A cinema giant remembered

With the recent death of Anthony Minghella, many commentators drew comparisons between the creator of The English Patient and Sir David Lean - the man who gave us Lawrence of Arabia.

Andrew Clarke

With the recent death of Anthony Minghella, many commentators drew comparisons between the creator of The English Patient and Sir David Lean - the man who gave us Lawrence of Arabia. This week sees the 100th anniversary of David Lean's birth, Arts Editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at the work of one of Britain's greatest film-makers.

Sir David Lean was one of the shining knights of British cinema. Among his greatest admirers were modern-day maestros Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese - who both dug deep into their pockets to finance the restoration of Lean's masterwork Lawrence of Arabia.

Spielberg said that one of the greatest thrills of his life was sitting next to Lean in a screening theatre and having the great man talk him through his finest two-and-half hours. “It was exactly like having your own DVD commentary with the director sitting right beside you.”

Lean wasn't a particularly prolific director but virtually everything he completed is regarded as a classic. His output in many ways appears to be like an approved viewing list of British films. Even from his early days he was always regarded as a superior film-maker - someone that was popular but also needed to be taken seriously.

His early films - movies like In Which We Serve, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter and Great Expectations - signalled the arrival of a prestigious talent. Over the years he collected nine Oscar nominations for his work and two wins for Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge Over The River Kwai. His work collected a staggering 23 Oscar nominations and a further 23 wins.

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He followed up Great Expectations, released in 1946, with another Dickensian classic Oliver Twist which garnered terrific reviews and lavish praise for Alec Guinness' role as Fagin. He then followed this up with Hobson's Choice with Charles Laughton and John Mills in 1954.

After his initial flurry of activity, Lean's films started to be released at wider intervals as he began to pioneer location photography. Before David Lean most British films were studio-bound. Exterior shots were mocked up on sound-stages. Then in 1955 Lean, at vast expense took an entire unit to Venice to film the romantic comedy Summer Madness with Katherine Hepburn and Italian star Rossano Brazzi.

One of the crew was Suffolk-based sound recordist, the late Peter Handford, who lived for many years near Eye. In an interview with the EADT he said that what started out as a six week location shoot turned into a gruelling six months. Not only was location filming in its infancy but the equipment wasn't very portable. “The sound equipment alone filled two enormous barges and had to be powered by large batteries and self contained generators.”

He said their problems were exacerbated by the fact that the shoot took place largely on water which meant that it took forever to line-up shots. It didn't help that David Lean was also a meticulous artist and would never accept second best.

“I'll never forget. They did a whole night's shooting of a magnolia bloom floating in the water. David spent all night shooting and lighting this beautiful white flower, floating in the canal. I remember the evening ended with Jack Hillyard, the cameraman, telling David: 'It's getting light now.'

Peter said that this was the film where David started to find his feet with location filming. From now on all his films would be shot on location against picturesque but realistic backdrops away from the artificiality of the studio.

“Sound was obviously a part of this approach. With Summer Madness the sound atmosphere from Venice was going to be very important. I had never been there before but I knew that the sort of place that would have a wonderful selection of different sounds. I used to go and sit in a lagoon and just record the sounds around us. The sound was a very important part of the film. It wasn't buried in music, it help tell the story, it provided the atmosphere.

“Katherine Hepburn was charming but boy could she talk. You couldn't get a word in edgeways. As an actress she was wonderful and she'd do anything. That was the trouble. She had this scene where she was supposed to fall in the canal and she insisted on doing it herself and she always says that the water was so contaminated that she contracted an eye problem.”

Peter said that he enjoyed working with Lean but was absolutely exhausted by the end of the shoot and so when Lean next approached him to do the sound on The Bridge Over The River Kwai he gently declined the offer. “He said it was going to be three months in Ceylon. I knew that if six weeks turned into six months in Venice then this was going to turn into a much, much longer shoot. In fact I think they were out there for something like nine months. It would have been nice to do but I don't regret turning it down. At that stage of my career I couldn't have afforded to be away from home for that length of time - and not in those conditions.”

It was with The Bridge Over The River Kwai starring Alec Guinness and William Holden and then with Lawrence of Arabia that David Lean put the seal on what was an already glowing career and established him as a film-maker who told personal stories on an epic scale.

Bizarrely, considering his reputation as a master film-maker Lean was not allowed to go to the movies as a child. Born in Croydon in 1908 to strict Quaker parents, he was warned about being lured into wickedness by the flickering allure of silent cinema. During the 1920s, he briefly considered becoming an accountant like his father before finding employment at a cinema studio in 1927. He worked as tea boy, clapper boy, messenger, then a newsreel cutter before becoming a feature film editor - working for such A list directors as Anthony Asquith and Michael Powell. By the end of the 1930s Lean's reputation as editor was very well established but it took the arrival of the Second World War before David Lean made the transition from editor to director.

In 1942, Noel Coward gave Lean the chance to co-direct with him the war movie In Which We Serve. He maintained the link with his mentor when he then directed film adaptations of three Noel Coward plays - This Happy Breed (1944), the tongue-in-cheek ghost story Blithe Spirit (1945), and the wartime weepy Brief Encounter (1945).

Originally a box office flop in the UK, Brief Encounter was screened at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946 where it won critical praise as well as a Grand Prize.

But his international reputation was set with the release of The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957 which picked up a spectacular seven Oscars. It's success was even more remarkable given the fact that it was adapted from a French novel by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman; writers who had escaped the McCarthy witch-hunt.

This was followed by Lawrence of Arabia which was based on Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence. Lean recruited newcomer Peter O'Toole as his star and this film marked the first collaboration between Lean and writer Robert Bolt, cinematographer Freddie Young and composer Maurice Jarre - all long-term collaborators.

The shooting itself took place in Spain, Morrocco and Jordania over a period of 20 months and like its predecessor, it won seven Oscars, once again including best film and director.

Lean was now on a roll and followed Lawrence with an even more ambitious film - an adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago. The same team of Lean, Bolt, Young and Jarre won five Oscars out of ten nominations but the film divided critics even as audiences flocked to relish the spectacle of Omar Shariff wooing Julie Christie in the windswept Russian steppes.

Although audiences loved the picturesque images that Lean conjured up, for the director himself it was the often small-scale, personal stories that really interested him - tales of individuals triumphing over adversity. For Lean, the backdrop put their struggle into perspective.

The extent that audiences needed the pretty pictures to help digest the sometimes tough stories was brought home in Lean's next film Ryan's Daughter - which was such a critical and commercial disaster that Lean didn't make another film for another 13 years.

Ryan's Daughter won an Oscar for Suffolk-born actor John Mills who had also appeared as Willie Mossop in Lean's adaptation of Hobson's Choice in 1954.

Although Mills was unrecognisable in his role and delivered the sort of powerful performance that Oscar voters loved, it was all too gritty, damp and downbeat for mainstream audiences who stayed away in droves. It was a hard lesson which didn't make up for the year that Lean had spent in Ireland shooting the movie.

He appeared to turn his back on the movies but was in fact quietly working away with Robert Bolt on an ambitious two-part movie about Fletcher Christian and the Mutiny on the Bounty. When this fell by the wayside he then started work adapting E. M. Forster's novel A Passage to India, a book Lean had been interested in for more than 20 years.

Released in 1984, A Passage To India starred Judy Davis, Peggy Ashcroft and Alec Guinness and was seen as a return to form for Lean who, having learned the lessons of Ryan's Daughter, presented India in all its Technicolor glory and audiences once again returned in their millions. It was also rewarded with much critical acclaim and 11 Oscar nominations - although it picked up two awards that year most of the major prizes went to Milos Forman's Amadeus - a film which David Lean could have made ten years earlier.

David Lean spent the last few years of his life preparing an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's meditative adventure novel Nostromo which was due to go into production four weeks after his death from throat cancer in April 1991. Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield, Anthony Quinn, Christopher Lambert, Isabella Rossellini, and Dennis Quaid were among the ensemble cast set to star in the film.

He was a giant of cinema and his influence can be seen in particular in the work of Anthony Minghella - particularly in films like The English Patient and Cold Mountain as well in more commercial movies like Titanic which has similar sensibility to Doctor Zhivago. Among the films he worked on and then walked away from before production started were The Bounty, Out of Africa and Empire of the Sun.

For a man who was not allowed to watch films as boy, David Lean understood their potential as powerful and emotional means of storytelling. In 1999, the British Film Institute compiled a list of the 100 favourite British films of the 20th century. Five movies by David Lean appeared in the top 30, three of them in the top five.

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