writer, and producer David Lean grew up in a strict religious background
in which movies were forbidden -he was to become one of the world's
most celebrated filmmakers.
David Lean was born
in Croydon into a Quaker family.
His father, an accountant, came from a long line of distinguished
Quaker schoolmasters, and was disappointed when his elder son showed
a marked lack of academic ability, finding it difficult to learn to
read and write. In 1922 David failed his 'Common Entrance examination'
but family connections gained him a place at Leighton Park, a Quaker
school in Reading, where his interests in nature and photography were
encouraged. The school also allowed David to visit the cinema, which
had been forbidden at home.
In 1923 David Lean's parents separated and when he left school in
1926 he tried to study accountancy to please his mother. However an
aunt pointed out that he had no aptitude for that work and an evident
passion for cinema and suggested that he should be allowed to see
whether he could make a living in film production. He started working
at Gaumont in 1927, first as a tea boy and later as a clapperboy and
messenger, before becoming an editor of newsreel footage in 1930 and
of feature films in 1934. David Lean began his career as a director
in 1942 with 'In Which We Serve', which he co-directed with Noel Coward.
His next three films were adaptations of Coward pieces, including
'Steam ... cut-glass accents ... Rachmaninov's
2nd Piano Concerto ... the refreshment room at Milford Junction ...
"the shame of the whole thing - the guiltiness, the fear ...'
all adds up to David Lean's famous film treatment of the Noel Coward
tale of love blossoming and withering at a suburban railway station.
Laura Jesson is a complacent middle-class housewife who gets a piece
of grit in her eye one day and is helped by Doctor Alec Harvey, and
the romance begins...we know the story...The film was nominated for
three Academy Awards and won the prize at Cannes.
After considerable success with intimate small scale dramas and two
adaptations of Dickens novels, Lean turned to the epic with 'The Bridge
on the River Kwai' in 1957, and 'Lawrence of Arabia' in 1962 , winning
Oscars for both films. Both of these films receive full treatment
in the films section of the website so I won’t go into detail.
'Doctor Zhivago' (1965) was next on the list, a complex romance about
life in Russia before and during the revolution, opened to mixed reviews
but went on to become one of the top-grossing movies of the '60s,
despite a three-hour running time. With an armload of Oscars behind
him from his three most recent pictures, with combined box office
earnings of as much as 300 million dollars, Lean was established as
one of the top "money" directors of the decade.
An interesting aside, 'Lawrence of Arabia' also marked the beginning
of Lean's long association with the playwright Robert Bolt who also
wrote the screenplays for Dr Zhivago (1965) and Ryan's Daughter (1970).
Ryans Daughter (1970) was a departure from what the public/critics
had expected of David Lean. He was savaged by the critics after pouring
vast stores of time, energy and devotion into this production. After
Lean's previous epics, everyone was certain that, with all the time
and money that went into this film, and with its lengthy running time,
it would simply have to be a similar type of show. When people bring
such expectations to a movie and are confronted with something so
daringly different, they often focus on what they didn't see and miss
the virtue of the picture they saw. This film is too 'slow', too absorbed
with the subtle dynamics of the interaction between its characters
for a viewer who is burning to see vast battle scenes, mighty parades
and mobs of extras caught up in violent historical struggles - Lean
in past times. It won two Oscars and was nominated for another 19
Lean's final work, an adaptation of E.M.Forster's ‘A Passage
to India’ (1984) is an excellent legacy to one of the finest
British directors…period. Ok so it’s a little slow at
times and if I see one critic wondering about the casting of Sir Alec,
I can see ten…but Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Judy David give first-class
performances and Victor Banerjee hits just the right note as Aziz.
So it’s not Lawrence ,or Kwai or Brief but we shouldn’t
judge films in comparative ways. In many ways, ‘A Passage to
India’ presents a clearer picture of India straining under the
imperial rule of Great Britain than ‘Gandhi’ does. It
is a film well worth watching.
Sir David was married six times and also conducted a series of affairs,
often with women he was working with. Each relationship began intensely,
but when Lean ceased to be interested and found a new object for his
passion, he cut people out of his life as though they no longer existed.
He met Barbara Cole-Beale in 1961 when she was working as a continuity
girl on Lawrence of Arabia and he was married to his fourth wife Leila
Matkar. Their affair continued until 1966 when Lean, still married
to Leila, left Barbara for Sandra Hotz who would eventually, in 1981,
become his fifth wife.
David Lean was made ‘Sir David’ in 1984 around the time
of ‘A passage to India’. At the time of his death from
cancer in 1991 he was working on a film of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo.
He was aged 82 and had devoted his life to forwarding British film
and filmmaking - he had suceeded.