In honoring Sir David Lean with its 18th Life Achievement Award, the American Film Institute does more than salute an already much-honored director. For behind the image of the consummate craftsman whose painstaking devotion to technique produced such classics as GREAT EXPECTATIONS, BRIEF ENCOUNTER, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, stands something greater — a genuine film artist.
Art in the cinema is rare — and in the wide-screen epic arena that Lean has come to claim as his own, it’s even rarer. Despite the multifarious problems of international coproduction, the logistical nightmares of location shooting and the iron whims of studio moguls, Lean has managed to produce an uncompromising body of work. For beneath a surface of apparent conventionality — low-key literary adaptations, sensitive romances and tasteful epic sagas — lie passion and originality.
Born near London in 1908, Lean began his career as a studio “gofer” at Gaumont-British. Graduating to the position of film editor, Lean quickly made his mark in that field with credits that include PYGMALION, AS YOU LIKE IT and ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING. His 1942 directorial debut, cohelming the wartime drama IN WHICH WE SERVE with its writer and star Noel Coward, showed promise. And with the appearance of BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945) and GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946), that promise seemed to have been fulfilled: Lean was set to take his place as a solid, reliable type with, maybe, just a bit of something extra, but not enough to alter the moviemaking landscape.
All that was to change in 1955, with the most unlikely of vehicles — SUMMERTIME. Based on Arthur Laurents’ play about an American spinster’s brief brush with romance in Venice, it could have been no more than a pleasant means of showcasing the talents of its star, Katharine Hepburn. But Lean makes it something very different.
Venice isn’t a backdrop to the story, it’s the film’s central character. The ups and downs of the plot consequently take a backseat to mood and atmosphere. Lean’s camera lingers over the landscape, and we come to see the way these lush exteriors mirror the interior life of the heroine — her dreams made real.
The masculine melodramatics of THE BRIDE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) would seem to be worlds away from the sentimental holiday of SUMMERTIME. It might have been a standard war drama. What makes it memorable, however, is Lean’s devotion to character. For all its action-epic sound and fury, it’s the people who matter in KWAI.
KWAI’s mad yet oddly noble martinet, Colonel Nicholson, is but a stone’s throw away from that most unstable of visionaries, T.E. Lawrence in Lean’s masterpiece, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Like KWAI and SUMMERTIME before it, LAWRENCE is a film of matchless imagery — sunrise on the desert, a harrowing sandstorm, a breathless charge of camel-riding warriors. But as before, the interiors are where the real action is — the troubled mind of Lawrence and his dream of reshaping history.
With DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, RYAN’S DAUGHTER and A PASSAGE TO INDIA, Lean’s mastery reaches new levels of poetic sophistication. Images of glass and ice (so stunning they seem almost etched on the screen) run throughout ZHIVAGO, giving its simple love story a haunting gravity it wouldn’t otherwise display. Likewise, the storm scene in RYAN’S DAUGHTER goes beyond literalizing the characters; storm of emotions, addressing instead the implacability of nature in the face of human foibles. Lean’s visual poetry also enriches the death scene of Mrs. Moore in A PASSAGE TO INDIA, where Lean’s supple editing makes it appear as if she’s drowning in the stars that are passing over her head.
A PASSAGE TO INDIA carries the unique credit “directed and edited by David Lean.” It indicates far more than the fact that Lean never abandoned the profession where he first made his name. For Lean’s art is putting things together, not simply on the screen but in the viewer’s inner eye.
That he has been able to do this before the largest possible audience is an enormous achievement. And with Joseph Conrad’s NOSTROMO soon to go before Lean’s camera, that achievement remains happily incomplete.