Favourite Film Directors Part 4: David Lean

The other day I was waiting in for a repairman to come and fix something. He was due sometime between 12 and 6pm so I nipped out early, did my shopping, returned home for a late breakfast and settled down to wait. I flipped on the TV and was pleasantly surprised to see the film Hobson’s Choice about to start. Hobson’s Choice was directed by David Lean and it just so happened that the previous night, sorting out various bits and pieces, I came across a lovely book about David by his widow Sandra so without further ado I thought it must be the perfect time to write a post about another of my favourite directors.

David was born in 1908 and spent his early life in Croydon (actually 38 Blenheim Crescent, Croydon) until his parents divorced. His father moved out and left the family in 1923 which must have been an upsetting moment in Lean’s young life. Another perhaps more significant moment was when an uncle gave him a camera when David was aged 10 and then Lean began to develop and print his own photographs.

In her book, David Lean: An Intimate Portrait, by Sandra Lean, his widow tells us that David was considered a ‘dud’ at school and his headmistress wondered whether he would even be able to read and write.

When he left school he began work as an apprentice at his father’s accountancy firm and at night spent his spare time at the cinema. The Gaumont film studios were nearby and Lean managed to get himself employment there starting out as a tea boy. He later became a clapperboy and gradually rose up to become a newsreel editor.

Later Lean moved on to editing feature films and was asked to work with Noel Coward on In Which We Serve. David asked to be credited as a co director on the film and Coward wasn’t too keen at first but eventually gave way. According to an interview with Lean I saw many years ago, Noel Coward soon became bored with the process of directing the film and mostly left the job to David.

Lean directed other adaptations of Coward’s plays including Blithe Spirit, filmed in colour and the highly regarded Brief Encounter, the latter winning grand prix honours at the 1946 Cannes film festival. The atmospheric exterior shots of Brief Encounter were filmed at Carnforth Railway Station in Lancashire which still exists today.

Lean married six times and three of his films featured his third wife Anne Todd. The last of the films with Todd was The Sound Barrier made in 1952 which has a screenplay by the playwright Terence Rattigan.

Hobson’s Choice, the film I mentioned earlier, is a film that shows a different side to David Lean. It’s a character driven comedy made in 1954 with excellent performances from Charles Laughton and Brenda De Banzie and a world away from the epics that David Lean later became famous for. It was hugely enjoyable to watch and one tends to forget that in his earlier years Lean made many films of a similar nature. His reputation though, at least in part, stems from a series of epics the director made starting with The Bridge on the River Kwai and including Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and his final film which he directed, edited and wrote the screenplay for, A Passage to India.

His great collaborators were Robert Bolt who wrote and rewrote many of the screenplays used in Lean’s films, John Box his art director and production designer and Maurice Jarre who wrote the musical score for all Lean’s films from Lawrence of Arabia to his final film A Passage to India.

Sandra Lean muses that perhaps because of his parents’ divorce, David lived mostly in a series of hotels and a few rarely visited houses. He declared that ‘I have four shirts, two suitcases and the Rolls. I need no other possessions or a home’. In his later life he bought a warehouse property named Sun Wharf, situated on the banks of the river Thames at Limehouse in the east end of London. Architects, builders and decorators were brought in and the property was transformed by David, almost as if he were building a set for a new film. A similar thing happened to a property he and Sandra bought in France.

In 1970 he made Ryan’s Daughter. It’s personally not one of my favourite films and it’s hard to see why David Lean was so interested in the story. It is set in Ireland during the time of the First World War and tells the story of a married Irish woman played by Sarah Miles, (who was actually the wife of the screen writer, Robert Bolt) who has an affair with a British officer. Robert Mitchum played her husband but the only really outstanding performance was that of Sarah Miles. Many critics felt that the small scale romantic story did not fit with the film’s massive visual scale and long running time.

The film did however win two Oscars for cinematographer Freddie Young and supporting actor John Mills. The poor reception of the film prompted David to meet with the New York critics at the city’s Algonquin Hotel. I’m not sure if David wanted to reason with them or just find out why they didn’t like the film but they spent two hours attacking his production. David came away devastated and would not make a film again until A Passage to India in 1984.

He did try to make another film prior to A Passage to India. He was very interested in the story of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh and the mutiny on board the Bounty. He spent a few years living in Tahiti researching and making preparations for the film which included overseeing the construction of a replica of the Bounty but when Robert Bolt suffered a stroke and was unable to continue working on the script David backed out of the project. Producer Dino De Laurentis had ploughed a lot of money into the production and he agreed that a new director, Roger Donaldson, a friend of star Mel Gibson, could continue in David’s place. The film was later released as The Bounty.

In the late 1980’s David began to work on his last film, Nostromo, an adaptation of the novel by Joseph Conrad. Various scripts were produced including one by Robert Bolt. Sets were built and a budget of 46 million dollars was allocated but sadly, David Lean succumbed to throat cancer in 1991 and the production collapsed.

His work, in particular his sweeping visual style, inspired a new generation of film makers including Steven Spielberg who took over another unfinished project of David’s, Empire of the Sun.

In Sandra Lean’s book she tries hard to get at David Lean’s inner self; his actual character. He was apparently a man who accepted that some people would go out of his life and that would be that; they would be gone just like a cut in a piece of film. Once people were cut out, like his previous wives, he would never look back but whatever he was like, he was someone committed to motion pictures and Sandra quotes a speech given by Celia Johnson from In Which We Serve, in which she thinks if we substitute ships for film, we might get a true understanding of the man.

In 1987 Lawrence of Arabia was restored by film restoration expert Robert A Harris. David heard about the project and rushed to assist. Producer Don Siegel had cut elements out of the film to reduce its running time and Lean felt that now was the time to restore them. The producers could hardly say no to David Lean.

It just so happens that I have that restored version on DVD so as I’m feeling rather chilly on this December afternoon writing this, I might just dig out my copy, make a cup of tea and give it a viewing, or should I go for Blithe Spirit, the wonderfully witty play filmed by David Lean in 1945?

Which David Lean film would you watch?


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