b. March 25, 1908, Croydon, Surrey, England
d. April 16, 1991, London, England

David Lean

articles in Senses
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Film is a dramatised reality and it is the director’s job to make it appear real…an audience should not be conscious of technique. (1)

My distinguishing talent is the ability to put people under the microscope, perhaps to go one or two layers farther down than some other directors. (2)

I’ve just begun to dare to think I perhaps am a bit of an artist. (3)

David Lean directed motion pictures with an acknowledged consciousness of his actions and a stated set of intentions and expectations about the end product of his labour. As a worker in an industry where that end product faces evaluation based on economic results on the one hand and aesthetic satisfaction on the other, Lean achieved a stature which few other directors in the brief history of motion pictures have equalled. His autocratic technique was legendary; and yet Lean’s early career relied entirely on collaboration, first as editor on a score of pictures for other directors, then in a close association with the formidable Noel Coward on his first four pictures. For most of his career, Lean fiercely guarded the details of his personal life, which began with an upbringing and education in a Quaker tradition so strict that Lean was not allowed to see movies or attend the theatre until adulthood. Born in those first furtive moments in a silent movie theatre, Lean’s sense of artistry, which he seldom consented to discuss, was ultimately given free rein, as economic success permitted him a freedom of aesthetic choices very few directors have ever had.

It is difficult to imagine even a superficial analysis of Lean’s films that does not reveal an intensely personal filmmaker. The images and archetypes through which Lean’s motion pictures transfuse the narrative and communicate sensation or point-of-view are hardly unique. Contrary to the consensus of most film critics, Lean’s body of work, his oeuvre, presents as consistent a style and world-view as any auteur. It would be possible to compare Lean to other filmmakers, to weigh his early black-and-white pictorialism against that of Rex Ingram (whom he greatly admired), to contrast his “romantic” landscapes with Hitchcock, his construction of epics with Anthony Mann, his economy of expression with Renoir, and his fight to make pictures according to his vision with maverick filmmakers everywhere. Still, it is no easy task to place Lean in any directorial hierarchy, nor is it necessarily advisable to do so. Claude Chabrol remarked that he and Lean were the only directors working who would wait “forever” for a perfect sunset but that he measured “forever” in terms of days and Lean did so in months. In its overstatement, the comment revealed the respect which Lean’s peers had for his prodigious abilities. And yet when Lean spoke about himself, he was usually self-effacing. Often he would mention that fear of indecision while shooting that compelled him to take so much time and belabour such fine points in his preparations. Lean wrote about disguising technique in 1947; but it took more than fifty years of work for him to consider that he might be “a bit of an artist.”

Ultimately, neither Lean’s fame as a filmmaker nor any quirks of personality can displace or distort his real legacy: the sixteen motion pictures which bear the credit “Directed by David Lean.” In the first ten years of his directing career, from 1942 to 1952, Lean completed nine features. In the almost forty years that followed, he would make only seven more. Part of the reason for this is the change within the film industry. As budgets and shooting schedules grew, it become very difficult for any director to complete more than one feature per year. But even while other directors in the 1940s and ’50s were making several films every twelve months, Lean never made more than one (4). As the time he spent preparing projects grew from months to years, the time he spent shooting grew from weeks to months. Very few directors have experienced a fourteen-year gap between pictures as Lean did with Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984). Lean spent six years preparing what was to be his final film, an adaptation of Conrad’s Nostromo, only to succumb to cancer a few weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. Lean’s “legendary” status had already been forged in a span of just eight years from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) to Doctor Zhivago (1965), three pictures which generated very substantial box office receipts worldwide, won a combined 21 Academy Awards but could not secure Lean a critical reputation as a great director. Hence Lean’s renown since 1957 has been as a somewhat impersonal maker of films on a monumental scale.

Bridge on the River Kwai

The almost all-male casts of Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, the very title of the latter as well as Doctor Zhivago, may also have typed Lean for having heroes rather than heroines. In actuality, the principal characters of Lean’s last two films were women; and, in all, no less than seven of his sixteen films – Brief Encounter (1945), The Passionate Friends (1949), Madeleine (1950), Hobson’s Choice (1954), Summer Madness (1955), Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India – centered on female protagonists. Lean’s thematic preoccupations or “world-view” are delineated through his characters both male and female. The resemblance of those figures in different pictures, whether separated by four or forty years, is often remarkable. Even the names may be subtly similar as in Laura Jessen, Mary Justin, Maggie Hobson, Jane Hudson. Men and women, Lean’s signature characters are ordinary dreamers and epic visionaries, people who want to transform the world according to their expectations. When others die for his dream and his daughter turns against him in The Sound Barrier (1952), Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) is forced to defend himself: “Can a vision be evil, Sue? It’s a terrible thing to make a man doubt everything he’s ever lived for.” Eighteen years later the local priest cautions Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles) not to dream for what you cannot have. “You can’t help having them,” Father Collins (Trevor Howard) warns. “Child what are you expecting? Wings, is it.” Like Madeleine Smith, Maggie Hobson, and Jane Hudson before her, Rosy Ryan does want to fly from the mundane world, wants to transform her surroundings to match her yearnings. In that sense, her visions a no less compelling than those of such larger-than-life Lean figures as Ridgefield or T.E. Lawrence or Zhivago.

The tragic flaw in Lean’s characters is a self-centeredness which can lead to misimpression, which can prevent them from seeing what is so clear to everyone else. However inculcated he may be on the concepts of discipline and harmony, neither his compatriots nor his enemies can really understand the motives of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) as he builds the titled object in The Bridge on the River Kwai. In another era on the other side of the world, Rosy Ryan’s romantic yearnings are more simply summarised by her future husband. “You’ve mistaken a penny mirror for the sun,” Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum) admonishes, “I only taught you about Byron, Beethoven and Captain Blood. I’m not one of those fellows myself.” Rosy romanticises her schoolteacher. Nicholson like Ridgefield romanticises the task at hand. Lawrence romanticises the desert. The emotional peril for all these characters is exactly the same. Not even the most pragmatic of Lean’s protagonists, such as the indomitable Maggie Hobson or the career woman Jane Hudson, are immune. The themes which Lean does address repeatedly, from “ordinary” adulterous love to epic, obsessive madness, are not unique to him. Lean has said, without any sense of contradiction, “I’m first and foremost interested in the story, the characters,” but “I think people remember pictures not dialogue. That’s why I like pictures” (5). What is unique to Lean is his visual style, one that elucidates story and characters through pictures.

In his general theory, André Bazin divided filmic reality into three conceivable forms: “[1] A purely logical and descriptive analysis. [2] A psychological analysis, from within the film, namely one that fits the point of view of one of the protagonists in a given situation. [3] A psychological analysis from the point of view of the spectator” (6). To simplify these types, one might call them objective, subjective, or ironic respectively. As a director Lean dealt with all these “realities,” often within a given film, moved freely in a way few others have between these conventional modes and defined his vision through them.

Frame 1

Oliver Twist (1948) is a prime illustration. In the shots of the workhouse, Lean delineates a basic “reality.” His direction here is objective, although there are ironies in the very design of the set and the superimposed title, and aimed at establishing the narrative core of the film. The carvings proclaiming “God is Love” which loom over the heads of the downtrodden scrubwomen visually render the indictment of Victorian hypocrisy in Dickens’ novel [Frame 1]. In setting distance or angle, however, Lean may add to the material reality of image, something of the emotional or character reality, not “physically” present. As in the high angle medium shot of the boys drawing straws: when they leave, amidst hushed cries, Oliver is alone – his sensation is visualised by the isolation of his white-gowned figure within the grey confines of the frame and the two-dimensional reduction in height, the “flattening” imposed by placing the camera above him. Alternatively, by focusing on an image within the general expository necessity of the scene, Lean may underscore its dramatic, i.e. serious or comic, quality.

Frame 2

The only necessary images in the sequence of Nancy’s murder, for example, are those which make it clear that Sikes has killed her. Beyond that Lean may single out, still within the context of observable detail, a specific image such as the close shot of the infuriated Sikes or of his dog scratching furiously at the door. Lean’s selection of detail and emphasis was striking for 1948 in that it repeatedly tested the limits of the basic suspension of disbelief. Murder and the fixtures of a room are potentially equal as observable realities, if different on a dramatic level, just as they are beyond the confines of the movie house. In the example above, the obvious point, that the episode is terrifying because the dog wants desperately to get out, is made by a selective rather than substantive manipulation within the fixed reality of the scene. The make-up, facial expressions, and wider angle lens associated with Robert Newton’s portrayal of Sikes committing the murder emphasise the bestial aspect of the character [Frame 2]. The cutaway to the dog creates a simile for a human sense of terror and extends the metaphor of animalistic behaviour [Frame 3].

Frame 3

In spying through a glass port on Monks and Fagin in the back of a tavern, Nancy takes in everything she can but her view of the complete “picture” is restricted. Analogously, the “objective plane,” or that which provides the basic information in a film, is not aligned to any predetermined standards, neither induced from the general objectivity of the whole of cinema nor reasoned out a priori, but derived from the specific “vantage” set up by the director. And the definition of that objective plane, for want of a better term, the mise en scène, may be taken as the first component of directional style. That style is further refined in a substantive manner, by what Bazin calls “fit[ting on] the point of view of one of the protagonists.” Instances of direct “point of view” from Oliver Twist are strikingly recorded when the camera “becomes” Oliver fleeing a crowd of pursuers: travelling forward rapidly, it slips, at his eye level, through the arms of one man then runs into the clenched fist of another, whereupon it “loses consciousness” by means of a cut to black. Later, in the courtroom, it will sway dizzily, an effect accentuated by using a wide-angle rather than a normal lens, then blur in and out of focus, and finally fall over in a faint. Here an objective view of the world is physically displaced. Going back for a moment, consider again the shot of Oliver alone after drawing the short straw. Was it truly objective, or did the staging take it beyond a simple witnessing of a narrative event? Were the lighting and angle not, in fact, externalisations of the emotions of fear and isolation which Lean’s character felt?

Frame 4

The clearest example of Lean’s multiform visual usage may be found in the opening sequence of the film. On a country road in the midst of a sudden storm, Oliver’s mother begins to give birth to him. In one travelling movement in, Lean simultaneously records the labour objectively – a medium shot to medium close shot, her body arched, head tilted back, grimacing – and externalises both the intangible emotion of her plight and the physical sensation as well. Knifing pain is equated with a white sheet of lightning [Frame 4]. A contorting spasm is captured by an angular tilt from horizontal which levels off as the contraction of labour subsides. Her complete disorientation and the distortion of her real perceptions are characterised by making her walk on a treadmill before a process screen. This device makes her move unnaturally at the edge of consciousness and introduces a secondary “reality” of reduced dimension behind the already existing one of the film itself. Finally inserts of jagged tree limbs and twisted, thorny branches provide a visual metaphor for the acute discomfort which the character experiences [Frames 5 and 6].

Frame 5 Frame 6

Beyond this intricate subjectification, Lean may compound the frame’s reality with dramatic irony. This is exemplified in the sequence where Nancy is followed by the Artful Dodger. Through several shots, the audience has been permitted to observe the Dodger lurking outside the house and trailing behind Nancy down the rainy streets, a fact of vital concern of which she is unaware. An example of a subtler ironic mode on a figurative level is the first conversation between Monks and Fagin in the garret. Here, while Fagin’s eyes stay on his body moving in and out of the shot, from the audience’s vantage Monks momentarily becomes a thin, black shadow on the right side of the frame [Frame 7]. This stylised rendering of Monks’ form implies his malevolent character as well as the manner in which his presence looms ominously over the entire picture, a “fact” which Fagin (as the shadow is not in his line of sight) cannot know.

Frame 7

On a narrative level, Oliver Twist is a typical, third person film, that is the revelation of narrative “facts” is not identified with or restricted to the perceptions of a single character. Lean’s extensive tendency to subjectify a story-line is clear in the earlier Brief Encounter. This is not merely because most of the film is told in flashback, complete with extensive voiceover narration by the female protagonist, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), but because as in Oliver Twist, Lean repeatedly uses visuals that underscore the subjectivity. Before Laura’s narration is even established, Lean sets it up with an exaggerated point-of-view shot: an extreme close up of a woman’s mouth after which Laura is heard thinking to herself, “I wish you’d stop talking.” By having the first thought spoken on the soundtrack one with which the audience is likely to empathise, the intrusiveness of the narration is buffered and the transition smoothed. When she arrives home, there is a more subtle effect: her husband’s hat is framed in the foreground as she climbs the stairs and he calls to her, simultaneously establishing visual and aural emblems of his presence before he is even seen. When he is seen, various aspects of his appearance, from his moustache to the pinstripes in his suit, immediately contrast with the look of the man she was with in the tea room. All these details reinforce or anticipate parts of what Laura’s flashback will reveal before it even begins.

Since most of Lean’s narratives are organised in a way which is neither “first” nor “third” person, shots or sequences like those already cited may suddenly shift the film into either mode without disrupting or overwhelming the basic structure. Subjectivity may be accomplished in several ways. The narrative itself may be literally bracketed by being presented as a flashback from either the central character (Brief Encounter, Passionate Friends), a subordinate one (Doctor Zhivago), or a combination (In Which We Serve and, implicitly, Lawrence of Arabia). In any narrative context, shots may be intercut to suggest the thoughts or sensations of a character, as in Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter, or characters, as in the sparking streetcar terminal when Zhivago and his still-unknown, future lover, Lara, brush against each other early in that film. Shots may become literally what the character sees; or shots of the character may be manipulated to focus on an interior state. Simple instances would be the hanging in Great Expectations (1946) or the Cossack charge in Doctor Zhivago, when there is no point-of-view shot of the terrible event but merely a slow move in to reveal the horror in the actors’ faces. A more intricate example is found at the beginning of Brief Encounter. When Laura returns home after the final parting with her lover, she sits in the parlour and realises that she cannot tell her husband of her affair, however platonic. A medium close shot of her slumped in the chair is cut with an over-the-shoulder view of her husband working a crossword. Lean shifts to a wide angle lens for this, suddenly extending perspective and making the man and the objects of the room in front of her seem farther away than they actually are, visually rendering her state of mind as she draws back from them into herself [Frames 8 and 9]. Lean extends this further by bringing down the key light and dissolving back to the tea room. By using an unreal, even theatrical, effect, Lean creates a hyper-real perspective, for as Laura’s silhouette remains in the foreground, she “watches” Alex Harvey enter the room, the tea room and her room also, and in her imagination substitutes him for her husband whom she literally “fades out” without even leaving her chair.

Frame 8 Frame 9

All this should suggest something of the awareness of the medium which Lean brought to his material. Lean’s working methods are well-documented elsewhere and seemed to vary little throughout his career. Of the script stage, one of his early writing collaborators, Ronald Neame, observed: “Every line of dialogue, not just dialogue, but every line of description is studied and worked out before it’s put down in that script” (7). His last collaborator was Robert Bolt: “We rewrite it about four times until we are satisfied. And, of course, it is David who must be satisfied with it” (8).

Despite the numerous awards and the frequent praise of reviewers for most of his projects, Lean has never been a critical favourite. Despite the fact that the descriptions of how Lean worked out the shooting script could easily be mistaken for remarks about the widely admired Alfred Hitchcock, this disfavour is particularly marked among auteurists. Andrew Sarris not only relegated him to “Less Than Meets The Eye” in the seminal American Cinema, but concluded his assessment with a pun about “too little literary fat and too much visual lean” (9). When Ian Cameron commissioned the first book on Lean more than thirty years ago for the pointedly auteurist Movie Paperback series, he did so because “on confronting many of the filmmakers I most admire, I invariably find that the film-makers they most admire are Messers. Lean and Fellini whose work I cannot abide” (10). While Fellini’s monomaniacal imposition of a world view on his pictures has never been in doubt, Lean’s still has seldom been perceived. In Sight and Sound magazine’s once-per-decade poll of the greatest films and directors in the history of cinema in 2002, David Lean and his films were entirely absent from the critics’ list. In fact, while Fellini and were included, Lean and his pictures were not even close to making the cut. The directors poll, of course, was another matter. There Lawrence of Arabia was in the top five and Lean tied for ninth (with Renoir and Scorsese) (11). The conundrum of Lean’s career continues, admired by his peers and by filmgoers but more likely to be accorded approbation than a mantle of greatness by critics.

David Lean


Feature films:

In Which We Serve (1942, Two Cities Films) Directors: Noel Coward, David Lean. Producer: Noel Coward. Associate Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan. Screenplay: Noel Coward. Adaptation [Uncredited]: David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame. Director of Photography: Ronald Neame. Art Director: David Rawsley. Music: Noel Coward. Editors: [David Lean], Thelma Myers. Cast: Noel Coward (Captain Kinross), Bernard Miles (Chief Walter Hardy), John Mills (Shorty Blake), Celia Johnson (Mrs. Kinross), Kay Walsh (Freda Lewis), Joyce Carey (Mrs. Hardy), Leslie Howard (Narrator [Uncredited]). Running time: ll5 minutes. Distribution: British Lion (Great Britain) and United Artists (United States). Released September 17, 1942 (G.B.); October 1, 1942 (U.S.). Filmed from February to June, 1942 at Denham Studios and on location in Hertfordshire at a cost of £240,000. Special Certificate from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to Noel Coward for production achievement.

This Happy Breed (1944, Two Cities Films, A Noel Coward/Cineguild Production for Prestige/J. Arthur Rank) Producer: Noel Coward. Screenplay: Noel Coward, from his play. Adaptation: David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan. Director of Photography: Ronald Neame (Technicolor). Art Director: C.P. Norman. Music Supervisor: Muir Matheson. Editor: Jack Harris. Cast: Robert Newton (Frank Gibbons), Celia Johnson (Ethel Gibbons), John Mills (Billy Mitchell), Kay Walsh (Queenie Gibbons), Stanley Holloway (Bob Mitchell. Running time: 107 minutes. Distribution: Eagle-Lion (G.B.) and Universal-International (U.S.). Released June 1, 1944 (G.B.); April, 1947 (U.S.). Filmed at Denham Studios from February to April, 1943.

Blithe Spirit (1945, Cineguild-Two Cities Films for J. Arthur Rank) Producer: Noel Coward. Screenplay: Noel Coward, from his play. Adaptation: David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan. Director of Photography: Ronald Neame (Technicolor). Art Director: C.P. Norman. Music: Richard Addinsell. Editor: Jack Harris. Cast: Rex Harrison (Charles Condomine), Constance Cummings (Ruth), Kay Hammond (Elvira), Margaret Rutherford (Madame Arcati), Joyce Carey (Mrs. Bradman), Hugh Wakefield (Doctor Bradman), Jacqueline Clark (Edith). Running time: 96 minutes. Distribution: General Film Distributors (G.B.); United Artists (U.S.). Released April 5, 1945 (G.B.); September, 1945 (U.S.). Filmed at Denham Studios from February to May, 1944. Academy Award® for Best Special Effects.

Brief Encounter (1945, A Noel Coward/Cineguild for Prestige/J. Arthur Rank) Producer: Noel Coward. Screenplay: David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, based on Noel Coward’s play, “Still Life.” Adaptation: Noel Coward. Director of Photography: Robert Krasker. Art Director: L.P. Williams. Music: Rachmaninoff’s “Second Piano Concerto” played by Eileen Joyce. Editors: Jack Harris; Margery Sanders (associate). Cast: Celia Johnson (Laura Jesson), Trevor Howard (Dr. Alec Harvey), Cyril Raymond (Fred Jesson), Joyce Carey (Barmaid), Stanley Holloway (Station Guard), Valentine Dyall (Stephen Lynn), Everley Gregg (Dolly Messiter), Margaret Barton (Beryl. Running time: 86 minutes. Distribution: Eagle-Lion (G.B.) and Universal (U.S.). Released November 26, 1945 (G.B.); August, 1946 (U.S.). Filmed at Denham Studios and on location in Carnforth on a ten week schedule from January to April, 1945 on a budget of £270,000. Academy Award® Nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Actress (Celia Johnson), and Best Director. Prix Internationale du Critique at Cannes.

Great Expectations

Great Expectations (1946, A Cineguild Production for J. Arthur Rank) Producer: Ronald Neame. Executive Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan. Screenplay: David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan with Kay Walsh and Cecil McGivern, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Director of Photography: Guy Green. Production Designer: John Bryan. Music: Walter Goehr and [uncredited] Kenneth Pakeman. Editor: Jack Harris. Cast: John Mills (“Pip”), Valerie Hobson (Estella), Bernard Miles (Joe Gargery), Francis L. Sullivan (Jaggers), Finlay Currie (Magwitch), Martita Hunt (Miss Havisham), Anthony Wager (“Pip” as a boy), Jean Simmons (Estella as a girl), Alec Guinness (Herbert
Pocket), Ivor Barnard (Wemmick), Freda Jackson (Mrs. Joe Gargery), Torin Thatcher (Bentley Drummle. Running time: 118 minutes. Distribution: General Film Distributors (G.B.); Universal-International (U.S.). Released December 26, 1946 (G.B.); April 24, 1947 (U.S.). Filmed from September, 1945 to April, 1946 at Denham Studios and on location around London (Rochester and the Thames Estuary) at a cost of £385,000. Academy Awards® for black and white Cinematography and Art Direction; nominations for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay.

Oliver Twist (1948, A Cineguild Production for Independent Producers Ltd./J. Arthur Rank) Producer: Ronald Neame. Screenplay: David Lean and Stanley Haynes, from the novel by Charles Dickens. Director of Photography: Guy Green. Art Director: John Bryan. Music: Sir Arnold Bax. Editor: Jack Harris. Cast: Robert Newton (Bill Sikes), Alec Guinness (Fagin), Fay Walsh (Nancy), John Howard Davies (Oliver), Francis L. Sullivan (Mr. Bumble), Henry Stephenson (Mr. Brownlow), Mary Clare (the Matron), Anthony Newley (the Artful Dodger). Running time: 115 minutes (G.B.); 104 minutes (U.S.). Distribution: Eagle-Lion (G.B.); United Artists (U.S.). Released June 28, 1948 (G.B.); July, 1951 (U.S.). Filmed at Pinewood Studios.

The Passionate Friends (1949, Cineguild for J. Arthur Rank) Producer: Ronald Neame. Screenplay: Eric Ambler, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Adaptation: David Lean and Stanley Haynes. Director of Photography: Guy Green. Production Designer: John Bryan. Music: Richard Addinsell. Editors: Jack Harris (supervising), Geoffrey Foot. Cast: Ann Todd (Mary Austin), Trevor Howard (Steven Stratton), Claude Rains (Howard Justin). Running time: 89 minutes. Distribution: General Film Distributors (G.B.); Universal-International (U.S.). Released January 26, 1949 (G.B.); June, 1949 (U.S.). Filmed at Pinewood Studios and on location in London and the Swiss Alps near Chamonix in 1948. U.S. title: One Woman’s Story. [NOTE: Ronald Neame was the original director and was replaced by Lean after shooting began.]


Madeleine (1950, A David Lean Production for Cineguild and J. Arthur Rank) Producer: Stanley Haynes. Screenplay: Stanley Haynes and Nicholas Phipps (dialogue), based on the actual case of Madeleine Hamilton Smith. Director of Photography: Guy Green. Art Director: John Bryan. Music: William Alwyn. Editor: Geoffrey Foot. Cast: Ann Todd (Madeleine Smith), Ivan Desny (Emile L’Angelier), Norman Woland (William Minnoch), Leslie Banks (Mr. Smith), Barbara Everest (Mrs. Smith), Ivor Barnard (Mr. Murdoch. Running time: 102 minutes. Distribution: General Film Distributors (G.B.); Walter Reade and Universal-International (U.S.). Released February 14, 1950 (G.B.); September, 1950 (U.S.). Filmed at Pinewood Studios and on location in Cornwall in 1949.

The Sound Barrier (1952, London Films) Producer: David Lean. Associate Producer: Norman Spencer. Screenplay: Terence Rattigan. Director of Photography: Jack Hildyard. Production Design; Vincent Korda. Music: Malcolm Arnold. Editor: Geoffrey Foot. Cast: Ralph Richardson (Sir John Ridgefield), Ann Todd (Susan Ridgefield Garthwaite), Nigel Patrick (Tony Garthwaite), John Justin (Philip Peel), Dinah Sheridan (Jess Peel), Joseph Tomelty (Will Sparks), Denholm Elliott (Chris Ridgefield). Running time: 118 minutes (G.B.); 115 minutes (U.S.). Distribution: British Lion (G.B.); Lopert Films/United Artists (U.S.). Released July 22, 1952 (G.B.); November, 1952 (U.S.). Filmed on a budget of £250,000. Alternate titles: Breaking through the Sound Barrier (G.B.); Breaking the Sound Barrier (U.S.). British Film Academy awards for Best Film and Best Actor (Ralph Richardson). Academy Award for Sound; nomination for Best Screenplay. New York Film Critics Award for Best Performance (Ralph Richardson).

Hobson’s Choice (1954, A David Lean Production for London Films in Association with British Lion) Producer: David Lean. Associate Producer: Norman Spencer. Screenplay: David Lean, Norman Spencer and Wynyard Browne, based on the play by Harold Brighouse. Director of Photography: Jack Hildyard. Art Directed by Wilfred Shingleton. Music: Malcolm Arnold. Cast: Charles Laughton (Henry Hobson), Brenda de Banzie (Maggie), John Mills (Will Mossop), Daphne Anderson (Alice Hobson), Prunella Scales (Vicky Hobson), Richard Wattis (Albert Prosser). Running time: 107 minutes. Distribution: British Lion (G.B.); United Artists (U.S.). Released February 24, 1954 (G.B.); June, 1954 (U.S.). Filmed at Shepperton Studios and on location in Salford beginning in July, 1953. British Film Academy award for Best Film.

Summer Madness (1955, David Lean’s Production for Lopert Films) Producer: Ilya Lopert. Associate Producer: Norman Spencer. Screenplay: David Lean, H.E. Bates, based on the play, “Time of the Cuckoo,” by Arthur Laurents. Director of Photography: Jack Hildyard (Technicolor). Art Director: Vincent Korda. Music: Alessandro Cicognini; “La Gazza Ladra” by Giacomp Rossini. Editor: Peter Taylor. Cast: Katharine Hepburn (Jane Hudson), Rossano Brazzi (Renato Di Rossi), Isa Miranda (Signora Fiorina), Darren McGavin (Eddie Jaeger), Mari Aldon (Phyl Jaeger), Jane Rose (Edith McIlhenny), MacDonald Parke (Lloyd McIlhenny), Gaetano Autiero (Mauro). Running time: 99 minutes. Distribution: Lopert Films/United Artists. Released May 29, 1955 (G.B.); June, 1955 (U.S.). Filmed on location in Venice in Summer, 1954. U.S. title: Summertime. Academy Award® nominations for Best Director and Actress (Katharine Hepburn). New York Film Critics Award for Best Direction.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, Horizon Pictures, A Sam Spiegel Production) Producer: Sam Spiegel. Screenplay: Pierre Boulle and [uncredited] Carl Foreman, Calder Willingham, Michael Wilson, and David Lean, based on Boulle’s novel. Director of Photography: Jack Hildyard (Technicolor; CinemaScope). Art Director: Donald M. Ashton. Music: Malcolm Arnold; “Colonel Bogey March” by Kenneth J. Alford. Editor: Peter Taylor. Cast: Alec Guinness (Colonel Nicholson), William Holden (Shears), Jack Hawkins (Major Warden), Sessue Hayakawa (Colonel Saito), James Donald (Dr. Clipton), Geoffrey Horne (Lieutenant Joyce), Andre Morell (Colonel Green), Percy Herbert (Grogan). Running time: 161 minutes. Distribution: Columbia Pictures. Released November, 1957. Filmed on location in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) from October, 1956 to May, 1957 with a budget of US$3.2 million. British Film Academy awards for Best Film, Script, and Actor (Alec Guinness). Academy Awards® for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Alec Guinness), Cinematography, Music, and Editing; nomination for Best Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa). Directors Guild of America Award for Theatrical Director.

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962, Horizon Pictures, A Sam Spiegel-David Lean Production) Producer: Sam Spiegel. Screenplay: Robert Bolt, based on various writings by and about T.E. and a draft screenplay by Michael Wilson. Director of Photography: Fred A. Young (Technicolor; Super Panavision 70). Production Designer: John Box. Music: Maurice Jarre; “The Voice of the Guns” by Kenneth J. Alford. Editor: Anne V. Coates. Cast: Peter O’Toole (Thomas Edward Lawrence), Alec Guinness (Prince Feisal), Anthony Quinn (Auda), Jack Hawkins (General Allenby), Omar Sharif (Sherif Ali), Anthony Quayle (Colonel Brighton), Claude Rains (Mr. Dryden), Arthur Kennedy (Jackson Bentley), Jose Ferrer (Turkish Bey), Donald Wolfit (General Murray). Running time: 221 minutes (roadshow engagements); 200 minutes (general release); 184 minutes (1971 U.S. reissue [cut by Spiegel). Distribution: Columbia Pictures. Released December 9, l962 (G.B.); December 16, 1962 (U.S.) Filmed on location in Jordan, Spain, Morocco, and England, shooting intermittently from May, 1961 through September, 1962 at a cost of US$13.5 million. British Film Academy awards for Best Film, Script, and Actor. Academy Awards® for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Art Direction, Music, Sound, and Editing; nominations for Best Screenplay, Actor (Peter O’Toole), and Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif). Directors Guild of America Award for Theatrical Direction.

Doctor Zhivago (1965, A Carlo Ponti Production of David Lean’s Film for M.G.M.) Producer: Carlo Ponti. Executive Producer: Arvid L. Griffen. Screenplay: Robert Bolt, based on the novel by Boris Leonidovic Pasternak. Director of Photography: Freddie Young (Metrocolor; Super Panavision 70). Production Designer: John Box. Music: Maurice Jarre. Editor: Norman Savage. Cast: Omar Sharif (Yuri Zhivago), Julie Christie (Lara), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya Gromeko Zhivago), Tom Courtenay (Pasha/Strelnikov), Alec Guinness (General Yegraf Zhivago), Siobhan McKenna (Anna Gromeko), Ralph Richardson (Alexander Gromeko), Rod Steiger (Komarovsky), Rita Tushingham (the girl, Tonya), Klaus Kinski (Kostoyed). Running time: 200 minutes at New York premiere including Overture and Entr’acte, 192 without; 180 minutes in general release (cut by Lean). Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Released December 22, 1965 (U.S.); April, 1966 (G.B.). Filmed on location in Spain, Finland, and Canada and at C.E.A. Studios, Madid, from December, 1964 to October, 1965 with a budget of US$11.9 million. Academy Awards® for Best Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Music, and Costume Design; nominations for Best Picture, Director, Sound, Editing, and Supporting Actor (Tom Courtenay).

Ryan’s Daughter (1970, Faraway Productions/AG Film for M.G.M.) Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan. Associate Producer: Roy Stevens. Screenplay: Robert Bolt. Director of Photography: Fred A. Young (Metrocolor; Super Panavision 70). Production Designer: Stephen Grimes. Music: Maurice Jarre. Editor: Norman Savage. Cast: Sarah Miles (Rosy Ryan), Robert Mitchum (Charles Shaughnessy), Trevor Howard (Father Hugh Collins), Christopher Jones (Major Andrew Doryan), John Mills (Michael), Leo McKern (Tom Ryan), Barry Foster (Tim O’Leary). Running time: 196 minutes (roadshow); 165 minutes (U.S. general release). Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Released November 9, 1970 (U.S.); December 9, 1970 (U.K.). Filmed on location on the West Coast of Ireland and in North Africa from February, 1969 to March, 1970 with a budget of $13.3 million. Working titles: Michael’s Day; The Irish Rebellion. Academy Awards® for Best Cinematography and Supporting Actor (John Mills); nominations for Best Actress (Sarah Miles) and Sound.

A Passage to India

A Passage to India (1984, A John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin Production of A David Lean Films for Home Box Office, Thorn EMI, and Columbia) Producers: John Brabourne, Richard B. Goodwin. Executive Producers: John Heyman, Edward Sands. Screenplay: David Lean, based on the novel by E.M. Forster and the play by Santha Rama Rau. Director of Photography: Ernest Day, B.S.C. (Technicolor, 1.85:1). Production Designer: John Box. Music: Maurice Jarre; “Freely Maisie” by John Dalby. Editor: David Lean; Eunice Mountjoy (associate). Cast: Judy Davis (Adela Quested), Victor Banerjee (Dr.: Aziz), Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs. Moore), James Fox: (Fielding), Alec Guinness (Godbole), Nigel Havers: (Ronny Heaslop), Richard Wilson (Turton), Michael: Culver (McBryde), Art Malik (Mahmoud Ali), Saeed Jaffrey (Hamidullah. Running time: 163 minutes. Distribution: Columbia Pictures. Released December 13, 1984 (U.S.), February, 1985 (U.K.). Filmed on location in Bangalore, India and at Shepperton Studios from November, 1983 to June, 1984 at a cost of approximately $14.7 million. Academy Awards for Best Music and Supporting Actress (Peggy Ashcroft); nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound, Editing, Costume Design, and Actress (Judy Davis).

Documentary Film directed by David Lean:

Lost and Found, The Story of Cook’s Anchor (1979, South Pacific TV/Faraway Productions) Producers: George Andrews, Wayne Tourell. Teleplay: Robert Bolt. Photographers: Ken Dorman, Lynton Diggle, Eddie Fowlie. Editor: David Reed. Narrator: Kelly Tarlton. Running time: 40 minutes. First broadcast by TV-2 of Auckland in May, 1979.

Productions as Assistant Director:

Sailors Don’t Care (W.P. Kellino, 1928)

The Physician (George Jacoby, 1928)

High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1928)

Balaclava (Maurice Elvey and Milton Rosmer, 1928) Lean was also set costumer.

Ryan's Daughter

Productions as Editor:

The Night Porter (Sewell Collins, 1930) Directed by.

These Charming People (Louis Mercanton, 1931) Directed by.

Insult (Harry Lachman, 1932) Directed by.

Money for Speed (Bernard Vorhaus, 1933) also known as Daredevils of Earth

Matinee Idol (George King, 1933)

The Ghost Camera (Bernard Vorhaus, 1933)

Tiger Bay (J. Elder Wills, 1933) Edited by David Lean and Ian Thomson

Song of the Plough (John Baxter, 1933) also known as County Fair

Dangerous Ground (Norman Walker, 1934)

The Secret of The Loch (Milton Rosmer, 1934)

Java Head (J. Walter Ruben, 1934) Edited by Thorold Dickinson and David Lean

Escape Me Never (Paul Czinner, 1935) Edited by Merrill White and David Lean

Turn of the Tide (Norman Walker, 1935) uncredited

Ball at Savoy (Victor Hanbury, 1936) also known as With Pleasure, Madame

As You Like It (Paul Czinner, 1936)

Dreaming Lips (Paul Czinner, 1937)

The Wife of General Ling (Ladislas Vajda, 1937)

The Last Adventurers (Roy Kellino, 1937) also known as Down to the Sea in Ships

Pygmalion (Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard, 1938)

Spies of the Air (David MacDonald, 1939)

French Without Tears (Anthony Asquith, 1939)

Spy for a Day (Mario Zampi, 1930)

49th Parallel (Michael Powell, 1941) also known as The Invaders

One of our Aircraft is Missing (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1941)

Production as Assistant in Direction/Supervising Editor:

Major Barbara (Gabriel Pascal, 1941) Assistants to Direction: Harold French and David Lean. Montage by David Lean. Edited by Charles Frend.

Uncredited Work as Director:

Segments of The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens, 1965) featuring Jose Ferrer and Claude Rains.

Documentaries about David Lean:

David Lean, A Self-Portrait (Pyramid Films, 1971). Produced and Directed by Thomas Craven.

David Lean: A Life in Film (London Weekend Television, 1984). Produced by Nick Evans. Directed by Nigel Wattis. Edited and Narrated by Melvyn Bragg.

Champlin on Film: Lawrence of Arabia Restored (Z Channel Los Angeles, 1989). Produced by Susan Aldisert. Directed by Bob Worden. Hosted by Charles Champlin.

The Southbank Show: Lean and Bolt (London Weekend Television, 1990). Produced and Directed by David Thomas. Executive Producer: Nigel Wattis. Edited and Presented by Melvyn Bragg.

Other Awards and Honours

1947: Elected the first Chairman of the newly-formed British Film Academy.

1973: Directors Guild of America “D.W. Griffith Award” for Outstanding Achievement and Lifetime Contributions to Film.

1983: British Film Institute Fellowship for Lifetime Achievement.

1984: Knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.

1988: Special Tribute at Cannes.

1990: American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award.


Michael A. Anderegg, David Lean, Boston, Twayne, 1984.

Orwell Blakeston (ed.), Working for the Films, London, Focal Press, 1947 [Contains an essay, “The Film Director” by David Lean, pages 27–37].

Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Louis P. Castelli with Caryn Lynn Cleeland, David Lean: A Guide to References and Resources, Boston, G.K. Hall, l980.

Raymond Durgnat, A Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence, New York–Washington, Praeger, l97l.

A.R. Fulton, Motion Pictures, Oklahoma, University of Oklahoma Press, l960.

Lady Sandra Lean with Barry Chattington, David Lean, An Intimate Portrait, New York, Universe, 2001.

Howard Maxford, David Lean, London, B.T. Batsford, 2001.

L. Robert Morris and Lawrence Raskin, Lawrence of Arabia: 30th Anniversary Pictorial History, New York, Anchor Books, 1992.

Gerald Pratley, The Cinema of David Lean, New York, A.S. Barnes, l974.

Andrew Sarris, Interviews with Film Directors, New York, Avon Books, l967 [Contains an interview with Lean by Gerald Pratley].

Alain Silver and James Ursini, David Lean and his Films, Los Angeles, Silman-James, 1992 [2nd edition].

Stephen M. Silverman, David Lean, New York, Harry N. Abrams, l989.

Andrew Sinclair, Spiegel: The Man Behind the Pictures, Boston, Little, Brown and Co., 1987.

Adrian Turner, The Making of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, London, Dragon’s World Ltd, 1994.

Denise Worrell, Icons, New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988 [Interview with Lean].


Hollis Alpert, “The David Lean Recipe: A Whack in the Guts”, New York Times Magazine, May 23, l965, pp. 32f.

Charles Champlin, “The Phenomenal Persistence of David Lean”, Los Angeles Times Calendar, December 31, l989, pp. 30, 33.

Jay Cocks, “Adventures in the Dream Department”, Time, December 31, l984, pp. 58–62 [Portion of Cover Story, “An Old Master’s New Triumph – David Lean Directs A Passage to India“].

R. Combs, “David Lean: Riddles of the Sphinx”, Monthly Film Bulletin, LII/615, April, l985, pp. 102–106.

Sir Anthony Havelock-Allan, “A Man with Intent”, Bafta News, II, no. 5, June 1991, pp. 2–3.

Pauline Kael, “Bolt and Lean”, The New Yorker, November 21, l970, pp. 116–118.

Robert Kalish, “David Lean Romantics” [two part article], 1,000 Eyes Magazine, nos. 3 & 4, October and November, 1975, p. 22.

Harlan Kennedy, “I’m a Picture Chap”, Film Comment, January/February l985, pp. 28–32.

David Lean, “Brief Encounter”, Penguin Film Review #4, October l947, pp. 27–35.

David Lean, “Out of the Wilderness”, Films and Filming, January l963, pp. 12–15.

Douglas McVay, “David Lean – Lover of Life”, Films and Filming, August l959, pp. 9–10, 34.

Ron Pickard, “David Lean: Supreme Craftsman”, Films in Review, May l974, pp. 265–284.

Charles Reynolds, “David Lean on What You Can Learn from Movies”, Popular Photography, 42, March l958, pp. 108f [Interview with Lean].

Steven Ross, “In Defense of David Lean”, Take One, vol. 3, no. 12, July/August l972, pp. 10–18 [Interview with Lean].

Salman Rushdie, “Point of View: Outside the Whale”, American Film, 10, January/February l985, p. 16.

Alain Silver, “The Untranquil Light: David Lean’s Great Expectations“, Literature/Film Quarterly, Spring 1974, pp. 140–52.

Bob Thomas, “David Lean”, Action, November/December 1973, pp. 17–22.

Adrian Turner, “In Quest of Screen Silver”, London Times, November 18, 1990, section 7, pp. 2–3.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Great Expectations by Boris Trbic

Web Resources

David Lean Website
Sponsored by the David Lean Foundation, this site outlines Lean’s career and provides a catalogue of materials related to Lean’s career from the BFI collections. There’s also an extensive links and resource page.

Contains bio and filmography with production credits and images.

David Lean
A David Lean resource site. (Some links on the websites page are dead).

Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here.


  1. David Lean, “The Film Director” (essay) in Orwell Blakeston (ed.), Working for the Films, London, Focal Press, 1947, p. 34.
  2. Lean quoted in Douglas McVay, “Lean – Lover of Life,” Films and Filming, August 1959, p. 9.
  3. Jay Cocks, “Adventures in the Dream Department”, Time, December 31, 1984, p. 62.
  4. Some of the pictures made with Coward during World War II were released more proximately than they were shot: Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter were both released in 1945 but shot eleven months apart.
  5. Lean speaking in The Southbank Show: Lean and Bolt and the documentary David Lean: A Life in Film.
  6. André Bazin, What is Cinema?, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1967, translated and edited by Hugh Gray, pp. 91–92.
  7. Neame speaking in A Life in Film.
  8. Bolt speaking in The Southbank Show.
  9. Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema, New York, E.P. Dutton, 1968, p. 160.
  10. Ian Cameron in a letter to Alain Silver, May 20, 1971. NOTE: the Movie Paperbacks series ceased publication in 1973 just after the manuscript was delivered and Leslie Frewin eventually published the first edition in 1974 concurrent with Gerald Pratley’s.
  11. http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/poll/directors.html and http://www.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/topten/poll/directors-directors.html

About The Author

Alain Silver is a Santa Monica-based writer/producer of independent feature films, whose books include genre surveys on the samurai film and the vampire film, director studies of Robert Aldrich and David Lean, and seven volumes on film noir.

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