David Lean

Alec Guinness in his Academy Award winning performance of Colonel Nicholson in David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Alec Guinness in his Academy Award winning performance of Colonel Nicholson in David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

  • Born:  1908
  • Died:  1991
  • Rank:  7
  • Score:  873.60
  • Awards:  2 Oscars / 2 DGA / 3 Golden Globes / 3 NYFC / 4 NBR
  • Nominations:  7 Oscars / 4 DGA / BAFTA / 4 Golden Globes
  • Feature Films:  16
  • Best:  The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Worst:  The Passionate Friends

Top 10 Feature Films:

  1. The Bridge on the River Kwai – 1957
  2. Lawrence of Arabia – 1962
  3. A Passage to India – 1984
  4. Dr. Zhivago – 1965
  5. Brief Encounter – 1945
  6. Great Expectations – 1946
  7. In Which We Serve – 1942
  8. Oliver Twist – 1948
  9. Hobson’s Choice – 1954
  10. The Sound Barrier – 1952

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1943 – 3rd – In Which We Serve
  • 1946 – 5th – Brief Encounter
  • 1947 – 2nd – Great Expectations
  • 1951 – 5th – Oliver Twist
  • 1952 – 6th – The Sound Barrier
  • 1954 – 8th – Hobson’s Choice
  • 1957 – 1st – The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • 1962 – 1st – Lawrence of Arabia
  • 1965 – 1st – Dr. Zhivago
  • 1970 – 8th – Ryan’s Daughter
  • 1984 – 2nd – A Passage to India

In spite of the fact most of his films were made before 4 of the 6 major critics groups were giving awards, that the BAFTA didn’t have a Best Director category through most of his career (it is now named after him) and that several of his best films were made before the DGA started handing out awards, it is especially impressive that David Lean ranks third all-time in Awards points.  That makes it all the more strange that his critical reputation is nowhere near as high.

Just look at the same of the usual suspects; Andrew Sarris: “Now that Lean has been enshrined in the various Academies, whatever artistic sensibility he once possessed is safely embalmed in the tomb of the impersonal cinema”; David Thomson: “I am more than ever of the opinion that Lean became lost in the sense of his own pictorial grandeur”; Richard Shickel: “How could the man who made Brief Encounter come up with a piece of shit like Ryan’s Daughter?” (this last quote was actually said to Lean).

Ryan’s Daughter came in for a particularly brutal savaging.  The National Society of Film Critics invited him to a luncheon at the Algonquin, then proceeded to rip him to shreds, lead by Shickel and Pauline Kael.  Lean was so battered from this that he didn’t make another film for fourteen years.  I don’t care how good a critic you have ever been, how witty, how much you know about film.  I’d rather have 14 years of Lean films than every critic put together.  And while the critics may have been taking him apart, there are many who love his films.

Look at the results.  He won Best Picture and Best Director twice.  Not barely, either.  Both Bridge and Lawrence won the Oscar, the BAFTA and the Golden Globe.  Bridge also won the NYFC and NBR.  Both films swept Best Director.  While one critic complained in the first line of a review of Dr. Zhivago “When a director dies, he becomes a photographer.”  Yet, Dr. Zhivago was nominated for Best Picture and won at the Globes.  Today, in spite of what the critics want to say, 4 of Lean’s films are in the top 11 of BFI’s list of the top British films of all-time (Lean is the most prolific director with 7 films in the top 100).  In fact, Lawrence and Bridge at one time were in the top 20 for both the BFI and the AFI (Bridge was lower in the latest version but still in the top 40).  Both countries want to claim them as being among the best in film history.

David Lean is probably the first earlier great director that I came into contact with in the course of learning to love film in the late eighties.  There of course were great directors around at the time (notably Spielberg), but Lean had already made his last film before I had any interest in film.  But I became aware of Bridge and learned early on how great a film it was.  Then I learned about Lean’s early work and how truly great a film-maker he was.  It surprised me later on when I began to read such venom against him because there was no director ever better at approaching the epic, but he had long before proved that he could make a small intimate film just as well.

Look at the films if you still doubt.  It begins with In Which We Serve, where he co-directed with Noel Coward (prior to this he was a editor, learning how to put together a film in much the same way that the Coens were).  His next three films were all based on Coward plays, all interested in British life.  With Brief Encounter he hit a home run, getting his first Oscar nomination and establishing himself as a name director in both Britain and the States.  After that came Great Expectations, still the best film ever made from a Dickens novel and then came Oliver Twist, delayed in the States due to the material.  With the latter two films he made a star out of Alec Guinness and began one of the most fruitful actor / director collaborations.

If there was ever a mis-step in his career it was in his films with Ann Todd when they were married.  His next two films, Passionate Friends and Madeleine are his weakest films, though Friends is saved somewhat by one of those great Claude Rains performances.  Next up came The Sound Barrier, a very good film noted mainly for Ralph Richardson being the first person to win the NYFC Best Actor and not get nominated for an Oscar (it wouldn’t happen again for 25 years).  Then there was Hobson’s Choice, a fantastic comedy with great performances from Charles Laughton and the always dependable John Mills.  After that came another Oscar nomination for Summertime.

Then he took to the epics.  And he really took to them.  Bridge on the River Kwai swept all the awards (sweeping Picture, Actor and Director from all the groups and winning 7 out of 8 Oscars).  Then came Lawrence of Arabia, the film that made a young Steven Spielberg want to be a director, the film that won 7 out of 10 Oscars, that currently sits at #7 on the AFI list and #3 on the BFI list.  But even then, critics were starting to complain about the direction that he was taking.  The complaints became louder with the release of Dr. Zhivago, one of the great romantic epics of all-time which got yet another Best Picture nomination (winning 5 Oscars and 5 Globes).  Then came Ryan’s Daughter, which still earned Oscars for John Mills and for the cinematography.  But the complaints were too much and Lean stopped.  He lived 21 more years and only made one more film (the brilliant A Passage to India which earned him Best Director from the NYFC and NBR yet again — he is the only 4 time NBR winner).  His hopes to make a version of Mutiny on the Bounty ended up being passed off and he didn’t live to make his version of Nostromo and it is the lovers of film who pay.  But what we do have is the 16 films he did make.  And I, for one, treasure them.

The Bridge on the River Kwai – #1 film of 1957

There is so much in doubt.  The IMdB claims in one spot that Charles Laughton turned the part down because he didn’t know how to do it and in another spot that he turned it down because of the heat in Ceylon.  Alec Guinness used to claim that Lean greeted him at the Colombo Airport and said his choice was Laughton.  But Lean fervently denied it, insisting it was a false rumor started by Elsa Lanchester and that he never would have considered Laughton for the role.

Then there is the question of the screenplay.  The original screen credit (and Oscar) went to Pierre Boulle, the author of the original novel.  Except that Boulle didn’t speak a word of English.  The Academy eventually gave Oscars to Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson for their actual work on the script (they had been blacklisted at the time).  Yet, Lean claimed that both of Foreman’s versions of the script were rubbish and “there isn’t a single word of Foreman’s in the picture.”  Lean claimed that he wrote most of the script and eventually got Wilson to help him so he could focus on filming (and because he didn’t think he could write the dialogue for the American) and that the screen credit was supposed to say “By Michael Wilson and David Lean.”  Yet, the IMdB won’t list Lean as a writer because the WGA has determined the credits for the film and they are locked (for more on Lean’s side of the story read David Lean by Stephen M. Silverman, page 119).

Then there was the actual filming.  Lean almost drowned.  He terrorized the cast and crew.  He and Guinness fought constantly and agreed on almost nothing (this did not stop Guinness from being in three more Lean films in later years).  Lean and his producer, Sam Spiegel fought about the cost, the crew and almost anything else they could possibly fight about.  The assistant director was killed in a car crash.  The film was going to be long and it was going to be expensive.

But it was also a runaway success story.  It made $27 million at the box office (good enough for 8th all-time in 1957 and adjusted for inflation is about $390 million).  It became the first film to ever win the Oscar, the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, the NYFC and the NBR.  It won so many other awards (sweeping Actor and Director, winning the NBR for Supporting Actor) that the only comparable film in awards success is Schindler’s List.  The soundtrack became a best seller and ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’ suddenly was revived as a worldwide classic.  When the film was shown on television in 1966 (the longest show ever aired at just over three hours) it was watched by some 60 million viewers.

There is a reason for all the acclaim.  It is quite simply a great film.  One of the greatest (I rank it in the top 10 all-time).  Even if you have never seen it, there are moments which have become part of broader culture.  There is the whistling of ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’ as the soldiers walk into the camp.  There is the actual train wreck (used so well by Stephen Colbert for his Richard Branson interview).  There is James Donald, with the final line “Madness.  Madness.”  It is the only fitting end to the film and it ranks among the best endings to any film.

There are the performances.  William Holden was billed first because he was the “star,” and he fits the bill.  There is no better actor for playing the cynic with just the slightest amount of real emotion hidden behind the sneer, the same kind of performance he had mastered in Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17, one step away from being a truly cold cynical bastard.  Then there is Alec Guinness in his Oscar winning role, absolutely deserved, played with a quiet dignity, yet underlined with a hard intensity.  There is Sessue Hayakawa, talked out of retirement to do the film and getting Oscar nominated (he should have won).  There is James Donald as the camp doctor who can only observe the quiet insanity which seems to run through all of these other men.  There is Jack Hawkins, one of those great actors whom the British knew to be a national treasure, but who never really found the right roles in the States (other examples of this type of actor, often nominated for BAFTA’s, especially in the 50’s, were John Mills and Anthony Quayle).

There are the technical aspects.  The Editing won an Oscar for the way they balance the two stories, even when you start to forget that there is another part of the story after Holden’s escape from the camp, and it gets especially good towards the end as it must bounce back and forth quickly between all the participants.  There is the Cinematography, the great work in the jungle, with the brilliant bridge scenes, the sunset, the train, all unforgettable shots.  There are the special effects, because they only had one chance to get that bridge scene right and they nailed it.

What can I say after all?  I can’t really complain too much about the Academy Awards.  After all, they gave Best Picture and Best Director to Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.  They knew what they were doing better than many of the most influential critics.

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