To most people, the name David Lean means Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Many still remember its famous re-issue in 1989 on the big screen, and few question that film’s supposed greatness now, even though Andrew Sarris originally condemned it as “dull, overlong and coldly impersonal.” That’s not quite fair; Lawrence often seems to be about some kind of deep-dyed English dread of inadequacy, and whenever Lean gets sun-struck with his endless desert vistas, Peter O’Toole pulls the film back into the far-out agony of one very strange, sadomasochistic man. Before that, Lean had won acclaim and awards for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), his first real epic, and an even vaguer movie than Lawrence. Despite fine acting from Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa, Kwai raises issues of duty and madness only to scuttle them in one of the most confusing endings in film history. In Kevin Brownlow’s massive, definitive biography of Lean, it is revealed that the director and his collaborators didn’t know how to end Kwai, so they shot the climax in such a muddled way that it’s impossible to know how the bridge is destroyed. By accident? Deliberately?
Such questions haunt Lean’s career as a whole, which is getting a full retrospective at Film Forum in honor of his centenary. Lean was no help when it came to placing himself in film history: “The trouble is—and I don’t know why I should feel it a trouble—that I’m an interpreter,” he suggested in the sixties. “I wish I could be treated as such. I’m not an author and am not really creative.” Such admissions reflected Lean’s lifelong inferiority complex; as a child, he did poorly in school and was constantly overshadowed by his dashing, whip-smart older brother. Raised a Quaker, Lean didn’t see a film until his late teens, when the mystical, epic silent work of Rex Ingram inspired him to pursue a career in movies. Lean began as a “tea boy” gopher and slowly worked his way up into the editing room. At the same time, he began a lifelong career as a ladykiller, which would lead to six wives and numerous affairs; he always tried to reconcile his Quaker prudishness with his own naïve, Lawrentian sensuality, and this tension would result in some of his best work.
Lean edited three Elisabeth Bergner movies in the thirties, including one item, Dreaming Lips (1937), which feels like a forerunner of his later treatment of agonized adultery. He took technical charge of two Shaw adaptations, Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941), and cautiously started directing in collaboration with Noel Coward, beginning with In Which We Serve (1942), a big, uncomfortable movie that plays now as a sort of clipped, stiff-upper-lip Since You Went Away (1944) with shipboard action. Lean did the set-ups while Coward directed the actors on In Which We Serve, but he was more or less entirely responsible for their follow-up, This Happy Breed (1944), based on Coward’s play. It’s another somewhat queasy movie, and Lean can do nothing to mitigate the perplexing gush of Coward’s often contradictory, largely conservative political ideas; all the actors jabber at each other like woodpeckers in their “lower class” accents, and Lean contents himself with trying to achieve a more realistic, drabbed-down use of Technicolor. It is a handsome-looking movie, at least.
Another Coward adaptation, Blithe Spirit (1945) was entirely outside Lean’s range, for the director had little sense of humor, let alone the kind of high-style wit that could have brought that play off as a movie. But his fourth collaboration with Coward paid off in what has to be Lean’s best film, Brief Encounter (1945), a deservedly beloved romance of two “ordinary” married people who fall madly in love with each other. Encounter is a perfect movie in its way, and it was Lean who created the script’s mousetrap flashback structure; he admired Celia Johnson, his lead actress, and even got teary-eyed sometimes after she had done a scene particularly well. It was Coward, however, who insisted on the all-important Rachmaninoff score, over Lean’s objections, and surely the potent “impossible love” feeling of the film comes largely from Coward’s sensibility as well.
The almost delirious emotion of Brief Encounter and Lean’s later Summertime (1955), a Venetian romance with Katharine Hepburn, stems from their authors, Coward and Arthur Laurents, and from the superlative acting of Johnson, Trevor Howard and Hepburn, but Lean provides the all-important frame for these works, the atmosphere of self-denying Britain and self-indulgent Venice. He was a man who knew both ends of that spectrum, and surely he must be given full credit for that unusually suggestive shot of Johnson in Brief Encounter when the camera starts to tilt ever-so-slightly as she loses control and wonders if she should throw herself in front of a train, an effect that Lean would use again in The Sound Barrier (1952), when Ralph Richardson is under similar pressure.
Brief Encounter and Summertime are romantic classics, as perennial as certain flowers, and quite above criticism, as far as I’m concerned. Lean’s two Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) are the best films of those books imaginable, for better and for worse; they’re slightly detached movies, over-determined, yet studded with curiously swooning effects, like the moment when John Mills clears a long table in Expectations, or the scene when Nancy (Kay Walsh, Lean’s second wife) in Twist throws herself at Oliver to protect him and then falls into a faint. These set pieces show Lean’s essential vagueness as a director, his clinging to the order of “this shot, then that shot” always giving way to a habitual lurching into haziness.
Lean did nausea well, or a sudden burst of madness, but he is most stimulated by the theme of sexual repression, which he dramatizes in Johnson’s Laura Jesson, Hepburn’s Jane Hudson, O’Toole’s Lawrence and later Judy Davis’ Miss Quested in A Passage to India (1984). Lean called himself a “boy adventurer,” even when he was elderly, yet his strongest contribution to film lies in the creation of a uniquely feminine longing and hysteria, aligned with gay writers like Coward, Terence Rattigan, Arthur Laurents, T.E. Lawrence and E.M. Forster. Lean was consumingly heterosexual, so much so, in fact, that he always seemed to reach for identification with a woman, any woman, just as he stressed the feminine qualities of Charles Laughton in Hobson’s Choice (1954), O’Toole, Omar Sharif and especially Alec Guinness, who runs like a dainty grasshopper through Lean’s increasingly humongous canvases.
As detailed in Brownlow’s book, Lean was a romantic in the worst possible sense, and this led him into probably his most difficult yet rewarding artistic relationship, with the actress Ann Todd, who he married and later bitterly divorced. Lean made three films with Todd, The Passionate Friends (1949), Madeleine (1950) and The Sound Barrier. Little known today, this trilogy is probably Lean’s most personal work, more clearly his own than other movies that depended on close collaboration with others. Todd was a fine-boned, rather snippy actress, a cool blonde who refused to defrost under any circumstances, and Lean puts her at the center of a love triangle in the complexly structured Friends, a kind of re-do of aspects of Brief Encounter that strikingly juxtaposes fantasy and reality, daydreams of the past with the present.
In the dreamy, unsettling Madeleine, Todd plays an icy would-be murderess in a way that might impress even Isabelle Huppert. Her dark-haired lover’s evil nature is based in sex, and there are a lot of phallic, Freudian symbols in the compositions (Lean was in analysis at the time). Numerous flashy camera effects in deep focus create a stifling, claustrophobic world that traps the audience just as much as the nominal anti-heroine, and the film ends on a last enigmatic close-up of Todd, as a narrator asks us whether or not we think she’s guilty of murder. Madeleine expresses Lean’s ambivalence about his wife and about the sexual infatuations he lived for, and as such it is filled with specific, deep feeling.
Even better is The Sound Barrier, a deceptively conventional tale of aeronautic striving built around a superb, scary performance from Ralph Richardson as a man willing to sacrifice anything for scientific progress, even the lives of his family. This characterization of a monstrously selfish but still somehow admirable man seems like an exorcism of Lean’s own difficult relationship with his father as well as an unsparing portrait of his own aloof, “look to the stars” mentality, which left a lot of human wreckage in its wake. He followed Sound Barrier with a ponderous but beautifully made Victorian comedy, Hobson’s Choice, then went fruitfully ga-ga for Katharine Hepburn and Venice in Summertime. On the surface of that film is a winningly hearts and flowers autumnal love affair for Hepburn’s somewhat alcoholic spinster. Underneath is a convincingly harsh study of loneliness vanquished, a “goodbye to all that” sensibility that comes largely from Hepburn, with Lean as a sensitive spectator to her let-it-all-out acting.
After Summertime, Lean turned to his problematic epics, winning awards for Kwai and Lawrence and then running aground on the “Russian” Doctor Zhivago (1965), a big hit, and probably Lean’s worst movie: uselessly massive, syrupy, and almost incoherent (Kenneth Tynan called it “an orchestra without a conductor”). Julie Christie gave a funny interview last year where she talked about having friends over during a holiday when Zhivago turned up on TV: her friends had never seen it, so they settled down to watch the film, but they couldn’t get past the first hour. Lean’s collaborator at this time, screenwriter Robert Bolt, has to except some of the blame for the aimless bloat of Lawrence and Zhivago; judging from Brownlow’s book, Bolt and Lean could articulate their ideas very well on paper, but they could never get them up on the screen in any decisive way.
By the time of his next film, Ryan’s Daughter (1970), also written with Bolt, Lean had developed a terminal case of elephantiasis; even Brownlow’s fine biography suffers as he labors to give us chapter after chapter of Lean’s stultifying preparation on each of his “big” movies. Ryan’s Daughter started out as a “little gem,” a small tale of adultery such as Lean had made his name with in the forties, but it soon swelled out of control with a Man of Aran-style storm scene and a sub-plot involving gun-running. Lean miscast Robert Mitchum as Sarah Miles’ disappointing husband, a pre-mature ejaculator who wanly looks on as she finds satisfaction in the arms of damaged soldier Christopher Jones.
The first half of Ryan’s Daughter leads up to a hilariously genteel sex scene in the out of doors where illuminated cobwebs and quivering dandelions are meant to symbolize the lovers’ ecstasy (if Lean had had any sense of humor, Jones would have turned out to be a pre-mature ejaculator, too, but sex to this director is always Serious and Life-Altering). It’s a disastrously silly movie, in general, and Brownlow reports an infamous occasion when Lean was invited to meet a group of film critics and got broadsided by Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel, who literally asked Lean, “How could the man who made Brief Encounter make a piece of bullshit like Ryan’s Daughter?” In Brownlow’s book, this scene produces mixed emotions. Surely the critics went too far. On the other hand, after hundreds of pages of Lean making his increasingly confused, silent screen-type epics, it is a huge relief that somebody finally says, “Stop!”
And stop Lean did. In the twenty years left of his life, he made only one more movie, A Passage to India, a safe epic that found great acclaim in the more conservative climate of the 1980’s. It falls far short of the terror in E.M. Forster’s novel, but in Judy Davis’ humid portrayal of Miss Quested the film took up the theme of blocked sexuality that was Lean’s strongest suit. At the end of the movie, after bravely dropping her hallucinatory case of rape against Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), Davis’ Miss Quested escapes the ensuing courtroom pandemonium by leaning back in her chair and staring up at a glass ceiling, where raindrops start to appear. It’s a moment of exquisite, solitary relief, and a kind of climax to the best of Lean’s work, which was founded in the details of loneliness and romantic yearning.
At the time of A Passage to India, Lean said, “I’ve just begun to dare to think that I perhaps am a bit of an artist.” We can take out his “perhaps” qualifier, but we should probably keep to his fairly accurate “a bit of an artist.” Brief Encounter and Summertime are always worth seeing again, and his three Ann Todd films deserve more attention than they have received. As for the rest, Lean took to looking out into vast expanses of desert, fields of flowers, windswept beaches, sets of caves and even the space beyond the sky, searching for existential answers that he was not equipped to give us and settling for overly composed pretty pictures instead.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.