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The Top 10 David Lean Films

By Martin Keady · May 27, 2015

Sometimes with great directors, the clue is in the name.  Richard Linklater, for example, is almost too perfectly named.  In his great, sprawling films, such as the Before… trilogy or Boyhood, links or connections between scenes or characters are often made not instantly but much later, as is often the case in life itself.

In so many ways, David Lean is the polar opposite of Richard Linklater.  Not only is his surname much shorter, but his films are indeed much leaner and tighter, and usually more self-consciously epic in scale.  Lean’s narrative economy may have derived in part from the decade or so that he spent working as an editor before he became a director.  Whatever the reason, his films remain the touchstone of 20th century epic cinema, and he himself is the great director of the past who is most often admired and praised by the great directors of today, including Spielberg and Scorsese.

Here are his Top 10 films, which are a Top 10 to rank alongside those of any director.


(1954, Written by Harold Brighouse, Wynyard Browne, David Lean and Norman Spence, based on the play of the same name by Harold Brighouse)

Any film starring the great Charles Laughton is worth seeing. His is a truly titanic cinematic presence and even in a supposedly “small” film such as this – set in a Victorian shoemaker’s shop – he dominates the screen, as he bullies his daughters (who are also his employees) until one of them rebels by marrying his assistant and setting up her own rival business.

All the classic Lean hallmarks are here: a strong but supple script, based on Harold Brighouse’s fine comic play; an even stronger male lead, who is obviously flawed but less obviously also rather magnificent; and a fine ensemble cast, including John Mills as the brilliant bootmaker who not only mends boots but ultimately the battered relationship between Hobson and his daughters.  Mills, like so many other great British actors (notably Trevor Howard), would become a regular in Lean’s movies, and his own development into a great screen actor would parallel Lean’s own development into a great director.



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(1984, Written by David Lean, based on the novel of the same name by E.M. Forster)

So often at the end of their career (and often, also, near the end of their life), great directors sought to make films that were almost a summation of their earlier films.  Like Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander or Renoir’s The River, David Lean’s A Passage To India is a classic example of this process, all the more so as it was Lean’s first major film in nearly 14 years, after the mixed critical reception that Ryan’s Daughter had received.

A Passage To India brings together so many of Lean’s classic interests and themes: an exotic setting, in colonial India; an individual facing a crisis (in this case, a young woman who has been attacked and nearly raped, but then finds that the wrong man has been accused of the crime); and above all the juxtaposition of those two elements, as the individual attempts to make sense of the strange new world in which they find themselves.

Incidentally, A Passage To India was the first major film based on a novel by E.M. Forster, but it was far from the last; A Room With A View was released the following year by the Merchant-Ivory team, who subsequently filmed most of Forster’s major novels, including Maurice and Howard’s End.  But it was Lean who got there first, translating into cinema Forster’s literary mantra, “Only connect” (the epigram of Howard’s End), to show how the essence of cinema was to compel viewers somehow to connect with the most extraordinary and even apparently unsympathetic characters and situations.  He had done so throughout his career, with characters such as Alec Guinness’s Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge On The River Kwai or Peter O’Toole’s obsessive T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, and did so again in A Passage To India at the very end of his career.



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(1942, Co-directed with Noël Coward, Written by Noël Coward)

Or “The story of a ship”, just as The Bridge On The River Kwai can perhaps be considered as “the story of a bridge”.  Indeed, it is instructive to consider Lean as a kind of cinematic Isombard Kingdom Brunel, a master engineer or builder who, in telling the story of things (in particular, huge pieces of infrastructure), told the story of the men who made or used those things.

Of course, In Which We Serve was also the beginning of one of Lean’s most important film-making relationships, with Noël Coward.  Coward not only co-directed, wrote and starred in the film, but wrote the music.  However, he was also sensible enough to know (given his workload) that he needed a skilful co-director, and Lean was given specific recognition for filming the incredible action scenes, including the eventual sinking of the ship.

Clearly, Coward and Lean’s relationship was a close one and led to their working on several other films together, including This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and, most famously, Brief Encounter. In all of them, Coward was happy to cede full directorial control to Lean, having obviously seen at first-hand, during the making of In Which We Serve, his mastery of a set, cast and crew.



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(1946, Written by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame and Kay Walsh, based on the novel of the same name by Charles Dickens)

Of course, Lean’s supreme literary inspiration was Charles Dickens, England’s greatest novelist and arguably the greatest novelist of all.  Lean’s pair of post-war Dickens adaptations are superb, and on their own would justify his reputation as a great adapter of great literature.

Great Expectations may be Dickens’s greatest novel, and it is certainly among those that have been most often adapted for the screen, including the recent BBC TV adaptation starring Ray Winstone as a truly terrifying Magwitch. However, Lean’s film remains the best screen version, despite the fact that John Mills was too old to play the youthful Pip (a rare case of miscasting by Lean, but typical of the “over-age” casting of so many films of the period).  Nevertheless, the difficulty of accepting Mills as a young man (when, in reality, he was nearly 40) is almost offset by the other casting delights, including a beautiful Jean Simmonds as Pip’s love interest, Estella, and Martita Hunt as the tragic Miss Haversham.  The final scene, in which Miss Havisham’s unworn wedding dress catches fire and eventually destroys her mansion, is a classic example of Lean’s flair for visual storytelling.



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(1948, Written by David Lean and Stanley Haynes, based on the novel of the same name by Charles Dickens)

Lean’s Oliver Twist is the more successful of his Dickens movies, principally because he had obviously learned from his miscasting of the middle-aged John Mills as the young Pip and cast Oliver much more sensitively.  Of course, as in the book itself, Alec Guinness’s Fagin is the most enduring character.  Alongside Shakespeare’s Shylock, Fagin is the most famous but controversial creation of a Jewish character in Western literature, and Guinness’s explicitly Semitic Fagin was hugely controversial at the time the film was released, so soon after the end of World War Two and the revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps.

Nevertheless, Oliver Twist as a whole is a classic and beloved adaptation of a classic and beloved novel, as darkly enjoyable as its source material.  In particular, the blackly luminous cinematography of Guy Green (for which he deservedly won an Academy award) did much to establish the visual template of Victorian London that persists in screen adaptations of Dickens to this day.



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(1965, Written by Robert Bolt, based on the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak)

In the 1960s, Doctor Zhivago was as much a cultural phenomenon as a film, with its soundtrack by Maurice Jarre, (particularly “Lara’s Theme”) becoming almost as much a soundtrack to the decade as the work of The Beatles or John Barry.  Nevertheless, like so many Hollywood adaptations of classic non-English novels (particularly Russian novels), it inevitably suffers from translating the original foreign-language material into English.  This may have been necessary for the international audience that the studios sought, but it inevitably compromised the artistic impact of the film as a whole.

That said, Zhivago is still classic Lean: a love story set against the most epic of backdrops, in this case the Russian revolution.  Omar Sharif (as Zhivago) and Julie Christie (as his love interest, Lara) are contenders for “the most beautiful couple ever” award in any film, and typically for a Lean film there is strong support from the likes of Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness and Rod Steiger.  Most importantly, the extraordinary set-pieces, particularly the journey of a steam train through the Russian snow, are a testament to Lean’s commitment to what might be called “real cinema”: a determination to film scenes in as close to real conditions as possible, rather than in a studio (or, as is the case nowadays, in CGI laboratories).  That commitment is even more pronounced in the remaining films on this list, notably Lawrence of Arabia and Ryan’s Daughter, and is one of the major reasons he is held in such high regard by other great directors, so much so that he might even be described as “the great director’s great director”.



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(1970, Written by Robert Bolt)

I recently saw Ryan’s Daughter again, for the first time in many years, and – appropriately enough for a film in which a huge Atlantic storm is the centre-piece – I was blown away.  It is a truly magnificent film and one of the few great cinematic tragedies to match the many great tragedies of drama and literature.

Initially, Ryan’s Daughter was supposed to be an adaptation of Gustav Flaubert’s classic novel, Madam Bovary.  However, after Robert Bolt (who succeeded, and eventually eclipsed, Noël Coward as Lean’s literary collaborator) produced a script placed in the novel’s original setting of 19th century France, Lean argued for its transposition to early 20th century Ireland, specifically the West of Ireland during World War One.  It was a move of genius, adding enormous contemporary resonance to what might otherwise have seemed a historically distant period piece.  Indeed, the move may have been too successful.  The muted critical reaction to Ryan’s Daughter at the time of its release, especially in Britain, may have been due in part to the fact that it arguably adopted a pro-Irish independence slant at a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were erupting and the whole issue of Ireland’s relationship to Britain was becoming troublingly, indeed terrifyingly, contemporary.

45 years on, and with Northern Ireland infinitely more peaceful than at the time of the film’s release, it is possible to judge Ryan’s Daughter on its own huge merits.  The script is typically Bolt-ian (i.e. simultaneously literary and cinematic); the cinematography is sublime (Lean’s cinematographer on Ryan, Freddie Young, equalled Guy Green nearly a quarter of a century earlier and won an Oscar for Best Cinematography); and the acting is arguably as good as that in any major film of the last 50 years.  John Mills, as the “village idiot” Michael (for which he won the film’s second Oscar as Best Supporting Actor); Trevor Howard as the ultra-religious but supremely human local priest; Robert Mitchum as the cuckolded husband (in what may be the best ever “against-type” performance by a major Hollywood star); Leo McKern as the treacherous Ryan, who condemns his own daughter to public vilification to save his own skin (entirely credibly, given that a man would have been executed for treason whereas a young woman is simply “scalped”); and Sarah Miles, as the titular heroine, and Christopher Jones, as her British army officer lover, are all absolutely superb.

And then there is the ending, which is often unfairly overlooked in accounts of the greatest endings, and in particular the greatest last lines, of any film.  After the incredible events of Ryan’s Daughter, Mitchum and Miles resolve to leave the village and the villagers who have condemned them, planning to part from each other only after they are have left, as they do not want to give the villagers the satisfaction of knowing that their marriage has failed.  Suspecting that that is their plan, Trevor Howard says that he “doubts” that they will be better off apart.  Then, literally shoving Mitchum into the bus that will take him and his unfaithful wife away, he declares, “That doubt is my parting gift to you”.  It is a wonderfully lyrical, nuanced last line, entirely in keeping with a wonderfully lyrical, nuanced film.



(1957, Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, based on the novel of the same name by Pierre Boulle)

The timelessness of The Bridge On The River Kwai is perhaps best illustrated by the reference to it at the beginning of The Wire by Dominic West’s Jimmy McNulty.  Like the hero of Kwai, Alec Guinness’s Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, McNulty is a truly complex character, a maverick, even a genius, who cannot help but screw things up for other people, even if he is ultimately doing the right thing.  Just as McNulty asks, “What did I do?”, after going against his own homicide department (and, more importantly, his commanding officer) by reporting the reality of West Baltimore’s drug war to someone outside the department (a prominent judge who he hopes can help him), so Guinness’s Nicholson asks, “What did I do?”, after building the best possible bridge that he and his men can build, even though it will ultimately aid the Japanese war effort.

The comparison between The Wire and The Bridge On The River Kwai by David Simon (the creator of The Wire) was a deliberate one: both stories are ultimately very grown-up stories, in which it is impossible simply to assign one side as “goodies” and the other as “baddies”.  As Renoir famously said, “Everyone has their reasons”, and both The Wire and The Bridge On The River Kwai are complex, morally ambivalent stories that are as complex and morally ambivalent as life itself.

Incidentally, The Bridge On The River Kwai is also fascinating because of its author, the Frenchman, Pierre Boulle.  The novel was based on Boulle’s own experience as a POW in Japanese-held Asia, and what is remarkable is that that experience not only gave birth to a supreme example of realistic fiction such as Kwai but to a supreme example of fantasy fiction, namely La Planète des Singes, or as we know it in English, Planet of the Apes.  Both novels – Kwai and Apes – derive from the same autobiographical source material, and yet are utterly different.  For that reason, Boulle is one of the most fascinating authors of post-war literature, excelling at both realism and fantasy, and perhaps Lean’s most singular literary collaborator, even ahead of Noël Coward and Robert Bolt.



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(1945, Written by Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean and Ronald Neame, based on the 1936 play Still Life by Noël Coward)

Perhaps it would be best to make these Top 10s simply Top Twos, taking the very finest films of the very finest writers, directors and actors and comparing them against each other to gauge the very finest achievements in cinema.  For Orson Welles, the Top Two would be Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons; for Renoir, it would be Le Regle du Jeu and La Grande Illusion; and for Lean it would be Brief Encounter and Lawrence of Arabia.  If the best actors are ultimately judged by their range (their ability to play vastly differing roles equally brilliantly), perhaps the best actors should be judged similarly – by their ability to make vastly differing but equally powerful films – and if that was the measure, Lean would be a strong contender to be rated the best director ever.

Brief Encounter has been much imitated by others (most recently by the BBC and writer David Nicholls in 7.39) but never bettered.  Indeed, so good is the original that it inadvertently spawned another classic film, based on one of its minor characters.  Billy Wilder always claimed that The Apartment originated from his speculating about the character in Brief Encounter who owned the flat where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard meet.  (Typically for Wilder, he made his apartment-owner a sympathetic loser rather than a priggishly judgmental doctor.)

Perhaps Brief Encounter is best regarded as a kind of British Casablanca, a film that encapsulated the mood of the World War Two generation who knew, having fought and defeated Hitler, that ultimately their own small problems amounted to little more than the proverbial hill of beans.  And yet it is that very acknowledgement by the characters that makes them so sympathetic: in a way, we, the viewer, care more about them and their problems than they do themselves, or allow themselves to.  As film-makers, we are continually told that the secret to cinematic success is to “raise the stakes”.  Well, in all of human history the “stakes” were never higher than during World War Two, when the whole future of humanity was literally at peril, and that is perhaps why the greatest films of that era, such as Casablanca and Brief Encounter, continue to resonate, even seventy years on, in a way that no other films made since possibly can.  It is an awful thought (and one that I hope is never realised), but perhaps the only way that such meaningful and moving films can ever be made again is if the world moves close to apocalypse once more.



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(1962, Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson)

On researching this piece, I was astounded to discover that Robert Bolt was not the sole screenwriter of Lawrence of Arabia and that the film was, in fact, co-written with Michael Wilson.  That is because the influence of Bolt on the film is so huge, as David Lean himself was the first to acknowledge.  For example, Lean credited Bolt with the idea for the famous cut from Lawrence lighting a match to the nuclear heat of the desert sun (an obvious image now that it has been infinitely repeated, but revelatory at the time).

Another extraordinary aspect of Lawrence is that there are no female roles in it, or at least no major roles.  There is no spurious “love interest”, which is a further testament to David Lean’s devotion to making “real cinema” and photographing the world (even the world of the past) as it actually existed.  Lawrence is a film about the revolt of the Arabs against their Turkish oppressors, and as such it is the most genuinely male of subjects.  This was a war, and a world, that women were almost completely excluded from, and their absence helps to drive the men in the story to the most appalling actions, including the brutal sexual attack on Lawrence himself that is hinted at.

I began this appreciation of David Lean by saying that he is probably the great film-maker of the past (i.e. pre-1970, when most of his films were made) who is probably most widely admired by the great film-makers of the present, notably Spielberg and Scorsese, the two members of the “movie brat” generation of the 1970s who have had the longest and most successful directing careers.  From their earliest films, such as Duel and Mean Streets, through to their mature masterpieces such as Goodfellas and Schindler’s List, the influence of David Lean can be felt, in their commitment to the highest standards in scriptwriting, cinematography and acting.  In that respect, the legacy of David Lean, the most epic of the 20th century’s epic film-makers, endures and indeed thrives in the 21st century.



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