Roger Ebert Home

David Lean, a filmmaker of epic scale

On the day I went to visit David Lean's set of "Ryan's Daughter" in Dingle, Ireland, in 1969, the sun was shining and it reflected a dazzling light off the sands of the beach. The next day it started to rain, and within a week Robert Mitchum made his famous observation, "We've shot for one day and we're eight days behind schedule." Months later, Lean eventually took cast and crew members all the way to Natal in South Africa to match the sunny beach. He could, of course, have started over again and shot the beach scene with an overcast, but an overcast wasn't what he had in mind. He wanted sun, even in Ireland, even in March.

Perfectionism was not simply a quality in the work of David Lean, who died on Tuesday in England at the age of 83. It was a fetish. He was a man in no hurry to make a movie. He would wait years, if necessary, before be began a project, and he was most content in the stages before and after the actual shooting. He would polish a screenplay forever, and then, after the final shot, would disappear into the editing room for half a year or more.

As he grew older he worked more and more deliberately. Five years passed between "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) and "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962). Three years later he made "Doctor Zhivago." He shot "Ryan's Daughter" in 1969, released it in 1970, and then, stung by its negative critical reception, waited 15 years before he made "A Passage to India" (1984). Seven years later, at the time of his death, he was preparing a film of Joseph Conrad's "Nostromo."

Not all of that long dry spell between 1970 and 1985 was entirely his making, to be sure. More than half of that time was spent working with Robert Bolt, his writing partner, on a screenplay for "Mutiny on the Bounty," which Lean planned as a very expensive two-part epic to be produced by Dino de Laurentiis. When de Laurentiis pulled the plug on the project (and eventually made a scaled-down, shorter version called "The Bounty" with another director), Lean was bitter and depressed, and perhaps some of that emotion carried over into "A Passage to India." The central image of that film was a cave in India which absorbed all words shouted into its darkness and echoed back only an empty boom .

Lean began in the British cinema in 1934, as an editor, and in the years before his films grew to epic length and scope, he directed a series of tight, bright, pointed black-and-white dramas that helped define British postwar moviemaking. Among his key credits in that period were "Blithe Spirit" and "Brief Encounter," both in 1945; "Great Expectations" (1946)' "Oliver Twist" (1948); the underrated "Breaking the Sound Barrier" (1954); "Hobson's Choice" (1954), and the Katherine Hepburn romantic comedy "Summertime" (1955).

His editing was a model of craftsmanship. The American director Martin Scorsese remembers his own days at the New York University film school, where students were given the shots in the opening graveyard sequence of "Great Expectations" and asked to re-edit them. A generation of students gave it their best, learning it the process that Lean had put them together in the best possible way.

Although the epic film has always been an important part of film history, Lean's own epics came toward the end of the period when they were most fashionable. "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1962 was the kind of film that today's moviegoers think of when they think of epics, yet it came 10 years after the Hollywood's epic heyday. It was different in another way, too: While Hollywood liked excess and bravado, lots of big stars and fast action, Lean's "Lawrence" starred an unknown (Peter O'Toole), was a thoughtful psychological study, and had the courage to leave the camera to stare unblinkingly at an empty expanse of desert until, finally, the audience could see what a character saw, a far-away rider on a camel.

"Lawrence of Arabia" made O'Toole into a star, and images from the movie became a permanent part of film history. But the movie itself was almost lost. Shot in wide-screen and 70mm, it was shortened, reedited, and then chopped down the sides to squeeze into the narrow shape box of a television tube. Meanwhile, the priceless original 70mm print was cast into the jumbled vaults of Columbia Pictures, only to be rescued just two years ago by a historic restoration process. At the banquet for Lean in Hollywood on the occasion of the film's official revival, Bob Harris, who restored the film, held up one of the steel cans the film was found in. It was crushed and rusted, and the film inside was creased and torn. But "Lawrence," restored to its original glory, thrilled a new generation of filmgoers.

"Doctor Zhivago" was another 70mm wide-screen epic, and it was characteristic of Lean that at a time when television and home video became crucial to a film's profits, he made films you just about had to see in a theater. One of the great images of "Zhivago" was of a train, seen from miles away, moving across a limitless snow field. On the big screen it was a thrilling image, but on the tube all you saw was a dot surrounded by whiteness.

Was "Ryan's Daughter," his next film, as bad as most critics thought, or did it simply come at the wrong time? It's old-fashioned story of love and passion in Ireland in the 1920s was not fashionable in 1970, among filmgoers raised on "Easy Rider," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "Bonnie and Clyde." When Lean's characters made love, his camera panned to a lake where dandelion seeds drifted onto the surface of the water, and audiences snickered.

Lean, a proud man, heard those snickers and at one low point said he would never work again. Then came the "Mutiny" debacle, followed by the triumph of "A Passage to India," an intelligent adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel about British colonials at sea in the mysteries of India.

In May of 1988, at the Cannes Film Festival, the British held a dinner in honor of (by then) Sir David Lean. There was a little reception for him beforehand, on a private yacht, and what was striking was the way he stood out from the crowd: Tall, imposing, with facial features so large they looked sculpted as a test for a statue of a hero. He was 80, but still robust and aggressive, filled with plans. What he wanted to make, he said, was a film based on Conrad's "Nostromo," the story of a 19th century anti-colonial rebellion in South America. In microcosm in Conrad's novel, he thought, were the beginnings of all the issues of 20th century politics.

The "Nostromo" project moved majestically ahead until last year Lean seemed poised to start shooting. Because of his age, the insurance companies insisted a back-up director be hired, to stand by in case Lean cojuld not continue. Variety announced that Arthur Penn ("Bonnie and Clyde") had agreed to backstop Lean, partly because he wanted to see the film get made. But it was not to be. From a location scouting trip, Lean returned ill to England last winter, never to return.

What will history's verdict be on his lifework? His critics are represented by David Thomson, who in his influential Biographical Dictionary of Film writes of Lean as "relentlessly middlebrow," with "no consuming passion for making films," stating "commonplace meanings and feelings." Well, it is true Lean was not a rebel. He was one who perfected film language rather than reinventing it.

But to go back in the memory to Miss Havisham's wedding cake in "Great Expectations" or the look of sorrow on Trevor Howard's face in "Brief Encounters," to the glory of Lawrence in the desert and the unflappable transplanted Englishness of Dame Peggy Ashcroft in "A Passage to India" is to remember a director whose visual imagination was towering, and who made the movies big just when the industry was trying to make them little.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Sweet Dreams
Disappear Completely
LaRoy, Texas
The Long Game
Sasquatch Sunset


comments powered by Disqus