David Lean: Master of the Great Film Epic
NEW YORK — DAVID LEAN, who died two weeks ago in London while preparing a movie version of Joseph Conrad's novel "Nostromo," was one of the rare filmmakers to master both the most intimate and the most expansive aspects of cinema. There were many secrets to his success, all connected with his grasp of the emotional and psychological as well as the technical properties of film. Among the most important of his abilities was the precision of his visual imagination. Whether filming the endless sands of an Arabian desert or the cramped confines of a Dickensian parlor, he knew exactly what he wanted to see on screen, and exactly how to get it there.
Lean started his career as a film editor, and never forgot the importance of choosing each image - and each sequence of images - with the same rigor that went into selecting the performers and settings for his works.
He believed in film as personal expression, an attitude that led him to exercise strong - some said authoritarian - control in making his movies. Yet, ironically, he found it difficult to win the admiration of "auteur" critics who examine films for evidence of their makers' individual creative personalities.
In his influential book "The American Cinema," critic and theorist Andrew Sarris includes Lean under the heading "Less Than Meets the Eye," contrasting the "modest virtues" of "Brief Encounter" and "Great Expectations" with the "hot air" of "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Bridge on the River Kwai,"and writing that "whatever artistic sensibility he once possessed is safely embalmed in the tomb of the impersonal cinema."
Everyday moviegoers have thought less about such criticisms than about the sweeping visual beauty in Lean's epics and the niceties of psychological observation in his more intimate films. With the exception of some movies that simply didn't click, his work has been as popular with audiences as it has been controversial among critics.
Lean began his movie career as a low-level studio helper, and rose to become (like Karel Reisz, a gifted contemporary of his) one of British cinema's most sought-after and respected film editors, earning praise for his cutting of such pictures as the George Bernard Shaw comedies "Pygmalion" and "Major Barbara," which still have wide followings some 40 years after their premieres.
LEAN entered the directorial ranks in 1942 as Noel Coward's codirector on "In Which We Serve," a highly honored drama about the British Navy, and continued as solo director of such other Coward films as "Blithe Spirit" and "Brief Encounter," a poignant love story regarded as one of Lean's major achievements.
Charles Dickens was the inspiration behind such later successes as "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist," made in 1947 and 1951 respectively. Lean also showed his versatility with "Breaking the Sound Barrier," which combined military and technological themes. After such human-scaled dramas as "Hobson's Choice" and "Summertime," he turned to an epic subject in "Bridge on the River Kwai" in 1957, and stayed with the spectacular in such pictures as "Dr. Zhivago" and "A Passage to India," his last complet ed film.
I spoke with Lean during the Cannes Film Festival in France three years ago, as he prepared the 1989 reissue of "Lawrence of Arabia" in its unabridged form. He spoke with enthusiasm about his past and present work, pleased to discuss his movies yet showing no desire to court or cajole his critics. He was a much-debated talent, yet an unmistakable one.