David Lean at 100: The Talent Behind the Legend

Strangers on a train: Johnson and Howard share a Brief Encounter.

This is the David Lean centenary: He was born a hundred years ago in Croydon, south London, and raised as a Quaker and the son of an accountant. That meant that as a boy, he was not allowed to go to the cinema. It wasn’t a happy childhood. Lean was a dud at school, and overshadowed by his brother, Tangye. But in his teens he was given a camera, and it was the key to the lock that he had never recognized before. He would look at the world and take control of it. By the time he died, in 1991, he was Sir David Lean, the possessor of six wives (not at the same time), two Best Director Oscars and five other nominations. He had made some of the most highly regarded epics of the past century — romances, spectacles, histories come to life, the movies the world wanted. They included The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India. Those are his last five films, and more or less they are well known. Lawrence of Arabia is still, for many directors, the best thing ever done.

So let me add a word of gentle caution: A Passage to India is rather bad — it doesn’t get the E.M. Forster ironies; Ryan’s Daughter is an Ireland that exists more in melodrama than reality; Doctor Zhivago — I have to say — leaves one wondering at the fuss over the Pasternak novel; and while Lawrence of Arabia is grand and beautiful, don’t expect it to know who Lawrence was, let alone what really happened in his Middle East. As for The Bridge on the River Kwai, I like it more and more as a portrait of a demented task in which human decency and efficiency crack apart in the jungle heat.

If this seems to miss the centenary tone, let me direct you to UCLA, where October is devoted to the real treasure house of David Lean — the early pictures, the small stories he made (though two are from Dickens) before epics filled his dreams. I have a hunch that in the next hundred years of Lean studies, these are the films that will rise in value. It’s a fascinating story.

Lean went into the British film industry as a boy, and as such he became a very good film editor and a handsome young man. In the early years of the war, he was taken up by Noël Coward. They made four films together, all interesting, one of them a masterpiece, and Coward’s admiration for the kid seems to have grown as they went on. Was there more at work? We don’t know. We do know that Lean was furiously heterosexual, but that does not smother the chance of a rich affection between the two men. Their films are In Which We Serve (1942), a tribute to the Royal Navy, with Coward playing a figure based on Louis Mountbatten — the king’s cousin. For that picture, Coward directed the actors while Lean controlled the camera. But Lean was in charge on This Happy Breed (1944, from a story by Coward), about a London family between the wars. That was followed by Blithe Spirit (1945) — a hit play by Coward — starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cumming and Margaret Rutherford.

Then came the masterpiece, Brief Encounter (1945), also from a Coward play, in which Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson (both married to others) meet at a railway station and have an intense yet unconsummated affair before he goes off to Africa. Brief Encounter has been parodied over the years, but only because it is so true to English shyness or despair. What is clear now is the astonishing command of its framing (it is a film of close-ups) and the instincts of the two lead actors. But something else emerges, I think: The cinema may be a sexy medium or a sex-driven fantasy, but just try keeping lovers apart or frustrated and see how the eroticism builds. You may “know” Brief Encounter — it has been easy to see. But try it again, and I think you will be surprised.

Lean then made two films starring his third wife, Ann Todd: The Passionate Friends (1948) and Madeleine (1949). The first is a triangular love story, with Howard again, and Claude Rains. The second is a period film set in Edinburgh in which Todd’s character may have poisoned her lover. One is suppressed, the other violent, though Todd — a chilly actress, rather proper or guarded — seems under restraint. But they are superb studies in denied feeling, shot in fabulous black-and-white — by Guy Green — and revelations to the many people who have not seen them before.

That is not all: The same Guy Green was part of the outstanding production team (designer John Bryan was another key member) that did Lean’s celebrated Dickens adaptations — Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Again, film buffs are familiar with these works, though not always with the restored prints (from the British National Film Archive) that will be screened at UCLA. The Dickens texts are adapted, but the films are vivid movies in their own right as well as the basis for decades of BBC television adaptations of classic literature. In L.A. earlier this year and at the recent Telluride Film Festival, Jean Simmons — Estella in Great Expectations — attended screenings where audiences were amazed at the emotional power still generated by such classics. 

Of course, the Dickens films also offer Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket and a Fagin who drew Jewish protests in 1948, Robert Newton as Bill Sikes, John Mills as Pip, Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham, Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger and the valiant John Howard Davies as Oliver. Throw in two other films from the ’50s — The Sound Barrier (1952) and Hobson’s Choice (1953, with Charles Laughton) — and you have a series that demands steady attention and a willingness to see through the orthodox reputation of a great talent.

DAVID LEAN: TEN BRITISH CLASSICS | UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater | 10899 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. | | Through Oct. 26

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >