David Lean: Intimacy in the Epic

On 25th March 2019, Sir David Lean would have turned 111 years. His big breakthrough happened when he switched from a wardrobe supervisor to the cutting room, where he learned editing and first established himself. Along with Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean is one of the most significant British filmmakers to emerge from the first half of the twentieth century.

David Lean: Intimacy in the Epic David Lean: Intimacy in the Epic Source : Shephard Express


There is much more to David Lean than the extraordinary spectacle which has come to define his lasting legacy as a visual filmmaker through his iconic frames in Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago-the panoramic landscapes, precision editing, grandiose compositions, and epic scale- "images of such monumental proportion that they tend to dwarf the characters who appear almost imperceptibly in their all-encompassing frame." It is no wonder that great directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese cite his films as a tremendous influence. In a career spanning forty years, he directed only sixteen feature films, five of those appeared in the top thirty of the BFI's Top 100 Films.


David Lean's characters struggle to reconcile their personal ambitions with their human limitations. They are unforgiving to themselves. Many of his films are consumed with an air of chagrin. The astonishing facet of David Lean's oeuvre is the convergence between the flamboyance and the frugal. The intimidating and the intimate standing out as separate elements but operating concomitantly. Therefore, it is only proper that his films are experienced in their overwhelming magnificence on the big screen.


"All of his films, no matter how small or large their dimensions, demonstrate an obsessive cultivation of craft, a fastidious concern with production detail that defines the "quality" postwar British cinema. That craft and concern are as hyperbolic in their devices as is the medium itself. Viewers surprised at the attention to detail and composition in Ryan's Daughter, a work whose scope would appear to call for a more modest approach, had really not paid attention to the truly enormous dimensions of Brief Encounter, a film that defines, for many, intimist cinema." Writes author Charles Affron in Film Directors Encyclopedia.


David Lean's solo directorial debut was This Happy Breed which was about the ‘stoicism, humour and resilience of ordinary British people.' He explores politics and class conflicts through the mundane negotiations that take place within a family in everyday events like births, weddings, growing up, celebrations and deaths. With this film, Lean began using his signature ‘leaking' style of editing where the sound of the next scene merges with the current scene before it has finished to create a sense of anticipation.


David Lean's Brief Encounter is a poetic masterpiece-an outstanding work of non-linear narrative construction and a pivotal film in editing technique. The ending is all the more poignant because it does not come as a surprise, but rather recounts all the little details that that led to it. Recently, Todd Haynes directed Carol where he borrowed quite a lot from Lean's Brief Encounter-it begins and ends with the same scene, and also pays homage to Lean's celebrated shot of Trevor Howard resting his hand on Celia Johnson's shoulder.


Lean uses the dark alleys and the contrasting light at station platforms to emulate the atmosphere of secrecy and paralyzing guilt in Alec and Laura's affair. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard's exquisite performances are delicately graceful. Their precise gestures make them moving. David Lean subtly explores the self-imposed restraint of the two lovers in their manner of expression. Themes of fidelity, trust, loyalty are juxtaposed with freedom, romance and self-honesty.


In The Rough Guide to Film, Tom Charity writes: "Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell and David Lean: the three great British filmmakers of their generation were born within a radius of fifty miles and just nine years apart. Each of them served an apprenticeship in the silent era, learned their craft from the bottom up, proved their mettle in their thirties, and hit a creative peak in middle age... Lean was first and foremost a superb craftsman. In the pre-war years he developed a reputation as the best editor in the country; his films are distinguished by their control of rhythm and shrewd use of counterpoint. Lean's camera is more self-effacing than Hitchcock's or Powell's, and although he was famed for his perfectionist compositional sense, his eye was more conventional. It's in the cutting that you feel both the romantic ardour and the repression that create the central tension in his work."


David Thomson, writing about Lean, was more critical, says: "From 1952 to 1991, he made eight films-and in only one of them, I suggest -Lawrence-is the spectacle sufficient to mask the hollow rhetoric of the scripts. But Lean before 1952 made eight films in ten years that are lively, stirring, and an inspiration-they make you want to go out and make movies, they are so in love with the screen's power and the combustion in editing."


In Great Expectations, Lean successfully translates a complex novel into a stirring visual grandeur not at the expense of emotional canvas. He liberally uses light and sound to conjure a parallel world that is heightened and evocative. Apart from being one of the most acclaimed British films of all time, the film is also considered to be one of the finest British literary adaptations. His second Dickens' adaptation, Oliver Twist foreshadowed the epics Lean would later make. It is not as visually exaggerated as his later works. The production design and sharp editing create a breathing narrative in which the characters are not overpowered by the spaces and the milieu they inhabit.


In The Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean saw Shakespearean parallels in the tragic relationship between Saito (played by Sessue Hayakawa) and Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness). Lean also carefully highlighted the hypocrisy of traditional English values through the character of Nicholson. However, author Brian McFarlane wrote, "In Lean's epics there is a loss of ‘the human drama' and the intense personal intimacy that had characterised the earlier ones".


Although it was a critical and mainstream failure, one can appreciate the craftsmanship and exceptional compositions in 1970 epic romantic film Ryan's Daughter, roughly based on Flaubert's Madame Bovary, for its rustic Irish landscape as well as the claustrophobia of rural life.


David Lean's adaptation of Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India marked the first-time solo screenwriting and editing credits since he had become a director. Like Summertime (1955) and Brief Encounter (1945), he focuses on "emotional and psychological turmoil of a middle-class woman brought about by her seemingly irrational and destructive behaviour as the result of sexual passion." Although it didn't break any box-office records, the successful adaptation of Forster's novel led to a his other novels being adapted including James Ivory's A Room with a View, Maurice and Howard's End. David Lean was nominated for Oscars for directing, adapting and editing the film. In June 1984 he was knighted by the Queen. He died of pneumonia on 16 April 1991.


He used to say "Directing is a kind of falling in love; I love making movies. If I wasn't paid to do it, I would pay to do it." And "It's awfully hard, when you look back over the really great movies that you see in your life, to remember a line of dialogue. You will not forget the pictures."


And so, won't we.




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