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
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