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Top Film Directors-David Lean

Updated on August 26, 2013

Great Directors-David Lean

David Lean - Early Days

David Lean was born in Croydon, England in 1908. His career in film started at a relatively early age when he discovered his talents as a film editor for Gaumont British Pictures. He was but 22 years old and already showing a talent for cutting tape, splicing scenes and generally improving the quality of the movies on which he worked.

He also screen tested a number of times as an actor but did not pursue this path; preferring instead being on the other side of he camera.

He worked as an editor for a number of years on low-budget movies before he was given opportunities to work on movies with a better budget. In 1938 he edited Pygmalion directed by Anthony Asquith and followed this by editing Major Barbara in 1940.

He was only 33 years old when he got his first opportunity to direct on the Noel Coward movie, 'In Which We Serve'.

Coward, by nature a social creature, had listened intently to Lord Mountbatten at a party, telling his guests all about his experiences as the captain of HMS Kelly during wartime.

Coward was enthralled by the story and felt that it would make a good movie. He wrote the screenplay and put himself in the main role. David Lean was asked to co-direct with Coward.

The movie was a huge wartime success with Coward accepting all the plaudits with barely any reference to Lean's direction. In fact, Coward had left all of the direction to Lean as he concentrated on his acting and the development of the screenplay as the movie was in production.

In Which We Serve has stood the test of time as one of the best British war movies and for the first time we see some of Lean's signature direction, wide shots, atmospheric lighting and the use of music to enhance the visual elements of a movie.

In spite of Coward's failure to recognise Lean's direction in this movie, they went on to work together on Lean's next three movies- Lean as director and Coward as writer.

Poster for David Lean's Brief Encounter
Poster for David Lean's Brief Encounter
Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson
Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson
Howard and Johnson -close and yet so far
Howard and Johnson -close and yet so far

David Lean - This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter

In Which We Serve had good box office success in the UK and this gave both Coward and Lean more opportunities to make movies together.

Between 1944 and 1946, David Lean directed three movies written by Noel Coward; all of them were very successful movies, though all quite different. Whilst the theme of wartime remains at the forefront of This Happy Breed, the next movie, Blithe Spirit would be called a rom-com today and was also a theatrical success for Coward. Lean gives Blithe Spirit the light touch it needed but for his next movie, Brief Encounter, he turned up the intensity and again, built upon his desire to make a movie a 'visual' experience.

Coward was the king of dialogue; he was famous for his witty repartee and this made Blithe Spirit an enjoyable romantic comedy but he was also famous for tight, telling dialogue and he used this skill to full effect in David Lean's next movie, Brief Encounter.

Brief Encounter has a wonderful script but it is David Lean's experimentation which gives this movie a visual grandeur never before seen in any of his movies.

He tempted us with his long shot of London in the opening scene of This Happy Breed, evenutally tracking to the front door of the Gilbert's home but in Brief Encounter he gave us the minutiae of the station tea room, of a man and woman's longing, of her hand wanting to touch his hand but not daring, Lean then gives us the sweep of the station platform, amazing music, atmospheric lighting, Celia Johnson's face in close up. You were completely taken into the world of these two lovers and you felt her loss. It was not just about the dialogue any more - David Lean gave you 'the bigger picture'. If that final scene doesn't touch your heart, then nothing will.

Poster for David Lean's Great Expectations
Poster for David Lean's Great Expectations | Source
Poster for David Lean's Oliver Twist
Poster for David Lean's Oliver Twist | Source

David Lean, Charles Dickens and Alec Guinness

After Brief Encounter, David Lean chose a very different writer for his next movie- Charles Dickens.

He chose one of Dicken's best novels, Great Expectations, and was reunited with John Mills, this time in the lead role as Pip. Mills was joined by Alec Guinness in the role of Herbert Pocket. They would work together often, both men respecting one another's talents, even if sometimes they were not always friends.

David Lean adapted the screenplay himself. This was his first venture into writing as well as directing and editing and it wouldn't be his last.

The movie continues Lean's habit of creating memorable opening scenes; this time we have the Kent marshes and the sadness and desperate boy, Pip out alone near the graveyard.

David Lean seemed to enjoy making the opening scenes of his movies a feast for the cinema-goers eyes. This would become his stamp - visual impact.

He went on to make Oliver Twist after Great Expectations, again choosing Guinness as the central character, Fagin.

Both movies serve as good examples of a director attempting to convey a sense of the author's intent. We are sold the idea of Dicken's Victorian, squalid world and of the sad, needy people who inhabit it. David Lean chooses atmosphere over dialogue again - but we all get the point, we feel the desperation, poverty and desolation before anyone has told don't tell!

DAvid Lean's Hobson's Choice
DAvid Lean's Hobson's Choice
KAtharine Hepburn - Summer Madness
KAtharine Hepburn - Summer Madness

David Lean - Quieter Times

David Lean folded his small production company in 1946 and had to make films for other producers for the next few years.

In spite of his success with Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, which certainly showed his talents for working with historical themes, he went on to make two less successful movies, The Passionate Friends and Madeleine in 1948 and 1949. Both starred his third wife, Anne Todd but were not commercially successful. He made The Sound Barrier for Alexander Korda which enjoyed box office success and was more cinematic in scale. As such, it marked a return to films which had a greater emotional depth. These were clearly the types of movies Lean favoured. His next three movies (among them were Hobson's Choice) show him honing his skills without a lot of major success. John Mills starred again in Hobson's Choice (Lean liked to work with certain actors as his movies show) but it was his filming of Summer Madness, starring Katharine Hepburn which provided him with his own personal turning point in movie making.

The movie was shot entirely on the streets and canals of Venice. This type of 'on location' filming was a revelation to David Lean. He was inspired by the cinematic possibilities of working outside in real locations with real weather, light, heat etc. He would never again make a movie completely on a studio set.

Alec Guinness
Alec Guinness
Poster for David Lean's Bridge On The River Kwai
Poster for David Lean's Bridge On The River Kwai

Bridge On The River Kwai

David Lean actually made Bridge On The River Kwai almost by accident.

He had planned to make another movie, The Wind Cannot Read, with Alexander Korda but they could not seem to agree on the script. Sadly, Korda died in 1956 and Lean entered into discussions to make Bridge On The River Kwai.

The film was made entirely on location in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) and again teamed Lean up with Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, the man in charge of a brigade of POWs building the bridge, little knowing it was to be destroyed by Allied bombers. Rumour has it that although Lean admired Guinness immensely as an actor he was not convinced that Guinness should play Nicholson. He was talked round by the movie's producer, Sam Spiegel and Guinness also went onto Oscar success.

Bridge On The River Kwai remains one of David Lean's most cinematic movies - it is epic in scale in a way that none of his previous films were and it would become a touchstone of sorts for all of his later films - all of them would need to live up to its grandeur.

The movie gained David Lean his first Oscar and altogether won 7 oscars in addition to other awards.

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia
Omar Sharif
Omar Sharif

Lawrence Of Arabia

David Lean's next movie, and often described as his materpiece was Lawrence of Arabia.

It was shot on location in Jordan, Morocco and Spain.

For the first time, David Lean worked with the cinematographer, Freddie Young - it was to be the start of a wonderful, creative relationship.

Lawrence of Arabia also had Robert Bolt as the screenwriter (although Michael Wilson also wrote parts of the script) and Maurice Jarre providing the score.

David Lean returns in this movie to amazing scenery, atmosphere, dialogue and music. His favourite themes of flawed main characters (like Colonel Nicholson, Fagin, Pip) inhabiting real life scenes (deserts, marshes, the rolling oceans) comes right to the fore in Lawrence of Arabia.

An amazing cast headed by Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins take the cinema goer on an amazing adventure. It is a long movie but it doesn't seem long because Lean keeps us en thrall in almost every scene.

We see Lawrence's death first and then his life is seen in flashbacks, all the grander of the amazing sand dunes (which Lean had painted because they were not the right colour), the distant horizons and a rip-roaring story of T.E. Lawrence as some kind of saviour.

Lots of argument has gone on about what Lawrence was really like since the movie was first made. Indeed, the real man seems to have been far more complex (and somewhat unpleasant if stories are to be believed) but the film is a true masterpiece - it has stood the test of time.

Julie Christie as the beautiful Lara
Julie Christie as the beautiful Lara
Omar Sharif
Omar Sharif

Doctor Zhivago

Dr Zhivago was not produced by Sam Spiegel. David Lean's relationship with Spiegel had cooled under the pressure of directing a masterpiece which cost a lot of money. Lean was becoming a notorious perfectionist as well. He would wait not for days, but months for the perfect sunset and all of that waiting, often a period of idling for the cast and crew, cost money.

Carlo Ponti produced the movie - Lean's return to a romantic theme, based on Boris Pasternak's novel.

Amazing crowd scenes, wonderful snowscapes, a truly romantic epic tale and two extremely attractive lead actors in Julie Christie and Omar Sharif meant the movie was a huge box office success.

It is a movie of cinematic splendour with an amazing score and a theme song which is still popular today.

Julie Christie, its beautiful English actress plays Lara to perfection. She would play another beautiful, haunted heroine, Bathsheba, two years later in Thomas Hardy's Far From The Madding Crowd.

Omar Sharif had a long, distinguished career throughout the sixties and seventies, also starring with Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl but he never again starred in a better movie than Dr Zhivago, it remains a classic.

Poster for David Lean's Ryan's Daughter
Poster for David Lean's Ryan's Daughter
Sarah Miles
Sarah Miles
John Mills collected an Oscar for his role as the village idiot, Michael.
John Mills collected an Oscar for his role as the village idiot, Michael.

Opening Scenes of Ryan's Daughter

Ryan's Daughter

David Lean's next movie, Ryan's Daughter was made in 1970, five years after Doctor Zhivago.

Essentially, Ryan's Daughter was a retelling of Flaubert's Madame Bovary, set in Ireland immediately after the Easter Rising in 1916.

John Mills returns, along with Trevor Howard to star alongside Robert Mitchum (in a very different role for him). The film is again, a feast for the eyes, the opening sequence grabs your attention with a slow, tracking shot over the Irish hills, the darkness rising to show the day.

Maurice Jarre worked with Lean on the score and again, Freddie Young was Lean's trusted cinematographer.

Sarah Mlies gives a wonderfully naive, vulnerable performance as the young, sexually-frustrated bride of Robert Mitchum and her affair with the young British soldier takes place against a background of ill feeling towards the British brought to stamp down the Irish rebellion. The love scenes were considered quite risque for their time and in many respects the movie took on controversial themes.

Ryan's Daughter was not without its problems, even if the finished movie belies this. Robert Mitchum was having personal problems just as they were due to begin the shoot and had to be cajoled into making the movie. Lean's original casting ideas (Marlon Brando and Alec Guinness were both selected for roles but turned him down) fell through and he selected Christopher Jones to play the soldier, Randolph Doryan, with whom Rosie (Sarah Miles) falls in love. Jones, as it turned out was shorter than Lean had remembered him and his voice was also quite high pitched. In the movie, his voice is overdubbed by another actor.

Robert Mitchum is reported to have said "working with David Lean as like building the Taj Mahal out of toothpicks." but he admitted later that he considered Ryan's Daughter to be one of his best movies.

It was made on the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland and an entire village was built by the crew out of stone because the houses already in the village looked on the point of collapse. Due to the Irish weather, some of the beach scenes were filmed in Cape Town, South Africa and it seems to have been a labour of love for both cast and crew but the finished movie is another of David Lean's masterpieces.

In spite of his vision and his belief in the movie, it was not well-received and he didn't make another movie for another 14 years.

Poster for A Passage To India
Poster for A Passage To India | Source
Peggy Ashcroft-an Oscar winner, aged 77
Peggy Ashcroft-an Oscar winner, aged 77
Judy Davis - nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Judy Davis - nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

A Passage To India

A Passage to India was based on the novel by E.M. Forster but also used the dramatisation of the novel by Santha Rama Rau to create the screenplay. Robert Bolt was again responsible for the screenplay.

David Lean gives us a wonderful cinematic portrait of India and as the movie is set during a turbulent period in the history of the raj, he has an amazing story to tell.

Judy Davis' portrait of Miss Quested lead to her being nominated for an Oscar and Peggy Ashcroft's tempered portrayal of Mrs Moore saw her win the Oscar at the age of 77, the oldest actress to do so.

David Lean had tried to buy the rights to Forster's novel in 1960 because he knew the story would make a good movie but Forster did not believe that movies were a good thing and he would not sell the rights. A Passage To India was always on David Lean's radar and it looks like a movie directed by a man in love with its story. He believed in the story, the characters and the setting.

The movie was a huge hit at the box office and was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. Although it only won 2, it remains another of Lean's masterpieces.

Once again he gives us a grandeur in scale, vibrant epic scenery but, and here is Lean's greatest gift, he gives us a humane tale, a story of vulnerable, weak, emotional human beings struggling against the tumult of the times.

It is as grand as Lawrence Of Arabia but also as subtle in human terms as Brief Encounter.

David Lean, more often than not, gave the viewing public what they wanted - great, interesting stories of flawed human beings told against a background of torturous, difficult times.

A Passage to India was his last movie.

I'm not sure if anyone since has achieved as much as he has as a director.


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    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      9 years ago from North-East UK

      Mohan, thanks for your comment. He certainly knew how to create 'epic' movies.

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 

      9 years ago from UK

      This is a great hub on one of my favorite directors and someone who has inspired many of the current film directors... I cannot forget my wide eyed enthusiasm when I first watched lawrence of arabia, DR Zhivago or A passage to India- he defined 'sweeping epics'. well done Julie- voted up/ shared.

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      9 years ago from North-East UK

      GoodLady, thanks for your kind comment. Ryan's Daughter is a good movie isn't it? David Lean couldn't really fail if he had a good story to follow and Madame Bovary is one of the best.

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      9 years ago from Rome, Italy

      That's an amazing Hub, so informing. Good, easy to read and follow. One of my favourite films has always been Ryan's Daughter (had no idea it was a Madame Bovary). I know a little about American director's but not much about our own British ones - so this was nice.



    • Robwrite profile image


      9 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Great director! He's made so many great films. "Lawrence of Arabia" is my personal favorite of his but he really does make lots of quality films. He's not some hack like Michael Bay. This guy knows how to make a terrific films.

      Excellent tribute to a fantastic director;


    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      9 years ago from North-East UK

      Steve, I still have a loft full of movie books - I used to collect them when I was younger but I haven't read 'Beyond The Epic', I found it on Google by chance. I have just had a Google bought for me for Christmas but I prefer movie books in print for the colour photos.

      Thanks for commenting

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      9 years ago from North-East UK

      Flora, I think I have seen Major Barbara but it was a long time ago. I have seen all of his films and Bridge On The River Kwai remains very watchable even all these years later. I think the cinematography on his movies is second to none.

      Thanks for commenting.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 

      9 years ago from Manchester, England

      Excellent work on one of my favourite directors Jools.

      I read that book you listed up there - Beyond the Epic. Very good and packed with info on all his films.

      My favourite of his films is Lawrence of Arabia followed by Bridge on the River Kwai.

      Watched Kwai on Blu-ray a few weeks ago. Still waiting for Lawrence to make it's HD debut. Next year will be it's 50th anniversary.

      I prefer Great Expectations to Oliver Twist in story and film.

      I have Maurice Jarre's soundtracks on CD. Wonderful music.

      Voted Up and Interesting.

    • FloraBreenRobison profile image


      9 years ago

      My favourite David Lean film is Bridge on the River Kwai. It is one of my favourite films, period, and I usually don't rate war epics so highly. But I never tire of watching it. I have seen both films he edited you list.

      as a director:

      Of the films you mention in the order you mention them, I have seen

      In which we Serve

      Blithe Spirit

      Brief Encounter

      Oliver Twist

      Hobson's Choice

      The Bridge on the River Kwai

      Lawrence of Arabia

      Dr. Zhivago

    • Jools99 profile imageAUTHOR

      Jools Hogg 

      9 years ago from North-East UK

      Judi, thanks for your kind comments. I love all of his movies but especially This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and A Passage To India. They can all stand up on their own as great movies.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judi Brown 

      9 years ago from UK

      Fabulous Hub! I remember watching the earlier films like This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter, Great Expectations,etc on the TV when I was a child, and I enjoyed them a lot. It was like a glimpse into another world, not yet quite gone, but slipping away.

      Not so familiar with the later films, except A Passage to India.

      A great tribute to a great director.

      Voted up etc.


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