Sir David Lean KBE (25 March, 1908 – 16 April, 1991) was an English film director and producer, best remembered for big-screen epics such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter and A Passage to India. Widely acclaimed and winning the praise of directors such as Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, Lean was voted 9th greatest film director of all time in the BFI "Directors Top Directors" poll 2002.
He went on to edit Gabriel Pascal's film productions of two George Bernard Shaw plays, Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941). He edited Powell & Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). After this last film, Lean began his directing career. He had edited more than two dozen features by 1942. As Tony Sloman wrote in 1999, "As the varied likes of David Lean, Robert Wise, Terence Fisher and Dorothy Arzner have proved, the cutting rooms are easily the finest grounding for film direction.
For Lean's final film, A Passage to India (1984), he chose to both direct and edit, and the two roles were given precisely equal status in the film's credits. Lean was nominated for Academy Awards in directing, editing, and writing for the film.
Summertime (1955), marked a new direction in for Lean. Filmed in colour, it was shot entirely on location in Venice. U.S.-financed, the film starred Katharine Hepburn as a middle-aged American woman who has a romance while on holiday in Venice.
In the following years, Lean went on to make the blockbusters for which he is best known: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he won an Academy Award, followed by another for Lawrence of Arabia, (1962). Doctor Zhivago (1965) was another major hit. In addition, Lean directed some scenes of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) while George Stevens was doing location work in Nevada. Most of his scenes involved Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer, both of whom had previously worked with Lean on Lawrence of Arabia. Following the moderately successful Ryan's Daughter in 1970, he did not direct another film until A Passage to India (1984), which would be his last. He was knighted in 1984.
He was in the midst of planning an epic production of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo when he died from cancer, aged 83, and was cremated at Putney Vale Crematorium. Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield, Anthony Quinn, Christopher Lambert, Isabella Rossellini, and Dennis Quaid were among the ensemble cast set to star in the film.
Nostromo would eventually be made as a BBC mini-series. Among other films he attempted to make, but was forced to abandon or pass on to others, are The Wind Cannot Read (1958), The Bounty (1984), Out of Africa (1985), and Empire of the Sun (1987). He also turned down offers to direct Spartacus and Gandhi.
Some critics, including Pauline Kael, Bosley Crowther and Andrew Sarris, disliked Lean's epics as a whole, arguing that they were simply visual spectacles with no depth - a view which many of Lean's stringent critics still hold to this day. Director François Truffaut once referred to Lean's films dismissively as "Oscar packages," while critic Lindsay Anderson characterized Lean's epics as having a "chocolate-box view of history". Others felt that while Kwai and Lawrence were accomplished films, his later epics - Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter - were simply attempts to replicate his previous successes. In his review of Doctor Zhivago, Richard Schickel argued that the film, while flawed in many aspects, was a great film if regarded in a purely visual sense - an argument which plays into the hands of Lean's detractors; but many other critics also praised the scripts of Lean's epics (by Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, and Robert Bolt), which were considered to be more intelligent, literate, and believable than most epic film scripts.
Lean's films in general have always been extremely popular with the general public, with Kwai, Lawrence, and Zhivago all among the highest-grossing films of all-time. While Ryan and India were less successful on release, they have found wide and appreciative audiences since their release on DVD.
As Lean himself pointed out (see Kevin Brownlow: David Lean, p. 483), Lean's films were (and are) perhaps admired most by fellow directors as a showcase of the film maker's art. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese in particular were huge fans of Lean's epic films, and claimed him as one of their primary influences. (Both also helped in the 1989 restoration of Lawrence which, when released, greatly revived Lean's reputation.) George Lucas has referenced his films (Lawrence in particular) throughout his Star Wars film series. John Milius, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and Sydney Pollack also claimed influence from Lean's films. Mel Brooks is also an admirer and parodied several of Lean's films in his sci-fi spoof Spaceballs.
Roger Ebert, in writing of Doctor Zhivago, perhaps best sums up this view:
I agree that the plot of "Doctor Zhivago" lumbers noisily from nowhere to nowhere. That the characters undergo inexplicable changes of heart and personality. That it is not easy to care much about Zhivago himself. . . That the life of the movie is in its corners. . . That "Lara's Theme," by Maurice Jarre, goes on the same shelf as "Waltzing Matilda" as tunes that threaten to drive me mad.
And yet the stage has running water, and the horses look real enough to ride. "Doctor Zhivago". . . is an example of superb old-style craftsmanship at the service of a soppy romantic vision, and although its portentous historical drama evaporates once you return to the fresh air, watching it can be seductive.
In answer to his critics, Lean has been quoted as saying "I wouldn't take the advice of a lot of so-called critics on how to shoot a close-up of a teapot."
Other actors who worked on multiple Lean films include John Mills, Trevor Howard, Omar Sharif, Jack Hawkins, Celia Johnson, Ralph Richardson, Kay Walsh, Ann Todd, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Robert Newton, Francis L. Sullivan, Andre Morell, and Claude Rains.
He frequently attempted to work with Marlon Brando, in such roles as Victor Komarovsky in Doctor Zhivago (which went to Rod Steiger) and the Major in Ryan's Daughter, and was also planning for him to be in his production of Nostromo which he had planned before his death. He did not, however, want to give him the title role in Lawrence, as he preferred an English actor; Spiegel wanted Brando as T. E. Lawrence and not Peter O'Toole. As a result of their frequent contacts, however, Brando and Lean did become close friends.
Peter O'Toole's performance as an eccentric filmmaker in 1980's The Stunt Man was loosely based on Lean, who directed him in Lawrence of Arabia. While O'Toole held Lean in high regard, he declined opportunities to work with him again after Lawrence (O'Toole was offered parts in all of Lean's subsequent films). The two reportedly had a falling out after O'Toole turned down the lead in Zhivago.
Lean said at various points that he considered Charles Laughton (star of Hobson's Choice), William Holden (Bridge on the River Kwai), and Claude Rains (of The Passionate Friends and Lawrence of Arabia) as his favorite actors to work with. He also remained close friends with his Summertime star, Katharine Hepburn.
Lean also had a number of other affairs, most notably with Barbara Cole, the "continuity girl" on Lawrence and Zhivago.