David Lean, born on this day in 1908, directed eleven different actors to Academy Award winning performances and his films won a staggering 26 Oscars in total. Steven Speilberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorcese are just a few contemporary filmmakers who cite him as a primary influence on their work. In honor of his birthday, we take a behind-the-scenes peek at five of his most acclaimed movies.
Great Expectations (1946)
David Lean got his first directorial work adapting stage works by Noel Coward, but it was his adaptations of the novels of Charles Dickens that first won him international attention. Both Great Expectations and Oliver Twist featured Alec Guinness, who Lean considered a good luck charm. Guinness had appeared in a West End stage production of the book and Lean, not exactly a bibliophile, had never read the book but was first exposed to the story when his then wife Kay Walsh (she was his second wife and he would marry four more times) dragged him to the theatre. He kept much of the stage production's casting, not only giving Alec Guiness his first cinematic speaking role but keeping Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham. Considered one of the best literary adaptations of all time, it also consistently ranks on lists of the best British films.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Producer Sam Spiegel considered many directors for this adaptation of a Pierre Boulet novel – among them John Ford, Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray and Orson Welles – and by the time filming was done, David Lean probably wished Spiegel had chosen one of them instead. He clashed with his cast, particularly Alec Guiness and James Donald, who felt the source material was anti-British – and nearly drowned in a river during a break in shooting. Irreplaceable footage of the expensive bridge explosion was lost for two weeks before being found miraculously intact outside an airport in Egypt, and assistant director John Kerrison died in a car accident enroute to one of the Ceylon locations. In spite of all the production trauma, The Bridge on the River Kwai was an overwhelming success, making lots of money and cleaning up at Oscar time, winning seven Academy Awards, including one to Lean for Best Director.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lean’s masterwork, Lawrence of Arabia is widely considered one of the greatest and most important films in the history of cinema for its epic storytelling and sweeping panoramic images. Filmmakers had been trying to bring the story of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence to the screen since the 1940s. Coming off the huge success of Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean initially wanted to do a biopic of Gandhi, but Columbia Pictures convinced him to shoot the Lawrence story instead. The film was originally to be shot entirely in Jordan and enjoyed the cooperation of King Hussein’s government. Hussein often visited the set and even ended up marrying one of the film’s crew. Unfortunately, cost overruns and an outbreak of illness among the crew forced the production to move to Morocco and Spain. Lean had problems using the Moroccan army as extras during battle scenes, and the fact they began shooting with an unfinished script caused further delays. Camels also posed a problem, as many of the actors were unused to being around them and didn’t know how to ride them. Actor Peter O’Toole became known by the locals as Ab al-'Isfanjah, ‘Father of the Sponge,’ for the improvised foam rubber padding he put on his saddle – an idea that was adapted by the Bedouins and is still in use nearly 50 years later. Despite welcoming the film crew, Jordan, along with several other Middle East nations, would ban the film for being disrespectful of Arab culture. Western audiences were appreciative. The film won seven Academy Awards and would influence generations of filmmakers.
Dr. Zhivago (1965)
The three-picture run of excellence that began with Kwai and ended with Zhivago arguably bests that of any director, past or present. After the epic battle scenes of Lawrence, David Lean wanted to do something more intimate, more romantic for his next film. Perhaps only Lean could think a historical saga covering the Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War and WWI, was anything but epic (it’s hardly, say, a charming love story unfolding between two young Manhattanites) but the film did give him another opportunity to work with leading actresses again, female roles being noticeably absent from his two previous works. Producer Carlos Ponti had optioned the Boris Pasternak novel in hopes that his wife Sophia Loren would play the part of Lara Antipova, but Lean talked him out of it, telling Ponti that Loren was too tall (he told others that he simply could not buy Loren as a virgin). Sarah Miles, Jane Fonda and Yvettee Mimieux were considered, but the part eventually went to Julie Christie. Because the novel had been banned in the Soviet Union, the film was shot mostly in Spain on a giant outdoor set constructed to look like Moscow (some winter scenes were shot in Finland). The movie was not exactly a critical darling upon its release – causing Lean to say initially that he was done with filmmaking – but it went on to win five Academy Awards and become his most commercially successful film. It still ranks as one of the highest-grossing pictures of all time in the United States.
A Passage To India (1984)
All streaks must come to an end, and Lean’s run of successive blockbuster hits finally came to an end with 1970’s Ryan’s Daughter. Afterward, Lean tried for years to adapt Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian, a book that covered the same high seas incident depicted in Mutiny on The Bounty. But 14 years would pass before his next (and last) film, an adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. He clashed on set with the female lead, Judy Davis, who told the L.A. Times, "When I walked into his office for the first time he didn't know the first thing about me as an actress – which is a put-down in itself. Later on, it was clear he was surprised I had any opinions at all. We got into an actual screaming match in India. The reputation I have for being difficult comes from that film." The film also reteamed Lean with Alec Guinness, but it was not a happy reunion – Guinness was incensed to find many of his scenes didn’t make final cut and refused to speak with Lean until shortly before Lean died of throat cancer on April 16, 1991.