Beyond Lawrence: the legacy of David Lean
Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30
Dublin's Light House cinema celebrates the achievements of director David Lean this month with a series of afternoon screenings. Their Lean season began last week with Lawrence of Arabia, his most famous film and the one practically everyone has seen. Tomorrow and Tuesday, they'll show Lean's war film Bridge on the River Kwai at 3pm, and Brief Encounter, Doctor Zhivago and his Irish drama Ryan's Daughter will follow later in the month.
Lean's legacy is a curious one. While he's acclaimed as a master by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, who've collaborated on restorations of his films, he's been dismissed by some critics as a glib technician, the creator of beautifully composed but emotionally barren epics. He was so stung by these criticisms himself that at one point he retreated from film-making for more than a decade, but his reputation was in the ascendant in his last years, as Lawrence of Arabia was re-released to great acclaim. He died in 1991.
Lean's work remains divisive, however, and his most famous films are a bit like the man himself - easy to admire, hard to like. But I think he was a great director in his way, and that his best work was done not after Lawrence of Arabia, but before it.
By the time Lean hit the big time with Sam Spiegel's 1957 Hollywood war epic Bridge on the River Kwai, he was almost 50 and had been working as a film editor and director for decades. That film changed his life, led to Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, and made him synonymous with big-budget movies with large themes and very long running times. It became a stick to beat him with, especially after the spectacular failure of Ryan's Daughter, a grandiose project set in southwest Ireland.
What a lot of American critics perhaps failed to realise was that Lean had produced very different kinds of films in the 1940s and 1950s - sensitive, small-scale dramas and cerebral literary adaptations that remain among the very best British films ever made.
He started out as an editor, a rigorous grounding that would have a lasting influence on his work. And his contempt for wordy scripts and insistence on the pre-eminence of the visual would lead him to some extraordinary places, both good and bad.
Born in Croydon in 1908 and raised in a strict Quaker household, Lean might have followed his father into accountancy if a kindly uncle hadn't given him a Box Brownie camera when he was 10. An indifferent scholar, Lean became obsessed with still photography and the British and American movies he wasn't allowed to go and see.
At 13 he sneaked into the Scala on Croydon High Street to watch Ellie Norwood play Sherlock Holmes in Hound of the Baskervilles, and was blown away. "I had suddenly discovered life through the movies," he would later recall. Soon he was developing his own cine films and annoying his mother by hanging the negatives to dry in her sitting room.
When Lean came of age in the late 1920s, British cinema was booming and there were dozens of studios in and around London. He went to Gaumont, and offered to work a trial month without pay. He worked as a tea boy and clapper-boy before graduating to third assistant director, and by 1930 was editing cinema newsreels.
He was a brilliant editor, quick and meticulous, and through the 1930s and early 40s worked on dozens of films, including the Powell & Pressburger classics 49th Parallel and One of Our Aircraft is Missing. But his big break came in 1942 when Noel Coward hired him for In Which We Serve.
Coward had written and conceived this intelligent war-effort drama, but also planned to star in it and needed someone to help with directing.
"I had a lucky break," Lean would later say, "because Noel got terribly bored." Coward's young apprentice ended up shooting many of the action scenes in a film that became a box-office success and won an Oscar.
Lean and Coward hit it off, and subsequently adapted two of the writer's plays, This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit, for the screen before collaborating on Brief Encounter (1945), a light and subtle melodrama that would become an enduring classic.
It was a quintessentially British film, a stiff-upper-lipped antidote to the wild excesses of Hollywood and France. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson played a man and woman who meet at a railway station, fall madly in love, are both unhappily married but do not consummate their passion.
It was clipped and ironic, beautifully put together and full of exquisite silences where what wasn't said drowned out the polite niceties that were. I'm not a big fan of it but lots of people are, and Lean's direction of this slender, haunting story is sublime.
Next, Lean turned to Dickens, and really showed his stuff. Great Expectations (1946) was originally inspired by a stage version Lean had seen starring a young Alec Guinness. And while rendering the gothic excesses of Dickens' story on screen must have seemed a daunting challenge, Lean met it with imagination and vigour.
Read the opening pages of Dickens' novel and then turn to Lean's film, to see how perfectly he captures the orphan Pip's terror in the graveyard, and the monstrous appearance of Magwitch. Lean revelled in the story's morbidity, lovingly strewing the cobwebs around Miss Havisham's parlour and casting his camera across the gloomy expanses of the Thames Estuary.
Scottish actor Finlay Currie was unforgettable as the convict Magwitch, and Martita Hunt has become an unshakeable template for Miss Havisham. And while John Mills's ruddy-cheeked and bumptious Pip can be irksome, Alec Guinness is perfect as his effervescent friend Herbert Pocket. This, for me, is the finest Lean film.
Guinness took centre stage in 1948 when Lean turned his attention to Oliver Twist, playing the scheming East End vagabond Fagin who uses an army of street urchins to run his pickpocketing empire. Again the mood was Gothic, though with overtones of 1930s German expressionism, but Lean and Guinness landed themselves in hot water with their depiction of Fagin.
Director and actor set out to recreate the graphic Fagin of George Cruickshank's original 19th-century illustrations, complete with ragged stoop and hooked prosthetic nose, but this arch caricature was bound to cause unease in a film released just three years after the liberation of the Nazi death camps. Oliver Twist provoked riots in Germany, and was temporarily banned in America.
That said, Guinness's Fagin is a remarkable and not unsympathetic creation, who makes Oliver laugh and echoes the horrors the Kristallnacht when cornered by an angry mob. And Lean's film does not shrink from the darkness of Dickens' view of humanity. Producer David Puttnam remembered being traumatised for years by Nancy's murder scene.
In 1954, before he moved toward the broader stage and bigger canvases of Hollywood, Lean directed and produced a delightful and thoroughly British comedy of manners based on a play by Harold Brighouse. Charles Laughton was at his imperious best in Hobson's Choice, playing a drunken, overbearing Lancashire boot-maker who mercilessly bullies all around him and refuses to let his eldest daughter leave the shop to marry. The scenes where Lean's camera evokes Hobson's weaving drunkenness are sublime. In the mid-1950s, Lean teamed up with Sam Spiegel and Columbia Pictures to make Bridge on the River Kwai, and later Laurence of Arabia and Zhivago. He had big budgets, exotic locations and the glory of Technicolor and Panavision to play with. These instruments certainly enhanced the visual splendour of his projects, but at the expense, some argued, of their story lines, and essential humanity. Francois Truffaut dismissed Lean's later films as "Oscar packages", while his tormentor in chief, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, called his work "chocolate box" cinema, among other things.
Her scathing review of Ryan's Daughter is said to be one of the reasons why Lean stopping making films altogether for over a decade before returning to muted success in the 1980s with his final work, A Passage to India. But that movie seemed old-fashioned and fusty even at the time, especially compared to the vital, focused and astonishingly original films he'd made in his youth.
Five go wild in Kerry
In 1969, David Lean came to Kerry to shoot Ryan's Daughter, an ambitious project based on Flaubert's Madame Bovary but set during the Irish War of Independence. Not a bad idea, but Lean's plans would be beset by delays, bad weather and the conduct of his cast.
Trevor Howard laid it on pretty thick playing a parish priest, but spent most of his free time boozing and was briefly fired by Lean for hitting the sauce at lunchtime.
Lean's leading lady, Sarah Miles, was married to the film's screenwriter Robert Bolt. But the moment she laid eyes on Robert Mitchum she fell head over heels in love with him, and an affair began which did not exactly lighten the mood on set. Neither did Mitchum's fractious relationship with Lean. The Hollywood legend arrived in Kerry with a reputation as a hard-drinking brawler and womaniser, and during his lengthy stay did his level best not to disappoint. During frequent rain delays he had 'fancy women' flown in from London in groups for wild parties at his base in Milltown House, where his drinks bills became the stuff of legend.
By the end of the shoot, neither Mitchum nor Miles were talking to Lean, whose sprawling film was about to be gutted by the critics.