While David Lean was directing Summertime, he received a cable from Sam Spiegel asking if he would direct The Bridge on the River Kwai. Lean sought advice from his leading lady, Katharine Hepburn, who had had a tumultuous relationship with the Hollywood producer during the filming of The African Queen (1951); she told him, “Take it. You’ll learn a lot from him. And he’ll learn a lot from you.”
Before accepting the prestigious assignment about a group of captive British soldiers who construct a bridge for the Japanese Army during WWII, David Lean had some serious concerns regarding the source material. “Pierre Boulle’s book was wonderfully funny but as far as movies are concerned he went too far,” stated Lean. “Boulle was having a great joke against the British when he wrote it. It was just not believable when Clipton comes up to the colonel, ‘I suppose we have to paint the thing, sir?’ ‘Don’t even think such a thing, Clipton,’ said the Colonel testily. ‘The most we could do is give it a coating of lime – and a fine target it would make for the RAF wouldn’t it! You seem to forget there’s a war on!’ I thought that was going too far. I went over to Sam Spiegel and said, ‘If I can tone it down, if I can do it like the book but take the excesses out, I’ll do it.’”
The fundamental creative challenge for the director was making the motivations of Colonel Nicholson, portrayed by Alec Guinness, comprehendible to the audience. “If they don’t understand and admire him in spite of his misguided actions, his statue will diminish – and being the cornerstone of the film, the size of the film will diminish with him.” In assessing the author’s depiction of the British in the book, the director responded, “We love the letter of the law. We are ‘superior’ and stubborn as mules. Boulle has taken all of these characteristics, and with a great deal of warmth, admiration, and understanding. He has shown the characteristics of the old school tie carried to tragic lengths. The story of the building of a bridge over the River Kwai is the story of a folly. It is a folly to which all of us might subscribe under the pressures, emotions, and tempers of war. If we can show this minor incident as a miniature reproduction of a greater folly which is the War itself, we shall have a great film.”
Released in 1957, The Bridge on the River Kwai would go on to dominate the Oscars, winning Best Actor (Alex Guinness), Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Musical Score.
A biopic on Mahatma Gandhi was next on the agenda for David Lean, with Alec Guinness set to play the historical figure. However, when the director’s relationship with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger reached an impasse, the he shifted his focus toward the exploits of a fellow countryman, T.E. Lawrence. By uniting the Arab nations into a singular fighting force, Lawrence successfully launched an assault on Damascus in 1918, defeating the Turkish army. Based on the autobiography called Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the final draft of the screenplay would be completed by English playwright Robert Bolt, who gained fame by penning A Man For All Seasons.
After a reconnaissance visit to Jordan, Lean wrote in a letter, “The desert is wonderful. It gave me a bit of a shock as it wasn’t at all what I expected from my boyhood diet of The Sheik, The Garden of Allah, and Beau Geste. Perhaps the reason is that all of these entertainments have dealt with North Africa. The Seven Pillars country is something quite different. At first I was terribly worried by not finding what I expected. I thought I would find miles and miles of flat sand and rolling sand dunes and they’re just not here. Then suddenly I realized that what I was seeing was better than what I’d hope to see.” Lean’s enthusiasm was tempered with a nagging worry as he continued to write. “Am I mad? Can I make audiences share my thrill? I know I’m a sort of maniac because the thrill of seeing these places makes up, by a long chalk, for the discomfort of the living conditions. I do realize we’ve got a tough time ahead, with the British unit who expect mashed potatoe [sic] with every meal and won’t give a care for Lawrence, the desert or me.”
Like T. E. Lawrence who commanded the Arabs to a military victory, Lean found himself in a similar situation. “I remember Anthony Quayle coming out on location,” remarked the director, “I remember him saying, ‘You’re like a bloody general out here. You’ve got a huge army under your control. I’m madly impressed.’ I never thought of it that way. I suppose it was rather like that. You do have a lot of officers and privates and God knows what else. And you get to know them all very well. That’s really why I like working with the same people. Because you can talk to them in a sort of shorthand, just a point here or there and they know what you mean, and you can work quite fast.”
As much as the movie is revered for its spectacular scenery, the attention to detail also added a great deal to the atmosphere of the story. “One of the cleverest things in Lawrence,” reflected Lean, “I’m not so sure whose idea it was – probably John Box’s - concerned the Arab robes. Lawrence is given these robes fairly early on, when he’s accepted by the Arabs and then the rot starts to set in, and he is seized by a sort of power mania. What the costume people did was gradually to change the texture of the material from which his Arab clothes were made, and they made it thinner and thinner until it was just muslin, and at the end he is just ghostlike. Nobody ever spots it.”
The 1962 film became David Lean’s second consecutive Academy Awards triumph as Lawrence of Arabia was awarded with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography (Colour), Best Art Direction and Set Decoration (Colour), Best Sound, Best Musical Score, and Best Editing.
With George Stevens falling behind and over budget on his film about the life of Jesus, Lean agreed to assist in the production. Entitled The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) the British filmmaker directed some of the scenes featuring actor Claude Rains as King Herod; he found himself enjoying the experience of working with an American movie crew. “Everything moves much faster than in an English studio,” David Lean wrote during his two week stay in the United States, “Yesterday morning I went in and changed a complete setup which had been lit and rehearsed the previous night. Not one murmur from anyone except that about half a dozen of the workmen came up and said how much better they thought the idea was and hoped I didn’t think they took too long in making the change!”
While crossing the South Atlantic aboard a cruise ship, Lean decided to read a five hundred page novel that his agent had sent to him. “So I propped myself up and read and read the first night and became more interested. The next night I thought, ‘I’ll finish it tonight,’ and ended up sitting in my bed, with a box of Kleenex, wiping tears away. I was so touched by it, and I thought that if I can be touched by this, sitting in a liner, reading a book, I must be able to make a good, touching film of it. As soon as I landed, I contacted my agent and said, ‘Yes, I’ll do Doctor Zhivago.’”
Set during the Russian Revolution, the Nobel Prize winning book recounts the love affairs of a doctor who aspires to become a poet. Reuniting with Robert Bolt, the director instructed the screenwriter, “The love story being a human basic will touch almost everyone. I’m not saying I think the inner political conflict should be ignored, I am saying that we can’t expect the mass audience to follow the refinement of conflict in this area. It must be stated as simply as possible in my opinion. The audience will understand every nuance of the love story. If we try to shift the weight on to the other conflict I think they will become impatient.”
Unrest on the film set became a regular occurrence with the veteran moviemaker’s aloofness not helping matters. “I envy people who have sudden flashes of genius,” confessed Lean, “because I don’t. I try to work out every possible way to do a scene and then choose the way that will surprise audiences. If I seem to be in another world when friends and unit people speak to me, it’s because I don’t have the scene solved. I’m frequently thought to be rude when I’m really in a mental turmoil.”
While shooting in Spain, the production was plagued by a lack of snow, and creating the scene where the Red Army charges across the frozen lake, required some innovation. “There wasn’t a lake there at all,” stated property master Eddie Fowlie. “It was just a great big field. I spread it all with cement and in certain places I put down sheet iron. I used an awful lot of crushed white marble on top, thousands of tons of it, which we ironed out with steamrollers, so the horses were able to slide on that in a more natural way.”
Initially, the prospects for Doctor Zhivago did not look good as it was released to mixed reviews in 1965. “I felt absolutely sick at heart and ashamed,” remarked the British director. “I thought the picture was rather good. I thought it worked. I couldn’t believe it was as bad as they said it was.” As for the audience response, things were not looking much better. “For the first week that theatre was empty,” began David Lean, “and MGM was paying to keep the film on. The second week it picked up a bit, the third week it picked up more and by the fourth week you couldn’t get a seat.” The momentum built to the point that the movie was nominated for ten Oscars and was awarded with Best Art Direction and Set Design (Colour), Best Cinematography (Colour), Custom Design (Colour), Best Musical Score, and Best Adapted Screenplay.
When a script of Robert Bolt’s adaptation of Madame Bovary arrived it served as the basis for the British director’s 1970 film Ryan’s Daughter. “We chose Ireland,” explained Lean in reference to his decision not to set the story of infidelity in France, “because we had to have an outside conflict, something over the hill to come and affect the characters. The 1916 Irish situation suited us rather well.” In recounting the tale, David Lean explained, “A girl marries her teacher who, because he taught her about great men and their music and their romantic imaginings, she believes he has a similar heroic greatness. He has none at all; he is just a simple, good man and no match for romantic youthful imaginings.”
John Mills was cast as the “village idiot” who exposes the illicit love affair between the young woman played by Sarah Miles, and a shell-shocked British officer portrayed by Christopher Jones. The relationship between Lean and Robert Mitchum, who had the role of the cuckold husband, was an uneasy one. “I knew he [Lean] was an eccentric,” reflected Mitchum, “but I didn’t know in which direction that manifested itself. The rewarding part of it was that I finally met somebody who considered the medium as important as I did. Only he suffered it. I rather insulated myself against the suffering. But David suffers and I suffered along with him. And I think he’s rather shy in the revelation of his own feelings.”
The other complication was the unpredictable Irish weather. “We spent a year in Ireland and poor David had such miserable luck,” said Miles. “Once we did half a scene and I remember waiting in my caravan for three solid weeks before there was enough sun to finish the other half of the scene.” As the twenty-six week schedule proved inadequate and production costs rose high above the nine million dollar budget, MGM began to worry as to whether or not the British filmmaker was capable of completing the picture; the studio executives arrived on location and had a meeting with him. “If it is important enough for you to fly all the way from America to see me,” he told them, “I’ll abandon shooting until such time as you’re completely happy.” They were gone the next morning.”
Influential movie critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, “The emptiness of Ryan’s Daughter shows in every frame, and yet the publicity machine has turned it into an artistic event, and the American public is a sucker for the corrupt tastefulness of well-bred English epics.” Even after John Mills received the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, Lean could not rebound from the barrage of harsh criticism. “I thought,” the director recalled, “What the hell am I doing if my work is as bad as all this? I’ll do something else. I went traveling around the world and I didn’t make a film for fourteen years. I thought, ‘What’s the point?’”
During his self-imposed exile, David Lean had not completely abandoned the idea of doing another movie. A fully-functional ship was being built in New Zealand while Robert Bolt and Lean collaborated on two scripts about the infamous mutiny and prosecution of the crew members aboard an armed British sea vessel. The project collapsed due to a lack of financing. Ironically, the first screenplay, entitled The Lawbreakers, was resurrected in 1984 under the direction of Roger Donaldson as The Bounty; the same year, Lean returned with what would become his last movie, A Passage to India.
The story created by author E.M. Forster tells of an English woman who accuses a Muslim doctor of rape while visiting India. In writing to Santha Rama Rau about the script she had sent him, the director stated, “I was introduced to A Passage to India through your play at the Comedy [Theatre] and it was the reason I said yes to this film without rereading the book.” In addressing the cave scene where the sexual crime was supposedly committed, Lean advised the playwright, “I think we have to agree between ourselves exactly what did happen. At the moment I can only see it as an honest to goodness hallucination. Difficult but interesting. Apart from withholding it until the trial, I believe we should play fair with our audience and have no truck with red herrings, it’s not that sort of film.” Eventually, David Lean would abandon the collaboration and go about composing his own draft as he had done with his Dickens films.
“What I believe we’re all hoping for is a movie which is true to the book but which will also appeal to the man in the street,” declared the British filmmaker. “We are blessed with a fine title, A Passage to India. But it has a built-in danger; it holds out such promise. The very mention of India conjures up high expectation. It has sweep and size and is very romantic. It we don’t fulfill those expectations I fear we will lose a great part of our mass audience.” Sandy Lean, the filmmaker’s fifth wife, observed, “On A Passage to India, David was working for the first time in his life on a film where money was really tight and where there were restrictive conditions on him personally. He actually had to forfeit salary if he went over budget or over schedule. It was one of the conditions of the completion guarantee, but he never stopped resenting it.” She went on to add. “And there were so many other pressures, he felt besieged. The camera crew was in revolt, the actors in various states of dudgeon. In the end he just lowered his head like a bull and charged the whole lot of them.”
In spite of all the production and financial hassles, the film received eleven Academy Award nominations and won for Best Supporting Actress (Peggy Ashcroft) and Best Music Score; as for its director, he found himself gracing the cover of Time and being knighted by the Queen of England.
At the Cambridge Film Society in 1985, the university students recommended Nostromo by Joseph Conrad as the next movie for their guest speaker, Sir David Lean. He embraced the suggestion and set about working with playwright Christopher Hampton to adapt the tale about the destructive nature of greed for the big screen. “I thought Conrad was a very good match for David’s temperament,” remarked Hampton, “because he was very positive about individuals but very pessimistic about the human race in general.” As that project, which at one point had Steven Spielberg involved, floundered another flourished. The film restoration of Lawrence of Arabia allowed the director the opportunity to make some changes to his to desert epic. In summing up how he approached his craft, the British moviemaker wrote, “In making a film I’m always very conscious of the audience. A lot of the time I almost feel as if they’re sitting with me behind the camera.”
When Lean died in 1991, John Mills honoured him by reading the opening passage of Great Expectations, while The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performed the musical scores from his movies at the memorial service in St. Paul’s Cathedral. In a final salute to the legendary filmmaker, the band of Blues and Royals played Colonel Bogey, the theme song from the movie which brought him to international attention and acclaim, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.