The last em­peror

He ran his film sets like a mil­i­tary com­man­der and was de­spised by both his lead­ing ac­tors and the film-mak­ers who suc­ceeded him. But Sir David Lean was also re­spon­si­ble for some of cin­ema’s great­est mo­ments, ar­gues Don­ald Clarke on the cen­te­nary of the d

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Film -

IS DAVID LEAN in need of some re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion? Surely not. One hun­dred years af­ter the English di­rec­tor’s birth, his films are still re­peated end­lessly on television. Pe­riod be­he­moths such as Lawrence of Ara­bia, Bridge on the River Kwai and Doc­tor Zhivago still crop up on bank-hol­i­day af­ter­noons.

English teach­ers con­tinue to screen Great Ex­pec­ta­tions and Oliver Twist for their stu­dents, and Brief En­counter, that sub­lime hymn to re­pres­sion, even crept back into cine­mas a few years ago. Only a hand­ful of fine, smaller films from Lean’s mid­dle pe­riod – The Pas­sion­ate Friends and Sum­mer­time among them – re­main in ob­scu­rity.

Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion? That’s crazy talk. When Sir David Lean died in 1991, he re­ceived a me­mo­rial ser­vice at Saint Paul’s Cathe­dral fit for a Re­nais­sance pope or a South Amer­i­can dic­ta­tor. Nelson and Welling­ton had a me­mo­rial ser­vice at Saint Paul’s and Lean was, him­self, a sort of mil­i­tary com­man­der, Hugh Hud­son, di­rec­tor of Char­i­ots of Fire, re­called re­cently. The ser­vice was a stag­ger­ing pro­duc­tion, it­self like Kwai or Lawrence. Out­side, the band of the Blues and Roy­als played mu­sic from Lawrence. Inside, two of his as­sis­tant di­rec- tors car­ried an Os­car each up the aisle, while his son car­ried his medals.

A gen­er­a­tion of Hol­ly­wood pro­duc­ers have ded­i­cated them­selves to repli­cat­ing the sweep and grandeur of his later epics. Glance at the films that won Os­cars dur­ing the 1980s and 1990s, and the di­rec­tor’s in­flu­ence is ev­ery­where ap­par­ent. The English Pa­tient, The Last Em­peror and Out of Africa all nod to­wards Lean’s work from the 1960s.

You be­gin to see the prob­lem. By the time of his death, Lean’s com­fort­able place in the es­tab­lish­ment – con­sider Hud­son’s com­ments con­cern­ing Nelson and Welling­ton – had led many younger film-mak­ers to view him as a sort of cin­e­matic Queen Mother. As the nat­u­ral­is­tic legacy of Karel Reisz and Lind­say An­der­son was taken up by men in duf­fel coats such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Lean’s his­tor­i­cal pageants be­gan to ap­pear in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant and overblown.

A Pas­sage to In­dia, Lean’s leaden adap­ta­tion of E M Forster’s barbed colo­nial mas­ter­piece, of­fers an au­dio-vis­ual pre­cis of the case against the old mas­ter. Stretched out to in­ter­minable length, the 1984 film sub­sti­tutes girth for depth, finds it ac­cept­able to black- up white ac­tors as In­di­ans and seems to pre­fer scenery to in­ci­dent. The cru­ellest thing one might say about the di­rec­tor’s last film is that it looks like an at­tempt by some lesser di­rec­tor to ape Lean’s style in pur­suit of an Academy Award. (As it hap­pened, though nom­i­nated for best pic­ture, A Pas­sage to In­dia lost out to Amadeus, an­other stereo­typ­i­cally flac­cid, award-friendly Big Movie.)

Al­fred Hitch­cock has never gone out of fash­ion. Michael Pow­ell, though ig­nored for much of his life­time, is now a holy fig­ure for stu­dents of Bri­tish film. Yet it is Lean, the only one of that trin­ity to win a best-di­rec­tor Os­car, who now finds his sta­tus in need of some ren­o­va­tion.

David Lean, born in Croy­don to a Quaker fam­ily, worked his way up from the bot­tom of the film in­dus­try. Orig­i­nally a tea-boy, he later be­came a clap­per­board op­er­a­tor, be­fore even­tu­ally es­tab­lish­ing him­self as an ed­i­tor of con­sid­er­able tal­ent. Whereas cin­e­matog­ra­phers such as Ni­co­las Roeg or Fred­die Francis do oc­ca­sion­ally take up the mega­phone, it is less com­mon for an ed­i­tor tomake it as a di­rec­tor.

In later years, Lean claimed he couldn’t un­der­stand how any di­rec­tor could func­tion with­out hav­ing trained as an ed­i­tor. In­deed, many crit­ics feel that, draw­ing on those early ex­pe­ri­ences, Lean men­tally cut the film to­gether while still on set. He loathed im­pro­vi­sa­tion and, as many ag­grieved ac­tors would at­test, was un­yield­ing in his ef­forts to re­alise each metic­u­lously plot­ted shot.

He even­tu­ally made the move into di­rect­ing through his as­so­ci­a­tion with Noël Coward. Lean nom­i­nally co-di­rected In Which We Serve (1942), a time­less saga of naval life dur­ing the sec­ond World War, with Coward, but, as the great man was play­ing a lead­ing role in the piece, his younger pro­tege ended up do­ing most of the leg work.

Scripts by Coward formed the ba­sis for sub­se­quent Lean films such as This Happy

Breed, Blithe Spirit and, most sig­nif­i­cantly, the ex­tra­or­di­nary Brief En­counter. De­tail­ing the (we think) un­con­sum­mated af­fair be­tween Celia John­son’s house­wife and Trevor Howard’s wry doc­tor, Brief En­counter has of­ten been de­rided as a soul­less ex­er­cise, but Lean’s abil­ity to sub­tly con­vey the coiled pas­sion be­neath the tweed and twill helps make some­thing mag­i­cal of this odd ro­mance.

Though Lean’s later films have their de­trac­tors, few crit­ics dare to raise their pens against the Charles Dick­ens adap­ta­tions that fol­lowed Brief En­counter. Great Ex­pec­ta­tions (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) show­case fine per­for­mances and fea­ture scripts that sum­marise the au­thor’s com­plex plots in neat pack­ages. But it is the limpid el­e­gance of Lean’s black-and-white images that es­tab­lish the pic­tures as un­al­loyed clas­sics of Bri­tish cin­ema.

A glimpse at the open­ing se­quences of both films – Pip’s en­counter with Mag­witch in Great Ex­pec­ta­tions; Oliver’s mother’s progress through a ram­pag­ing tem­pest – should dis­pel any sug­ges­tions that Lean was merely a tal­ented tech­ni­cian or an am­bi­tious strate­gist. Lean, when he al­lowed him­self, could de­liver a class of vis­ual po­etry that French snoots such as François Truf­faut thought be­yond English film-mak­ers.

For many, that taste for a tran­scen­dent im­age reached its height in 1962 when Omar Sharif and his camel took over two min­utes to make their way from the hazy hori­zon in Lawrence of Ara­bia. Look­ing at that ex­tra­or­di­nary film now, one is taken aback to find Alec Guin­ness and other con­spic­u­ous non-Arabs pulling on robes to play the lo­cal chief­tains. In­deed, critic David Thom­son re­cently sug­gested that such pa­tro­n­is­ing at­ti­tudes to the Arab world may have con­trib­uted to the back­lash that spurred the rise of al-Qaeda.

That noted, Lawrence of Ara­bia re­mains a near-per­fect blend of the per­sonal and the epic. The sex­ual and psy­cho­log­i­cal may­hem go­ing on be­hind Peter O’Toole’s acidic blue eyes is el­e­gantly mir­rored by the larger chaos of the colos­sal bat­tles tak­ing place amid the dunes. The film, for all its grandios­ity, re­mains an in­ti­mate epic.

If Lean had put away his di­rec­tor’s chair at this point, then no re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion would be nec­es­sary. Doc­tor Zhivago made a lot of money, but, ham­pered by a wooden per­for­mance from Sharif and a su­per­fi­cial adap­ta­tion of Boris Paster­nak’s com­plex novel, the film looks and feels a lit­tle too much like an epic Milk Tray com­mer­cial.

Mind you, the sav­age re­views of Ryan’s Daugh­ter, filmed in Din­gle dur­ing a win­try 1969, made Doc­tor Zhivago seem like a crit­i­cal smash. Lean has sug­gested that the mer­ci­less no­tices – Richard Schickel of Time mag­a­zine ad­mits us­ing the word “crap” when dis­cussing the pic­ture with its cre­ator – con­trib­uted to the 14 years of in­ac­tiv­ity that then fol­lowed.

Oth­ers note that the di­rec­tor’s in­creas­ing iras­ci­bil­ity tended to scare off po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tors. In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Alec Guin­ness, who worked with Lean on six oc­ca­sions, ad­mits that, ap­palled at the di­rec­tor’s later bel­liger­ence, he thought long and hard be­fore at­tend­ing that me­mo­rial ser­vice. Julie Christie, the fe­male lead in Zhivago, point­edly stayed away.

Yet, for all the marks against him, David Lean still man­aged to di­rect five or six of the most durable of Bri­tish films. With­out his ex­am­ple, Steven Spiel­berg, who fre­quently names Lawrence as his favourite film, might never have made it as a di­rec­tor. On bal­ance, that would, surely, have been a bad thing. Sir David Lean, b. March 25, 1908; d. April 16, 1991

Brief En­counter: a sub­lime hymn to re­pres­sion

Ryan’s Daugh­ter: has been called “crap”

Bridge on the River Kwai: still dis­con­cert­ing

Oliver Twist: a clas­sic of Bri­tish cin­ema

Lawrence of Ara­bia: an in­ti­mate epic

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