David Lean was simply one of the great directors of British cinema.
Lean was born in Croyden. Because his parents were Quakers, the young Lean had no access to the cinema. His first encounter with the pictures came when he was thirteen and saw Elvey's version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. From that moment on he was hooked.
He started his working life in his father's accountancy firm, but it was clear that he had no interest in the business. Eventually his father got him an introduction to Gaumont and in the summer of 1927 he started as a clapper-boy. Over the next few years he busied himself around the studio learning as much as possible.
The disruption caused by the coming of sound helped him move into the editing suite in 1930. Over the next decade he became one of the best editors in the business, cutting such films as Money for Speed, Secret of the Loch, Escape Me Never, Turn of the Tide, Pygmalion and 49th Parallel.
Though he had entered the business with an eye to directing, he turned down several chances in this period, preferring to hold out for a more prestigious project than the quota pictures on offer. The right project came along with an offer to co-direct In Which We Serve with Noel Coward. Its mixture of stiff-upper-lipped heroics and sacrifice became the template for most the British war films to follow and it was a smash hit.
His next three films were also based on Coward's work, culminating in the classic Brief Encounter which earned Lean an Oscar nomination. After Coward came a couple of the best Dickens adaptations ever made for cinema. His career stumbled a little when he left second wife Kay Walsh for Ann Todd. His next three films were vehicles for Todd which played to neither of their strengths though the success of the last of these, The Sound Barrier, put his career back on track. The marriage between Lean and Todd broke up shortly after this. Lean was to marry three more times in his life.
The Bridge on the River Kwai defined the rest of his output: big international epics. It got him an Oscar, as did his next film Lawrence of Arabia. His biggest box office success was Doctor Zhivago, though by now the critics were regretting that he no longer made small-scale intimate dramas like Brief Encounter. They were vindicated by the expensive flop of Ryan's Daughter which kept Lean out of a film set for over a decade. His final film, A Passage to India, was seen as a partial return to form. He was working on an adaptation of Nostromo when he died.
Lean's career contains the odd disappointment, but there are no turkeys. Each film has its merits, and it's his solid craftsmanship and eye for the right image to back up the narrative that underpins each one. Lean created some of the most memorable moments in cinema and British cinema would have been poorer without him.
|1942||In Which We Serve co-dir.|
|1944||This Happy Breed|
|1948||The Passionate Friends|
|1952||The Sound Barrier|
|1957||The Bridge on the River Kwai|
|1962||Lawrence of Arabia|
|1984||A Passage to India|
David Lean at Amazon UK
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