Born March 25, 1908, in Croydon, England; died April 16, 1991; son of Francis William le Blount and Helena Annie (Tangye) Lean; married Kay Walsh, 1940 (marriage ended, 1949); married Ann Todd (an actress), 1949 (divorced, 1957); married Leila Matkar, 1960 (divorced, 1978); two other marriages (both ended).
Screenwriter, editor, and director of motion pictures. Lime Grove Studios, clapperboard boy, 1926, camera assistant, then cutting room assistant, 1928; chief editor for Gaumont-British Sound News, beginning 1930, and British Movietone News, beginning 1931; British Paramount, editor, beginning 1934; Cineguild, cofounder, 1943-50. Editor of motion pictures, including Escape Me Never, 1935, Pygmalion, 1938, Major Barbara, 1941, The Forty-ninth Parallel, 1942, and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, 1942; director of motion pictures, including (co-director) 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, Breaking 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, and A Passage to India, 1984.
Awards for best film, New York Film Critics Circle, and National Board of Review, both 1942, both for In Which We Serve; award for best British film, Cannes Film Festival, 1945, for Brief Encounter; nominations for Academy Award for best director, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1947, for Brief Encounter, and 1948, for Great Expectations; award for best film, British Film Academy, 1952, for Breaking the Sound Barrier; named commander, Order of the British Empire, 1953; award for best director, New York Film Critics Circle, 1955, for Summertime; Academy awards for best director and best motion picture, both 1957, both for The Bridge on the River Kwai; Academy awards for best director and best motion picture, both 1963, and Italian Silver Ribbon, 1964, all for Lawrence of Arabia; named officer, French Order of Arts and Letters, 1968; Order of Merit from Argentine Producers Association, 1971; knighted, Order of British Empire, 1984; awards for best film and best director, New York Film Critics Circle, and award for best film, National Board of Review, all 1984, and Christopher Award, 1985, all for A Passage to India; Life Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1989.
SCREENPLAYS; AND DIRECTOR
(With Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan) This Happy Breed (adapted from Noel Coward's play), Eagle-Lion, 1944, released by Universal, 1947.
(With Noel Coward and Anthony Havelock-Allan) Blithe Spirit (adapted from Noel Coward's play), United Artists, 1945.
(With Noel Coward and Anthony Havelock-Allan) Brief Encounter (adapted from Noel Coward's play), Eagle-Lion, 1945, released by Universal, 1946.
(With Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, and Kay Walsh) Great Expectations (adapted from Charles Dickens's novel), General Films Distributors, 1946, released by Universal, 1947.
(With Stanley Haynes) Oliver Twist (adapted from Charles Dickens's novel), Eagle Lion, 1948, released by United Artists, 1951.
(With Eric Ambler, Ronald Neame, and Stanley Haynes) One Woman's Story, (also known as The Passionate Friends; adapted from H. G. Wells's novel of the same title), Universal, 1949.
(With Norman Spencer and Wynyard Browne) Hobson's Choice (adapted from Harold Brighouse's play), United Artists, 1954.
(With H. E. Bates) Summertime, (released in England as Summer Madness), United Artists, 1955.
A Passage to India (adapted from both E. M. Forster's novel and Santha Rama Rau's stage adaptation of Forster's novel), Columbia, 1984.
One of Great Britain's most celebrated filmmakers, David Lean was the director of such large-scale classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. He also earned acclaim for more intimate films, notably Brief Encounter, and for adaptations of such classic novels as Charles Dickens's Great Expectations and E. M. Forster's A Passage to India. In a biography posted on the British Film Institute Web site, Janet Moat concluded that Lean "is a great poet of the cinema, having few equals in telling a story, evoking an atmosphere or describing an emotion through pictures."
Lean was born in the London suburb of Croydon in 1908. His parents, Francis and Helena Lean, were strict Quakers who found movies to be morally objectionable; Lean did not see his first film, a silent version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, until he was a teenager.
Schooled in the Film Industry
Lean finally entered the film world in the late 1920s as a low-level assistant on various films. After informally assessing the various stages of the filmmaking process, he determined that editing was the key step. Through director Sewell Collins, Lean then managed to observe the editing of Collins's Night Porter, an early British "talkie." Lean readily grasped the fundamentals of editing, and within a few months he was working as a newsreel cutter. By the mid-1930s he was generally recognized as the British film industry's foremost editor. Among his first important films as editor were Pygmalion and Major Barbara, two adaptations of plays by George Bernard Shaw. Lean followed with work on The Forty-ninth Parallel and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, two films by the eminent team of screenwriter Emeric Pressburger and director Michael Powell. He then joined writer Noel Coward's crew in the making of In Which We Serve, a prestigious project about World War II. Lean became involved with the film only on condition that he direct—with Coward—as well as-edit. As a result, In Which We Serve—which was immediately hailed as a major work—brought Lean recognition not only as a superb technician but as a promising artist.
Lean sufficiently impressed Coward to win authorization to adapt any of the playwright's works. Lean decided on This Happy Breed, which concerns a middle-class British family in the 1920s and 1930s. This film brought Lean acclaim as a sympathetic and perceptive filmmaker. Lean followed This Happy Breed with Blithe Spirit, an adaptation of Coward's comedy about a medium's encounters with an engaging ghost. He then directed Brief Encounter from Coward's melodrama about love between two commuters with spouses. Brief Encounter earned Lean an Academy Award nomination for best director, and further attention as a particularly sensitive filmmaker of uncanny skill in adapting stage works to film.
Builds Reputation with Literary Classics
In 1946 Lean scored still another success with Great Expectations, his adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic novel about coming of age. Here Lean fashioned some of his greatest imagery, particularly in the first scene, which is set in a bleak cemetery. Like Brief Encounter, Great Expectations brought Lean an Academy Award nomination for best director.
Oliver Twist, his next film, failed to match the acclaim accorded Great Expectations. Derived from Dickens's harrowing account of child criminals, Oliver Twist incurred notoriety for its allegedly anti-Semitic portrayal of Jewish gang leader Fagin. Consequently, three years elapsed between the film's British and American releases.
With his next two films, One Woman's Story and Madeleine, Lean enjoyed only lukewarm success. But in 1952 he restored his reputation with Breaking the Sound Barrier, a meticulously detailed drama about test pilots involved with supersonic flight. In collaboration with playwright Terence Rattigan, who produced a script from material Lean compiled over three months of intensive research, the director managed to create what many critics considered his best film to date, one that ultimately gained recognition as the finest British production of 1952.
By the early 1950s Lean was well established as a director of great technical prowess, one whose films were, inevitably, crisply edited (often by Lean himself), precisely photographed, and compellingly performed. Yet he found himself at somewhat of an impasse, for these elements—so accomplished (and, thus, effective) but so unobtrusive—were received as merely perfunctory. "Lean," Jonathan Yardley later wrote in a Washington Post profile, "seems at this point to have entered a period of drift: highly professional and craftsmanlike, but drift all the same." In the mid-1950s the director continued to prove himself a skilled, if workmanlike, filmmaker with Hobson's Choice, an adaptation of Harold Brighouse's popular stage comedy, and Summertime, a melodrama starring Katherine Hepburn that focuses on a Venice tourist who falls in love with a married man and which Yardley deemed "a pleasant if inconsequential film."
From Wartime Japan to Desert Epic
After completing Summertime, Lean was approached by Sam Spiegel, an American producer interested in adapting Pierre Boulle's antiwar novel, The Bridge on the River Kwai. Upon reading the novel, Lean agreed to direct the film version. The result was an extraordinary technical achievement, one that exploits the wide Cinemascope screen to evoke the overwhelming tropics and the bleak confines of a Japanese prison camp. Perhaps most noteworthy is the film's dramatic bombing sequence, where Allied commando forces destroy the bridge built by prisoners under supervision of an increasingly obsessive British officer. With its awesome use of the large screen and its impressive international cast (including Alec Guinness, William Holden, and Sesue Hayakawa), The Bridge on the River Kwai received many honors in 1957, including Academy Awards for best film and best director.
Despite the immense success of The Bridge on the River Kwai, six years passed before Lean completed another film. He had hoped to continue as an epic filmmaker with a biography of the great Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi, but was unable to develop this project smoothly. Then Spiegel, the same producer who had earlier proposed The Bridge on the River Kwai, offered to finance a film about T. E. Lawrence, the British officer who led Arab forces against the Turks during World War I. Again Lean accepted Spiegel's suggestion, and again he created an extraordinary epic. With its sweeping panoramas of endless desert sands, its vast cast (which proved particularly compelling in battle scenes), and its sustained drama, Lawrence of Arabia is often hailed as the cinema's greatest large-scale work. Like Kwai, it earned Academy Awards for best film and best director.
Doctor Zhivago, Lean's next film, is still another epic. But this work, adapted—by screenwriter Robert Bolt, who also wrote Lawrence of Arabia—from Boris Pasternak's popular novel of the Russian Revolution, offended some viewers with its unabashedly romantic melodrama. Lean's film is essentially the story of a sensitive physician-poet who, though married, enters into an affair with an unjustly notorious woman who is married, in turn, to a revolutionary. Lean told Yardley that he perceived Doctor Zhivago as a "love story, against a very excit-ing backdrop," and he filled the film with alternately romantic and dramatic sequences. However, reviewers generally decried the film as dull and hopelessly mawkish, particularly in its extensive use of Maurice Jarre's musical score. "I got the worst notices ever for that film," Lean noted to Yardley, "a ghastly set of notices." Moviegoers, however, apparently ignored the critics, for Doctor Zhivago became an immense commercial success.
Ryan's Daughter, Lean's following film, was less popular. Allegedly inspired by Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's novel about a bourgeois woman's infidelities, the 1970 film concerns the sexual transgressions of a schoolmaster's wife in Ireland. Widely lambasted as empty and pretentious, "It got horrific notices," Lean later recalled for Yardley. He also disclosed that the widespread negativity eventually undermined his confidence. "After the notices I got on that picture, I was really quite nervous of going into a restaurant," he admitted. "The power of print is certainly true. The reviews were just abusive."
Following the debacle of Ryan's Daughter, Lean withdrew from filmmaking, choosing instead to travel. But after five years he began collaborating with Robert Bolt on an account of the famous H.M.S. Bounty mutiny. Procuring funds for this film ultimately proved too troublesome, however, and he eventually abandoned the project. He then turned to E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, a complex novel combining humor, mystery, and high drama in a story about the experiences of five British individuals and one Indian in 1920s India. The Indian, Dr. Aziz, is the novel's central figure. Ingratiating himself with the Britons, Aziz offers to lead an expedition to some mysterious caverns. This expedition will hold disastrous consequences for various characters, including the elderly Mrs. Moore, who suffers an apparent nervous breakdown, and Aziz himself, who is accused by Moore's daughter-in-law of rape. This accusation leads, in turn, to a harrowing courtroom trial and strained relations between Aziz and his British friend, the schoolmaster Fielding.
Undaunted by the complexity of A Passage to India, Lean persevered with the project, ultimately writing and editing, as well as directing. With this film, released in 1984, he once again found critical favor. Sheila Benson wrote in the Los Angeles Times that the film is "civilized, affecting, humorous, surprising, ironic, intelligent," while Vincent Canby noted in the New York Times that the work is both rich and "wonderfully provocative." Many critics noted that with A Passage to India Lean managed a compelling fusion of epic scale and intimate drama. Benson called it "a film big in its scope and location and at the same time an intense six-character drama." Similarly, Canby wrote, "Though vast in physical scale and set against a tumultuous Indian background, it is also intimate, funny and moving." For Canby, A Passage to India constituted "by far [Lean's] best work since The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia and perhaps his most humane and moving film since Brief Encounter."
If you enjoy the works of David Lean
If you enjoy the works of David Lean, you may also want to check out the following:
Patton, an Academy Award-winning film, 1970.
Gandhi, a film directed by Richard Attenborough, 1982.
Gangs of New York, a film directed by Martin Scorsese, 2002.
A Passage to India was nominated for twelve Academy Awards, including best film and—for Lean—best adapted screenplay and best director. Accolades continued when the lengthy Lawrence of Arabia—which had long circulated in a heavily edited form—was extensively restored. Footage was added, replaced, and reshaped, and the dialogue—under Lean's direction—was extensively rerecorded. Upon release in 1989, the revised version of the film gained widespread acclaim for its scope and magnitude. Sheila Benson, for instance, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "the joy of storytelling on this epic scale is thrilling." For Benson, Lawrence of Arabia ranks as "one of the Seven Wonders of the cinematic world."
In 1989 Lean was also honored by the American Film Institute for his lifetime achievement in the cinema. Gathered on this occasion were many distinguished film figures, including fellow directors Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. Noting both Lean's penchant for epic scope and his interest in human drama, Scorsese, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, spoke of the British director's "landscapes of the spirit" and declared that "there's no such thing as an empty landscape in a David Lean film."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Anderegg, Michael A., David Lean, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1984.
Brownlow, Kevin, David Lean: A Biography, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1996.
Castelli, Louis P., and Caryn Lynn Cleeland, David Lean: A Guide to References and Resources, G. K. Hall (Boston, MA), 1980.
Caton, Steven C., Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1999.
Cowie, Peter, editor, The Cinema of David Lean, Tantivy, 1974.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Directors, fourth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2000.
Lean, Lady Sandra, and Barry Chattington, David Lean—An Intimate Portrait, Universe Publishers, 2001.
Maxford, Howard, David Lean, Batsford (London, England), 2001.
Moraitis, Catherine, The Art of David Lean: A Textual Analysis of Audio-Visual Structure, Authorhouse, 2004.
Pratley, Gerald, The Cinema of David Lean, Barnes, 1974.
Sarris, Andrew, editor, Interviews with Film Directors, Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, David Lean and His Films, Frewin, 1974.
Silverman, Stephen, David Lean, introduction by Katharine Hepburn, Abrams (New York, NY), 1989.
Taylor, John Russell, Carol Reed and David Lean, Viking (New York, NY), 1980.
Turner, Adrian, The Making of David Lean's 'Lawrence of Arabia,' Dragon's World, 1994.
After Dark, December, 1970, Mary Blum, "A Brief Encounter with David Lean," pp. 18-19.
American Film, Volume 25, number 6, David Ehrenstein, "Epic Dialogue," pp. 20-27, 52-53.
Cineaste, March 22, 1996, Kevin Brownlow, "The Making of David Lean's Film of 'The Bridge on the River Kwai,'" p. 10.
Daily Variety, April 23, 2003, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni, "'Kwai' Guy's Schemes Came True," p. 27.
Film Journal, April, 1956, J. Holden, "A Study of David Lean."
Films and Filming, August, 1959, Douglas McVay, "David Lean, Lover of Life," pp. 9-10; January, 1963, "Out of the Wilderness," pp. 12-15.
Films in Review, April, 1959, Stephen Watts, "David Lean," pp. 245-247; May, 1974, Ron Pickard, "David Lean: Supreme Craftsman."
Los Angeles Times, October 6, 1968, William Wolf, "Lean Rejects Drawing Room Comedies"; October 25, 1970, Mary Blum, "Lean Directs His Films by Fussing for Perfection"; December 12, 1984; February 15, 1989; March 10, 1990.
Newsweek, March 24, 2003, Peter O'Toole, "Lawrence of Arabia: The Star's Version," p. 56.
New York Times, December 9, 1984; December 14, 1984; October 17, 1989.
New York Times Magazine, May 23, 1965, Hollis Alpert, "The David Lean Recipe: A Whack in the Guts," pp. 32-33.
Queen's Quarterly, summer, 1996, Seth Feldman, "Sheiks of the Burning Sands," pp. 234-241.
Sight and Sound, January, 1995, Len Deighton, "Sand and Sea," pp. 30-33.
Take One, July-August, 1972, Steven Ross, "In Defense of David Lean," pp. 10-18.
T. E. Notes: A T. E. Lawrence Newsletter, September, 1993, Michael A. Anderegg, "Lawrence of Arabia: The Man, the Myth, the Movie," pp. 1-7, Peter Herman, "The Stature of Lawrence of Arabia," pp. 7-8, and L. Robert Morris and Lawrence Raskin, "Is 'Lawrence of Arabia' Really a Great Film?," pp. 8-9.
Time, December 24, 1965; August 27, 1984.
Times (London, England), December 15, 1984.
Washington Post, February 3, 1989; February 8, 1989; March 10, 1990.
British Film Institute, http://lean.bfi.org.uk/ (May 1, 2005) "David Lean."
Maclean's, April 29, 1991, "Master of Spectacle: David Lean Leaves a Legacy of Movie Epics."
Sunday Times (London, England), April 21, 1991.
U.S. News & World Report, April 29, 1991.
Nationality: British. Born: Croydon, Surrey, 25 March 1908. Education: Leighton Park Quaker School, Reading. Family: Married 1) Kay Walsh, 1940 (divorced 1949); 2) Ann Todd, 1949 (divorced 1957); 3) Leila Matkar, 1960 (divorced 1978); 4) Sandra Hotz, 1981 (marriage dissolved 1985). Career: Clapperboard boy at Lime Grove Studios under Maurice Elvey, 1926; camera assistant, then cutting room assistant, 1928; chief editor for Gaumont-British Sound News, 1930, then for British Movietone News, from 1931; editor for British Paramount, from 1934; invited by Noel Coward to co-direct In Which We Serve, 1942; co-founder, with Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cineguild, 1943 (dissolved 1950); began association with producer Sam Spiegel, 1956; returned to filmmaking after fourteen-year absence to make A Passage to India, 1984. Awards: British Film Academy Award for The Sound Barrier, 1952; Commander Order of the British Empire, 1953; Best Direction, New York Film Critics, 1955; Oscar for Best Director, and Best Direction, New York Film Critics, for The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957; Oscars for Best Director and Best Film, for Lawrence of Arabia, 1962; Officier des Arts et des Lettres, France, 1968; Fellow of the British Film
Institute, 1983; Fellow of the American Film Institute, 1989. Died: In London, 16 April 1991.
Films as Director:
In Which We Serve (co-d)
This Happy Breed (+ co-adapt)
Blithe Spirit (+ co-adapt); Brief Encounter (+ co-sc)
Great Expectations (+ co-sc)
Oliver Twist (+ co-sc)
The Passionate Friends (One Woman's Story) (+ co-adapt)
The Sound Barrier (Breaking the Sound Barrier) (+ pr)
Hobson's Choice (+ pr, co-sc)
Summer Madness (Summertime) (+ co-sc)
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Lawrence of Arabia
A Passage to India
Escape Me Never (Czinner) (ed)
As You Like It (Czinner) (ed)
Dreaming Lips (Czinner) (ed)
Pygmalion (Asquith and Howard) (ed)
French without Tears (Asquith) (ed)
Major Barbara (Pascal) (ed)
49th Parallel (Powell) (ed); One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (Powell) (ed)
By LEAN: articles—
"Brief Encounter," in The Penguin Film Review (New York), no. 4, 1947.
"David Lean on What You Can Learn from Movies," in PopularPhotography (Boulder, Colorado), March 1958.
"Out of the Wilderness," in Films and Filming (London), January 1963.
Interview, in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.
Interview with S. Ross, in Take One (Montreal), November 1973.
Interview with Graham Fuller and Nick Kent, in Stills (London), March 1985.
Interview with J.-L. Sablon, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), June 1989.
On LEAN: books—
Phillips, Gene, The Movie Makers, Chicago, 1973.
Pratley, Gerald, The Cinema of David Lean, New York, 1974.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini, David Lean and His Films, London, 1974.
Castelli, Louis P., and Caryn Lynn Cleeland, David Lean: A Guide toReferences and Resources, Boston, 1980.
Anderegg, Michael A., David Lean, Boston, 1984.
Sesti, Mario, David Lean, Florence, 1988.
Silverman, Stephen M., David Lean, London, 1989.
Silver, Alain, David Lean and His Films, Los Angeles, 1992.
Brownlow, Kevin, David Lean, New York, 1996.
On LEAN: articles—
Lejeune, C.A., "The up and Coming Team of Lean and Neame," in New York Times, 15 June 1947.
Holden, J., "A Study of David Lean," in Film Journal (New York), April 1956.
Watts, Stephen, "David Lean," in Films in Review (New York), April 1959.
"David Lean, Lover of Life," in Films and Filming (London), August 1959.
Alpert, Hollis, "The David Lean Recipe: A Whack in the Guts," in New York Times Magazine, 23 May 1965.
Lightman, Herb, "On Location with Ryan's Daughter," in AmericanCinematographer (Los Angeles), August 1968.
Kael, Pauline, "Bolt and Lean," in New Yorker, 21 November 1970.
Thomas, B., "David Lean," in Action (Los Angeles), November/December 1973.
Pickard, Ron, "David Lean: Supreme Craftsman," in Films inReview (New York), May 1974.
Andrews, George, "A Cinematographic Adventure with David Lean," in American Cinematographer (Los Angeles), March 1979.
Kennedy, Harlan, and M. Sragow, "David Lean's Right of Passage," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1985.
Combs, Richard, "David Lean: Riddles of the Sphinx," in MonthlyFilm Bulletin (London), April 1985.
Levine, J.P., "Passage to the Odeon: Too Lean," in Literature/FilmQuarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 14, no. 3, 1986.
"David Lean," in Film Dope (London), March 1986.
McInerney, J.M., "Lean's Zhivago: A Re-Appraisal," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 15, no. 1, 1987.
"Master of Spectacle: David Lean Leaves a Legacy of Movie Epics," obituary in Maclean's, 29 April 1991.
Powers, J., "Imperial Measures,"in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 2, June 1991.
"David Lean: Un cinéaste dans le silence," in Cinéma 91 (Paris), no. 479, July-August 1991.
Hudson, H., "Dreaming in the Light," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 5, September 1991.
Horton, Robert, "Jungle Fever," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1991.
McFarlane, B., "David Lean's 'Great Expectations': Meeting Two Challenges," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 20, no. 1, 1992.
Sragow, Michael, "David Lean's Magnificient 'Kwai,"' in AtlanticMonthly, February 1994.
Brownlow, Kevin, "The Making of David Lean's Film of The Bridgeon the River Kwai," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 22, no. 2, June 1996.
* * *
There is a trajectory that emerges from the shape of David Lean's career, and it is a misleading one. Lean first achieved fame as a director of seemingly intimate films, closely based on plays of Noel Coward. His first directorial credit was shared with Coward, for In Which We Serve. In the 1960s he was responsible for extraordinarily ambitious projects, for an epic cinema of grandiose effects, difficult location shooting, and high cultural, even literary, pretention. But, in fact, Lean's essential approach to the movies never changed. All of his films, no matter how small or large their dimensions, demonstrate an obsessive cultivation of craft, a fastidious concern with production detail that defines the "quality" postwar British cinema. That craft and concern are as hyperbolic in their devices as is the medium itself. Viewers surprised at the attention to detail and composition in Ryan's Daughter, a work whose scope would appear to call for a more modest approach, had really not paid attention to the truly enormous dimensions of Brief Encounter, a film that defines, for many, intimist cinema.
Lean learned about the movies during long years of apprenticeship, gaining particularly important experience as an editor. It is clear, even in the first films he directed with (and then for) Coward, that his vision was not bound to the playwright's West End proscenium. This Happy Breed, a lower class version of Cavalcade, makes full use of the modest terraced house that is the film's prime locus. The nearly palpable patterns of the mise-en-scène are animated by the highly professional acting characteristic of Lean's early films. Watching the working out of those patterns created by the relationship between camera, decor, and actor is like watching choreography at the ballet, where the audience is made aware of the abstract forms of placement on the stage even as that placement is vitalized by the individual quality of the dancer. The grief of Celia Johnson and Robert Newton is first expressed by the empty room that they are about to enter, then by the way the camera's oblique backward movement respects their silence.
It is in Brief Encounter that the fullness of the director's talent becomes clear. This story of chance meeting, love, and renunciation is as apparently mediocre, conventional, and echoless as Flaubert's Madame Bovary. What could be more boringly middle-class than the romantic longing of a nineteenth-century French provincial housewife or the oh-so-tasteful near adultery of two "decent" Britishers? In both cases, the authorial interventions are massive. Lean conveys the film's passion through the juxtaposition of the trite situation against the expressionistic violence of passing express trains and the wrenching departure of locals, against the decadent romanticism of the Rachmaninoff score, and most emphatically against one of the most grandiose and hyperbolic exposures of an actress in the history of film. The size of Celia Johnson's eyes finally becomes the measure of Brief Encounter, eyes whose scope is no less expansive than Lawrence's desert or Zhivago's tundra.
Lean's next two successes were his adaptations (with Ronald Neame) of Charles Dickens novels, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Again, intimacy on the screen becomes the moment of gigantic display. The greatness of Pip's expectations are set by the magnitude of his frightful encounter with an escaped convict who, when he emerges into the frame, reminds us all what it is like to be a small child in a world of oversized, menacing adults. A variation of this scale is also seen in Pip's meeting with mad Miss Havisham, in all her gothic splendor.
Lean's next few films seem to have more modest ambitions, but they continue to demonstrate the director's concern with expressive placement. Of his three films with his then-wife Ann Todd, Madeleine most fully exploits her cool blond beauty.
A significant change then took place in the development of his career. Lean's reputation as a "location" director with a taste for the picturesque was made by Summertime, an adaptation of the play The Time of the Cuckoo, in which the city of Venice vies with Katharine Hepburn for the viewer's attention. It is from this point that Lean must be identified as an international rather than an English director. The subsequent international packages that resulted perhaps explain the widespread (and unjust) opinion that Lean is more of an executive than a creator with a personal vision.
The personality of Lean is in his compulsive drive to the perfectly composed shot, whatever the cost in time, energy, and money. In this there is some affinity between the director and his heroes. The Colonel (Alec Guinness) in The Bridge on the River Kwai must drive his men to build a good bridge, even if it is for the enemy. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) crosses desert after desert in his quest for a self purified through physical ordeal, and viewers must wonder about the ordeals suffered by the filmmakers to photograph those deserts. The same wonder is elicited by the snowy trek of Dr. Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and the representation of life in early twentieth-century Russia.
That perfectly composed shot is emblemized by the principal advertising image used for Ryan's Daughter—an umbrella floating in air, suspended over an oceanside cliff. This is a celebration of composition per se, composition that holds unlikely elements in likely array. Composition is an expressive tension, accessible to viewers as it simultaneously captures the familiar and the unfamiliar. It is the combination that makes so many viewers sensitive to Brief Encounter, where middle-class lives (the lives of filmgoers) are filled with overwhelming passion and overwhelming style. Laura and Alex fall in love when they go to the movies.