David Lean

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Sir David Lean, CBE
Born (1908-03-25)25 March 1908
Croydon, Surrey, England
Died 16 April 1991(1991-04-16) (aged 83)
Limehouse, London, England
Occupation Film director, film producer, screenwriter, film editor
Years active 1942–1991
Spouse(s) Isabel Lean (1930–1936; divorced)
Kay Walsh (1940–1949; divorced)
Ann Todd (1949–1957; divorced)
Leila Matkar (1960–1978; divorced)
Sandra Hotz (1981–1984; divorced)
Sandra Cooke (1990–1991; his death)
Children 1

Sir David Lean, CBE (25 March 1908 – 16 April 1991) was an English film director, producer, screenwriter and editor, best remembered for big-screen epics[1] such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). He is also known for the Dickens adaptations of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), as well as the romantic drama Brief Encounter (1945).

Lauded by directors such as Steven Spielberg[2] and Stanley Kubrick,[3] Lean was voted 9th greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute Sight & Sound "Directors' Top Directors" poll 2002.[4] Nominated seven times for the Academy Award for Best Director, for which he won twice for The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia, he has three films in the top five of the British Film Institute's Top 100 British Films.[5][6] and was awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement award in 1990.

Early life and education

Lean was born in Croydon, Surrey (now part of Greater London), to Francis William le Blount Lean and the former Helena Tangye (niece of Sir Richard Trevithick Tangye). His parents were Quakers and he was a pupil at the Quaker-founded Leighton Park School in Reading. His younger brother, Edward Tangye Lean (1911–1974), founded the original Inklings literary club when a student at Oxford University. Lean was a half-hearted schoolboy with a dreamy nature who was labeled a "dud"[7] of a student; he left in his mid-teens[8] and entered his father's chartered accountancy firm as an apprentice. A more shaping event for his career than his formal education had been an uncle's gift, when Lean was aged ten, of a Brownie box camera. "You usually didn't give a boy a camera until he was 16 or 17 in those days. It was a huge compliment and I succeeded at it.' Lean printed and developed his films, and it was his 'great hobby'.[9] At age 16, his father deserted the family when he ran off with another woman, and Lean would later follow a similar path after his own first marriage and child.[7]

Period as film editor

Bored by his work, Lean spent every evening in the cinema, and in 1927, after an aunt had advised him to find a job he enjoyed doing, he went to Gaumont Studios where his obvious enthusiasm earned him a month's trial without pay. He was taken on as a teaboy, promoted to clapperboy, and soon rose to the position of third assistant director. By 1930 he was working as an editor on newsreels, including those of Gaumont Pictures and Movietone, while his move to feature films began with Freedom of the Seas (1934) and Escape Me Never (1935).

He edited Gabriel Pascal's film productions of two George Bernard Shaw plays, Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941). He edited Powell & Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). After this last film, Lean began his directing career, after editing more than two dozen features by 1942. As Tony Sloman wrote in 1999, "As the varied likes of David Lean, Robert Wise, Terence Fisher and Dorothy Arzner have proved, the cutting rooms are easily the finest grounding for film direction."[10] David Lean was given honorary membership of the Guild of British Film Editors in 1968.

British films

His first work as a director was in collaboration with Noël Coward on In Which We Serve (1942), and he later adapted several of Coward's plays into successful films. These films are This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945) with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard as clandestine lovers.

Two celebrated Charles Dickens adaptations followed – Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). David Shipman wrote in The Story of Cinema: Volume Two (1984): "Of the other Dickens films, only Cukor's David Copperfield approaches the excellence of this pair, partly because his casting, too, was near perfect".[11] These two films were the first directed by Lean to star Alec Guinness, whom Lean considered his "good luck charm". The actor's portrayal of Fagin was controversial at the time. The first screening in Berlin during February 1949 offended the surviving Jewish community and led to a riot. It caused problems too in New York, and after private screenings, was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Board of Rabbis. "To our surprise it was accused of being anti-Semitic", Lean wrote. "We made Fagin an outsize and, we hoped, an amusing Jewish villain."[12] The terms of the production code meant that the film's release in the United States was delayed until July 1951 after cuts amounting to eight minutes.[13]

The next film directed by Lean was The Passionate Friends (1949), an atypical Lean film, but one which marked his first occasion to work with Claude Rains, who played the husband of a woman (Todd) torn between him and an old flame (Howard). The Passionate Friends was the first of three films to feature the actress Ann Todd, who became his third wife. Madeleine (1950), set in Victorian-era Glasgow is about an 1857 cause célèbre with Todd's lead character accused of murdering a former lover. "Once more", writes film critic David Thomson "Lean settles on the pressing need for propriety, but not before the film has put its characters and the audience through a wringer of contradictory feelings."[14] The last of the films with Todd, The Sound Barrier (1952), has a screenplay by the playwright Terence Rattigan and was the first of his three films for Sir Alexander Korda's London Films. Hobson's Choice (1954), with Charles Laughton in the lead, was based on the play by Harold Brighouse.

Thomson, writing about Lean in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, comments:

International films

Lean in Northern Finland in 1965 while shooting Doctor Zhivago.

Summertime (1955) marked a new departure for Lean. It was partly American financed, although again made for Korda's London Films. The film features Katharine Hepburn in the lead role as a middle-aged American woman who has a romance while on holiday in Venice. It was shot entirely on location there.

For Columbia and Sam Spiegel

Lean's films now began to become infrequent, but much larger in scale, and more extensively released internationally. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was based on a novel by Pierre Boulle recounting the story of British and American prisoners of war trying to survive in a Japanese prison camp during the Second World War. The film stars William Holden and Alec Guinness and became the highest grossing film of 1957, in the United States. It won several Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Director.

After extensive location work in the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and elsewhere, Lean's Lawrence of Arabia was released in 1962. The first project of Lean's with a screenplay by playwright Robert Bolt, it recounts the life of T. E. Lawrence, the British officer who united the peoples of the Arab peninsula to fight in the Great War. The film turned actor Peter O'Toole into a star and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Lean's second win for Best Director. He remains the only British director to win more than one Oscar for directing.


Lean had his greatest box office success with Doctor Zhivago (1965), a romance set during the Russian Revolution. The film, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, tells the story of a physician and poet (Omar Sharif) who falls in love with an unavailable woman named Lara (Julie Christie) and struggles to be with her in the chaos of the revolution and subsequent Russian Civil War. As of 2015, it is the 8th highest grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation. In addition, Lean directed some scenes of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) while George Stevens was doing location work in Nevada.

In 1970, Lean's Ryan's Daughter was finally released after an extended period on location in Ireland. A doomed romance, it is loosely based on Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. The film received far fewer positive reviews than the director's previous work, particularly being savaged by the New York critics, and was not a success at the international box office, unlike Lean's earlier epics. Some critics felt the film's massive visual scale and extended running time did not suit its small-scale romantic narrative. Nonetheless, the film won two Academy Awards the following year, for cinematographer Freddie Young and supporting actor John Mills. The reception of the film put Lean off making another film for some years.

Last years and unfulfilled projects

From 1977 until 1980, Lean and Robert Bolt worked on a film adaptation of Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, a dramatised account by Richard Hough of the Mutiny on the Bounty. It was originally to be released as a two-part film, one named The Lawbreakers that dealt with the voyage out to Tahiti and the subsequent mutiny, and the second named The Long Arm that studied the journey of the mutineers after the mutiny as well as the admiralty's response in sending out the frigate HMS Pandora, in which some of the mutineers were imprisoned. Lean could not find financial backing for both films after Warner Bros. withdrew from the project; he decided to combine it into one and looked at a seven-part TV series before getting backing from Italian mogul Dino De Laurentiis. The project then suffered a further setback when Bolt suffered a serious stroke and was unable to continue writing; the director felt that Bolt's involvement would be crucial to the film's success. Melvyn Bragg ended up writing a considerable portion of the script.

Lean was forced to abandon the project after overseeing casting and the construction of the $4 million Bounty replica; at the last possible moment, actor Mel Gibson brought in his friend Roger Donaldson to direct the film, as producer De Laurentiis did not want to lose the millions he had already put into the project over what he thought was as insignificant a person as the director dropping out.[16] The film was eventually released as The Bounty.

After failing to get Mutiny on the Bounty into production, Lean embarked on his last completed project as director, A Passage to India (1984), with a screenplay adapted from E. M. Forster's 1924 novel by Lean himself. For this final film, he chose to return to editing, with the result that his three roles were given precisely equal status in the film's credits.[17] Unlike Ryan's Daughter, the film opened to positive reviews, and Lean was nominated for Academy Awards in directing, editing, and writing.

During the last years of his life, Lean was in pre-production of a film version of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. He assembled an all-star cast, including Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield, Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Lambert, Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Quaid, with Georges Corraface as the title character. Lean also wanted Alec Guinness to play Doctor Monyghan, but the aged actor turned him down in a letter from 1989: "I believe I would be disastrous casting. The only thing in the part I might have done well is the crippled crab-like walk." Steven Spielberg came on board as producer with the backing of Warner Bros., but after several rewrites and disagreements on the script, he left the project and was replaced by Serge Silberman, a respected producer at Greenwich Film Productions.

The project involved several writers, including Christopher Hampton and Robert Bolt, but their work was abandoned. In the end, Lean decided to write the film himself with the assistance of Maggie Unsworth, with whom he had worked on the scripts for Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, and The Passionate Friends. Originally Lean considered filming in Mexico but later decided to film in London and Madrid, partly to secure O'Toole, who had insisted he would take part only if the film was shot close to home. Nostromo had a total budget of $46 million and was six weeks away from filming at the time of Lean's death from throat cancer. It was rumoured that fellow film director John Boorman would take over direction, but the production collapsed. Nostromo was finally adapted for the small screen with an unrelated BBC television mini-series in 1997.

Personal life and honours

Lean was a long-term resident of Limehouse, east London. His home on Narrow Street is still owned by his family. His co-writer and producer Norman Spencer has said that Lean was a "huge womaniser" and "to my knowledge, he had almost 1,000 women".[18] He was married six times, had one son, and at least two grandchildren—from all of whom he was completely estranged[19]—and was divorced five times. He was survived by his last wife, art dealer Sandra Cooke, the co-author (with Barry Chattington) of David Lean: An Intimate Portrait.[7] His six wives were:

  • Isabel Lean (28 June 1930 – 1936) (his first cousin); one son, Peter
  • Kay Walsh (23 November 1940 – 1949)
  • Ann Todd (21 May 1949 – 1957)
  • Leila Matkar (4 July 1960 – 1978) (From, Hyderabad, India). Lean's longest-lasting marriage.[20][21]
  • Sandra Hotz (28 October 1981 – 1984)
  • Sandra Cooke (15 December 1990 – 16 April 1991)

Lean was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1973, and was knighted in 1984.[22] David Lean received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1990, being one of only three non-Americans to receive the award.

Reputation and influence

Lean is the most represented director on the BFI Top 100 British films list, having a total of seven films on the list. As Lean himself pointed out,[23] his films are often admired by fellow directors as a showcase of the filmmaker's art. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese in particular are fans of Lean's epic films, and claim him as one of their primary influences. Spielberg and Scorsese also helped in the 1989 restoration of Lawrence of Arabia which, after release, greatly revived Lean's reputation.

John Woo once named Lawrence of Arabia among his top three films.[24] More recently, Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) has cited Lean's works, particularly Doctor Zhivago, as an important influence on his work.[25]



  1. Roland, Bergan (2006). Film. 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL: Doring Kindersley. p. 321. ISBN 978-1-4053-1280-6.CS1 maint: location (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Indiana Jones' Influences: Inspirations. TheRaider.net. Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  3. The Kubrick Site FAQ. Visual-memory.co.uk. Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  4. The directors’ top ten directors. Bfi.org.uk (5 September 2006). Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  5. The BFI 100: 1–10. Bfi.org.uk (6 September 2006). Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  6. The BFI 100: 11–20. Bfi.org.uk (6 September 2006). Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Smith, Julia Llewelyn. "Sandra Cooke: 'I always liked asking about his other women'". London: The Independent. Retrieved 17 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. http://davidleancroydon.org.uk/about/croydon/
  9. the Guardian, April 17 , 1991
  10. Sloman, Tony (1999). "Obituary: Harold Kress", The Independent, 26 October 1999. Online version retrieved 8 April 2009.
  11. Shipman, David (1984). The Story of Cinema Volume Two: From Citizen Kane to the Present. Hodder & Stoughton. p. 775.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean, University Press of Kentucky, 2006, pp.135–36
  13. Phillips, p.139
  14. Thomson, David (10 May 2008). "Unhealed wounds". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 December 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Thomson, David (2002). The New Biographical Dictionary of Film. London & New York: Little, Brown & Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 503–4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. [1] Archived 31 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  17. Kerr, Walter (1985). "Films are made in the Cutting Room", New York Times, 17 March 1985. Online version retrieved 15 November 2007.
  18. "How we made Hobson's Choice". Guardian. Retrieved 1 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Collins, Andrew (4 May 2008). "The epic legacy of David Lean". Newspaper feature. London: The Observer. Retrieved 17 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "The Hyderabad connection". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 21 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Brief encounters: How David Lean's sex life shaped his films". London: The Independent. 29 June 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. David Lean Foundation. David Lean Foundation (18 July 2005). Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  23. Brownlow, p. 483
  24. Perce Nev, BBC. Retrieved 17 May 2007
  25. Times Online report Archived 28 September 2012 at the Wayback Machine


  • Alain Silver and James Ursini, David Lean and his Films, Silman-James, 1992.
  • Kevin Brownlow, David Lean, Faber & Faber, 1997.
  • Silverman, Stephen M., David Lean, Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
  • Santas, Constantine, The Epics Films of David Lean, Scarecrow Press, 2011
  • Turner, Adrian "The Making of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia" (Dragon's World, Limpsfield UK, 1994)
  • Turner, Adrian "Robert Bolt: Scenes from two lives" (Hutchinson, London 1998)
  • Williams, Melanie, David Lean, [Manchester University Press, 2014]
  • Morris, L. Robert and Lawrence Raskin, Lawrence of Arabia: the 30th Anniversary Pictorial History, Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1992

Further reading

  • "Sir David Lean - Obituary". Daily Telegraph. 17 April 1991. Retrieved 22 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Unsigned obituary of Lean.
  • Lane, Anthony (31 March 2008). "Master and Commander: Remembering David Lean". The New Yorker. Retrieved 22 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Lane's appreciation of Lean on his centennial
  • Silver, Alain (February 2004). "David Lean". Senses of Cinema (30). Retrieved 22 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Silver's essay on Lean's career compiled as part of the Senses of Cinema Great Directors series.
  • Thomson, David (9 May 2008). "Unhealed wounds". Retrieved 22 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> Thomson's appreciation of Lean on the occasion of his centennial.

External links

Preceded by
Richard Attenborough, CBE
NFTS Honorary Fellowship Succeeded by
Nick Park, CBE

Template:David Lean