Profile: David Lean

Profile: David Lean

David Lean has directed a mere sixteen feature films during his 40-year career, but even today, many of these continue to be seen as cinematic masterpieces and regularly top greatest ever film polls. From Brief Encounter through Lawrence of Arabia to A Passage to India, Lean set a benchmark by which all subsequent filmmakers are still judged.

Kicking and screaming
Born in Croydon on 25th March 1908, Lean could easily have been denied his place in the pantheon of movie greats from an early age. His mother was a Quaker who, as you might expect, strongly disapproved of the cinema. His father wasn't much better either, being an accountant by trade. Despite his parents' wish for him following his Dad into a life of number-crunching, David would not be discouraged and entered British films (as a tea boy) at the Lime Grove Studios in 1927.

In the right direction
Once in the biz, Lean's rise up through the ranks was as rapid as his wife turnover (he was married six times in total). He moved from clapper boy and messenger to editor of feature films by 1934 before building a fruitful partnership with Noel Coward that lead to his move into direction. His career was finally in full swing and in 1942, served up his first piece of work - an excellent war film, In Which We Serve, which he co-directed with Coward.

Who needs CGI?
From here onwards, Lean began to soar. Another Coward collaboration, the romantic classic Brief Encounter starring the superb Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, let everyone know a series talent had arrived. To further emphasise his cinematic arrival, Lean produced two extraordinary adaptations of Dickens novels, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Staggeringly, considering both films were made in the mid-1940s, Brief Encounter and Great Expectations featured in the top five of the BFI's Top 100 Films voted by the film industry in 1999.

Action man
And on the list goes: Hobson's Choice starring John Mills, Summertime (Lean's personal favourite) with Katherine Hepburn, the Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai and, of course, his masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia (also Oscar-winning) - this was a director constantly at the top of his game. It was therefore sad to see Lean retreat from film-making in the 1970s, stung by the harsh criticism, particularly from infamous movie critic Pauline Kael, received for his 1970 feature Ryan's Daughter.

A knight's tale
His parting shot in 1984, however, was a return to form in the shape of A Passage To India. It won two Oscars and in the same year, Lean was knighted, having been made a Fellow of the British Film Institute in 1983. As a result, it's astounding to remember the unrealised projects Lean was involved in and passed on to others, which include Out of Africa and Empire of the Sun, as well as collaborations with Arthur C. Clarke and Dennis Potter that sadly never came to fruition. And yet in spite of this, Lean's had an amazing career. Perhaps his secret lies in a comment he once made about this craft: "I like making films about characters I'd like to have dinner with."
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