David Lean, Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957, still from a color film in 35 mm, 161 minutes. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness).


“So now he wants to do Nostromo, does he?” director Michael Powell once chuckled. “Well, it’s just like David to pick Joseph Conrad’s most impossible novel.” The “impossible” wasn’t to be, alas. For David Lean died just as Nostromo was heading into preproduction. But his career was filled with the impossible nonetheless—and, more to the point, with the ineffable. The director who first made his mark with Noel Coward at his most patriotic with In Which We Serve (1942) and most “reserved” with Brief Encounter (1945) would shortly proceed to “quality” adaptations of Dickens’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). Then came Summertime (1955), that most deluxe of Katherine Hepburn romances. But rather than stick with sentiment, Lean shifted into the highest of gears with the prison-camp spectacular The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and the most singularly original of all wide-screen epics, Lawrence of Arabia (1962). When he returned to romance with his adaptation of Doctor Zhivago (1965), it was on that same epic scale, as was Ryan’s Daughter (1970)—a film that found neither public nor critical favor but is ripe for reappraisal. Still, Lean more than regained his footing with A Passage to India, his E. M. Forster adaptation in which romance is stillborn, yet oddly resonant. What all these brilliant, seemingly disparate works have in common is the clarity and precision of Lean’s filmmaking technique, as well as his steely resolve in using it to achieve poetic grandeur.

Everyone recalls the great shot of Omar Sharif slowly approaching a desert watering hole in Lawrence of Arabia—a seemingly banal moment redolent with visual and dramatic suspense. But you can find the same cinematographic insight in the railway station waiting room where much of Brief Encounter unfolds, or in the out-of-the-way antiques shop in the Venice of Summertime, or in that wonderful moment in A Passage to India when an elephant brings the heroine and her friends to the mouth of the Malabar caves. “Every picture tells a story,” as cliché would have it. But with Lean, no picture is ever clichéd.

Film Forum’s two-week retrospective, being complete, includes not only these classics but such less familiar but still powerful works as Madeleine (1950), a period mystery romance with Ann Todd and Ivan Desny, and The Passionate Friends (1949), with Todd again, this time accompanied by Trevor Howard and Claude Rains. Based on an H. G. Wells novel adapted by Eric Ambler, the latter might be described as Brief Encounter in a darker key. A much lighter key is heard in Lean’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s sophisticated ghost farce Blithe Spirit (1945)—shot in beautiful pastel-like colors by frequent collaborator (and fine director in his own right) Ronald Neame. This Happy Breed (1944), another Coward project, with Celia Johnson, John Mills, and Robert Newton, finds Cowardian flag-waving in a yet lighter spirit. Hobson’s Choice (1954) likewise celebrates an England many still wish existed; The Sound Barrier (1952) is a fictional tale about a moment in aviation history that definitely did exist. In it, test pilots attempt a feat of flying that was once thought impossible. But, pace Powell, nothing is truly impossible with David Lean.

David Ehrenstein

David Lean” screens at Film Forum in New York from September 12 to September 25. David Lean: Ten British Classics” screens at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles from October 10 to October 26.