oscars is a measure of success, then Lean must be the greatest film-maker in history. His films collected twenty-six Oscars between them, including two for himself as director and four for cinematography. No other British film has done so well at the box office as Doctor Zhivago, which accrued $4 7.5 million.
Films today are more often than not dominated by financial concerns, and hence are often rushed. Few directors now have the chance to work on an epic scale like David Lean. But perhaps the epic style isn’t required any more. The US, as the dominant world power, dictates our tastes, particularly in films, since the cinema is at the heart of US culture. But American interest in making the epic film seems negligible. It may be that this style is more suited to Europeans with their interest in history and culture and the interrelationship of nations and their politics.
Lean’s films transcend style and fashion. He chose his subjects without a thought for public taste or intellectual pretension, but because he liked the idea. As a consequence of this sincerity, his films still stand up to scrutiny and continue to be loved by their audiences. Even at the age of eighty-two, on the eve of his sixth marriage, his eyes sparkled as we discussed the merits of possible actors for his forthcoming film of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo.
Lean was one of a quartet of British film directors — Carol Reed, Michael Powell, David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock — who were among the greatest film-makers in the world. And Lean, more than any other, gave British cinema the international reputation that has helped all of us subsequent British film-makers to reach US and world audiences. It is fashionable, and typically British, to belittle our native talent. But we, the next generation, owe David Lean an immeasurable debt.