David Lean

David Lean
Sir David Lean CBE
Born 25 March 1908(1908-03-25)
Croydon, Surrey, England
Died 16 April 1991(1991-04-16) (aged 83)
Limehouse, London, England
Occupation UK film director, producer
Years active 1942–91
Spouse Isabel Lean (1930–36) (divorce) 1 child
Kay Walsh (1940–49) (divorce)
Ann Todd (1949–57) (divorce)
Leila Matkar (1960–78) (divorce)
Sandra Hotz (1981–84) (divorce)
Sandra Cooke (1990–91) (his death)

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 such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and A Passage to India (1984); for bringing Charles Dickens's novels to the silver screen with films such as Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948); and for the renowned romantic drama Brief Encounter (1945).

Acclaimed and praised by directors such as Steven Spielberg[1] and Stanley Kubrick,[2] Lean was voted 9th greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute Sight & Sound "Directors Top Directors" poll 2002.[3] Lean has four films in the top eleven of the British Film Institute's Top 100 British Films.[4][5]


Early life

David 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" [6] of a student; he left in his mid-teens and entered his father's chartered accountancy firm as an apprentice. At age 16, his father deserted the family when he ran off with another woman, and young David would later follow a similar path after his own first marriage and child.[6]

Film career


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. His career in feature films began with Freedom of the Seas in 1934 and Escape Me Never in 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."[7]

For Lean's final film, A Passage to India (1984), he chose to both direct and edit, and the two roles were given precisely equal status in the film's credits.[8] Lean was nominated for Academy Awards in directing, editing, and writing for the film.

Early Films as a Director

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 included This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945). Two celebrated Charles Dickens adaptations followed – Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). These two were the first of many Lean films that starred Alec Guinness, whom Lean considered his "good luck charm". ' The next film directed by Lean was The Passionate Friends, an often under-rated and atypical Lean film, but one which marked his first occasion to work with Claude Rains, who gives one of his finest performances in the film. The Sound Barrier (1952) had a screenplay by the playwright Terence Rattigan and Hobson's Choice (1954) was based on the play by Harold Brighouse. Summertime (1955) marked a new direction for Lean. It was shot entirely on location in Venice. U.S.-financed, the film starred Katharine Hepburn as a middle-aged American woman who has a romance while on holiday in Venice.

Historical Epics

In the late fifties and early sixties, Lean directed a series of blockbuster films that made his reputation as a truly international director and a master of the historical epic.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was the story of British and American prisoners of war fighting for survival in a Japanese prison camp during World War Two. The film starred William Holden and Alec Guinness and became the largest box office hit in the United States in 1958. The film won several Academy Awards, including best picture and best director.

In 1962 Lean made his most famous film, Lawrence of Arabia, about a British officer who unites the tribes of the Arab penninsula to fight in World War One. The film made actor Peter O'Toole a star and won several more academy awards for Lean, including best picture and best director. "Lawrence of Arabia" continues to appear on lists of the greatest films ever made, and frequently comes in first on lists of the greatest "epic" films. Filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have cited the picture as a major source of inspiration for their own work.

In 1965 Lean had his greatest box office success, Doctor Zhivago, a romance set during the Russian revolution. The film, based on a novel by Boris Pasternak, tells the story of a physician and poet played by 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 Russian Revolution and subsequent Russian Civil War. Hugely popular at the time, "Doctor Zhivago" is currently the eighth largest grossing film in United States history, 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. Most of his scenes involved Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer, both of whom had previously worked with Lean on Lawrence of Arabia.

Later Works

In 1970, David Lean directed Ryan's Daughter a doomed romance set in Ireland. The film received less positive reviews than Lean's previous work and was not a smash hit at the international box office. Some critics felt the fillms 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.

From 1977 until 1980, Lean and Robert Bolt were working on a film adaptation of Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, a dramatized 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 and her famous box 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 even looked at a seven-part TV series, before finally getting backing from Italian magnate Dino De Laurentiis. Unfortunately for Lean, the project suffered a further setback when Bolt suffered a massive 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 ultimately 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.[9] The film was eventually released as The Bounty.

Lean was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1973, and was knighted in 1984.[10]

After failing to get Mutiny on the Bounty into production, David Lean embarked on his last production, A Passage to India (1984), which was released to positive reviews and received two Academy Awards. During the last years of his life, Lean was in pre-production of a film version of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. Lean assembled an all-star cast for this film, 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, Spielberg left the project and was replaced by Serge Silberman, a respected producer at Greenwich Film Productions. The project went through several writers, including Christopher Hampton and Robert Bolt. 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 just 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 be taking over direction, but the production collapsed and Nostromo soon became a BBC television mini-series.


Lean was one of the founding members of the British Film Academy (later the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or BAFTA) and was appointed its first chairman in 1947.

Reputation and influence

David Lean received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1990, being one of only three non-Americans to receive the award.

Lean is the most represented director on the BFI Top 100 British films list, having a total of seven films on the list, and four films in the top eleven. Lean's films in general have always been extremely popular with the general public, with The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago among the highest-grossing films of all time. While Ryan's Daughter and A Passage to India were less successful on release, they have found wide and appreciative audiences since their release on DVD.

As Lean himself pointed out,[11] his films are often admired by fellow directors as a showcase of the filmmaker's art. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese in particular were huge fans of Lean's epic films, and claimed him as one of their primary influences. Both Spielberg and Scorsese also helped in the 1989 restoration of Lawrence of Arabia which, when released, greatly revived Lean's reputation.

George Lucas has referenced Lean's films, Lawrence of Arabia in particular, throughout his Star Wars film series. John Milius, David Yates, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and Sydney Pollack also claimed influence from Lean's films.[citation needed] Mel Brooks is also an admirer and parodied several of Lean's films in his sci-fi spoof Spaceballs. John Woo once named Lawrence of Arabia among his top three films. [12] More recently, Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) has cited Lean's works, particularly Doctor Zhivago, as an important influence on his work,[13] and Baz Luhrmann has named Lean as one of the inspirations for his 2008 epic Australia.[14]

Personal life

Lean was a long-term resident of Limehouse, east London. His home on Narrow Street is still owned by his family. He was married six times, had one son, and at least two grandchildren--all of whom he was completely estranged from[15] --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. [6]

  • Isabel Lean (28 June 1930–1936) (his first cousin) — one son, Peter
  • Kay Walsh (23 November 1940–1949)
  • Ann Todd (21 May 1949–1957) (also his first cousin)
  • Leila Matkar (4 July 1960–1978) (From, Hyderabad, India. Lean's longest-lasting marriage. [16][17]
  • Sandra Hotz (28 October 1981–1984)
  • Sandra Cooke (15 December 1990 – 16 April 1991)



Lean was nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards: seven for Best Director, one for Best Adapted Screenplay, and one for Best Film Editing, the latter two being for A Passage to India. Out of these nominations, Lean won two Oscars, both in the category of Best Director, for The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). With seven nominations in the category of Best Director, Lean is the third most nominated director in Oscar history, tied with Fred Zinnemann and behind Billy Wilder (8 nominations) and William Wyler (12 nominations).

Lean was also nominated for four Golden Globe awards for Best Director, winning three, for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago.


  1. ^ Indiana Jones' Influences: Inspirations. TheRaider.net. Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  2. ^ The Kubrick Site FAQ. Visual-memory.co.uk. Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  3. ^ Sight & Sound. British Film Institute. Bfi.org.uk (2006-09-05). Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  4. ^ The BFI 100: 1–10. Bfi.org.uk (2006-09-06). Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  5. ^ The BFI 100: 11–20. Bfi.org.uk (2006-09-06). Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  6. ^ a b c Smith, Julia Llewelyn. "Sandra Cooke: 'I always liked asking about his other women'". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/sandra-cooke-i-always-liked-asking-about-his-other-women-616768.html. Retrieved 17 September 2011. 
  7. ^ Sloman, Tony (1999). "Obituary: Harold Kress", The Independent, October 26, 1999. Online version retrieved April 8, 2009.
  8. ^ Kerr, Walter (1985). "Films are made in the Cutting Room", New York Times, March 17, 1985. Online version retrieved November 15, 2007.
  9. ^ http://lean.bfi.org.uk/material.php?theme=2&title=bounty
  10. ^ David Lean Foundation. David Lean Foundation (2005-07-18). Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  11. ^ Brownlow, p. 483
  12. ^ Perce Nev[1] BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/callingtheshots/john_woo.shtml. Retrieved 17 May 2007
  13. ^ Times Online report[dead link]
  14. ^ Faraci, Devin. (2008-11-23) www.chud.com. www.chud.com. Retrieved on 2011-05-29.
  15. ^ Collins, Andrew. "The epic legacy of David Lean". Newspaper feature. The Observer. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/may/04/features. Retrieved 17 September 2011. 
  16. ^ [2]
  17. ^ "Brief encounters: How David Lean's sex life shaped his films". The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/brief-encounters-how-david-leans-sex-life-shaped-his-films-854957.html. 

External links

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

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