Director David Lean was born 100 years ago today. Lean's name has become synonymous with the epic (moreso than even Cecil B. DeMille nowadays) and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is easily considered one of the greatest films of the 20th century and possibly the most deserving winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture.
I first became aware of David Lean when he was given the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1990. Lean had returned to filmmaking with A PASSAGE TO INDIA in 1984 and LAWRENCE received a complete restoration in 1988. Watching the AFI special, I was amazed at the movies David Lean had made. I had only been watching classic films for a few years, but hadn't come across Lean yet and clearly, here was a director I had to get to know. (The photo above is one of my favorites: Lean on location for BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER with actors Nigel Patrick and Ann Todd.)
Lean's early films are highlighted by the Dickens' adaptations of GREAT EXPECTATIONS (a film school staple) and OLIVER TWIST and the delightful BLITHE SPIRIT. Among these early films, is my favorite David Lean movie: BRIEF ENCOUNTER. It's perfectly constructed with an unforgettable central performance by Celia Johnson (Lean, Johnson, and Trevor Howard are on set in photo). And I guess there is just something about the idea that any great romance can't last.
Lean's '50s films gradually get more ambitious. SUMMERTIME is a particular favorite of mine from this period. I'm partial to Kate Hepburn, so the film holds up to repeat viewings perhaps more for me than it might some others.
I accept LAWRENCE OF ARABIA as Lean's supreme achievement, although I find THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI much more exciting on an entertainment level. Lean was devastated with the reception of 1970s RYAN'S DAUGHTER, but, although it's one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen, it was just too intimate a story for the epic treatment, and I agree with the critics that it was a misfire.
In 1990, the talk was about Lean's upcoming film adaptation of Joseph Conrad's NOSTROMO. Robert Bolt was onboard as screenwriter and (I later read) Guy Williams was hired as back-up director in case Lean (in his 80s and diagnosed with throat cancer) wasn't able to finish the film. Just as I followed any mention of a new Stanley Kubrick film from about this time to his eventual delivery of EYES WIDE SHUT in 1999, I followed each lead on NOSTROMO— except it turned out to be a lost cause. I remember seeing David Lean's picture in the top right corner box of the USA TODAY and rushing up to it to see if it was more news of NOSTROMO only to see, to my dismay, that it was for Lean's obituary (in April 1991).
So I never got to see a David Lean film theatrically at the time of its initial release. But I did see the restored LAWRENCE when it made the rounds. And I also have a fun memory of going to a revival of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. The screening was running late and I found myself, with my friends, whistling the "Colonel Bogey March." Before long the whole audience joined in, until the film began to roll!