David Lean on a Grand Scale

November 2010

201011_lean_sittingSir David Lean (1908-1991) is one of the more curious examples we have of directorial greatness. Only a few dispute the fact that he made great films, but even his fans vehemently disagree about which were good and which were awful.

I was recently in a video shop. Remember those? They were places where people would go to buy or rent prerecorded movies -- kind of like another obsolete shopping venue, the "record store." Luckily, my home town of Austin is jammed with people who think visiting such anachronistic places is kind of cutting-edge, if in a wistfully sentimental way. "Oh look, Gracie, these were called albums. Can you believe that people would listen to ten songs in a row by just one group? Crazy!"

Consequently, in Austin, we still have plenty of options. But with the advent of iTunes and Netflix, not to mention the "Used" section of Amazon.com, video shops and record stores currently exist less as stores and more as private clubs where we can run into other folks who are fascinated by the same things. We always had these opportunities before. My sister-in-law met her husband of 27 years because he and I struck up a conversation about Swedish composer Tor Aulin. Pretty obscure, eh? I thought any guy who knew his Aulin must be all right, so my wife and I introduced them.

The point is, we had these places where we could congregate with like-minded souls. We could learn from each other and discover new areas to target our interests. That guy turned me on to music I still listen to today -- things like Vangelis’s L’Apocalypse des animaux, Arnold Bax’s Tintagel, Sir Arthur Bliss’s Things to Come, and Sir Michael Tippet’s Suite for the Birthday of Prince Charles.

But the beauty of the system was that the record store and video shop accidentally subsidized such gatherings. Amazon doesn’t do that. Instead, cloaked in anonymity, its "Customer Reviews" offer pithy annotations that are more often indicative of the writer’s biases than helpful reviews.

Anyway, as I said, we still have a group of folks who celebrate the antiquated ways, preferring to lay their hands on a moldy LP cover rather than pushing the one-click-shopping button. This is how I happened to be having a live (as opposed to electronic) conversation about David Lean.

"Oh yeah, I love Lean," this person said, "but only his English works."

It’s important to understand that, in Hollywood terms, the league of Lean’s dedicated fans is small, and those who do fall into that category can be a contentious lot. For many critics, Lean’s work reached its zenith in the decade after WWII and dropped off precipitously thereafter. Their favorite films were largely made in England on relatively small budgets. Two of the best were adaptations of novels by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). These films, shot in atmospheric black-and-white, were chock-full of intense melodrama and heartbreaking anomie, all aimed at maximum heartbreak. And they worked. Both should have at least been Oscar contenders. (The 1946 Academy Award rightly went to The Best Years of Our Lives, while the ’48 Oscar should have gone to The Red Shoes or The Treasure of Sierra Madre).

Lean’s collaborations with Noël Coward were both successful. Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit (both 1945) each showed a deft touch and a keen artistic vision. Lean continued this trend with Madeleine (1950), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955). David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, noted that "Those early films have pace, flourish, and a modesty of scale. And then slowly, Lean became the prisoner of big pictures, a great eye striving to show off a large mind."

And there you have the criticism from the intelligentsia. In the jargon of today, they think Lean "sold out." He went to the dark side. He went Hollywood.

Another way to understand this is that Lean began to make films in which huge events played out over vast expanses of geography. Because of the distances involved and the huge historic backdrops, he gained a reputation for being a maker of film "epics," a style that condescending critics often accuse the great unwashed (i.e., the general public) with preferring.

Count me among that great unwashed. I think Lean’s masterpieces are the films he made from 1955 to 1965: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Dr. Zhivago (1965). That run of films is matched in quality by only a very few directors: certainly Ford and Hitchcock, maybe Hawks or Kurosawa. Good company, for sure.

But had Lean sold out and switched to epics? Not really. It wasn’t the epical quality of Lean’s films that drew huge audiences, but the heart-tugging tragedy of the lives of the characters. As George Stevens Jr., a director himself and a student of film wrote in his book The Great Movie Makers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, "Lean’s stunning vistas and breathtaking spectacles are etched in our memories, yet the true power of his work comes from his characters. He presents us with breathtaking exteriors, yet it is the interior lives of people revealed in intimate moments that engage us and move us."

The most contentiously debated of these three films is Dr. Zhivago. Even diehard postwar supporters would agree that Kwai and Lawrence are masterpieces, but Dr. Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak’s novel of that title, is often dismissed as a soap opera or melodrama. This story of poet and physician Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and two women -- his wife, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), and his mistress, Lara (Julie Christie) -- is certainly dramatic. But those who call it a melodrama ignore Lean’s masterful blending of historic clashes and tragic romance. Historically, Zhivago covers a lot of ground, from Imperial Russia to the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and into the 1950s. Yuri and Tonya come from money and have all the advantages. Lara, who has only her stunning beauty to carry her through her sad life, becomes the toy of three men, the grotesquely nasty Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), the ascetic revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay), and her one true lover, Yuri.

201011_lean_set

On the release of Dr. Zhivago in 1965, Bosley Crowther wrote, in the New York Times, "No matter how heartbreaking he has made the backgrounds of the couple appear -- with the doctor torn from a promising practice and from a lovely, loving wife by the brutal demands of the revolution and with Lara left on her own after a girlhood affair with an older lover and a marriage with a revolutionist. No matter how richly graphic these affairs have been made by Mr. Lean -- and, believe me, he has made them richly graphic; the decor and color photography are as brilliant, tasteful, and exquisite as any ever put on the screen." The historical scenes paint the external world in villainous colors, while the personal scenes draw an almost puritanical distinction between passion and fidelity, between fervid obsession and kindhearted fondness. Instead, Lean seems to focus on the angst of confusion and the brutality of love.

It’s all somewhat curious, coming from a man like Lean. As David Thomson, who knew the director, described him, "It is worth stressing that Lean was a charming egotist, endlessly handsome, and in pursuit of women, and achingly hopeful when he spoke. He was a spellbinder."

Lean was born into a strict Quaker family that would not allow him to see movies, or even pin up pictures of bombshells like Louise Brooks or Norma Shearer. After an undistinguished stay at school, he went to work in the family business, but after seeing Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., in The Mark of Zorro (1920), Lean decided he wanted to work in films. At first, he served tea and performed other gofer duties. But he worked his way up until, at age 26, he was allowed to edit films. Given his struggles during this apprenticeship, perhaps he wanted to stuff his films with every possible device.

Lean, who appears to have been of the same dominating temperament as the English public-school upper-class bullies who force incoming new students into personal service, was brutal with actors. Sarah Miles, his star in Ryan’s Daughter, claimed in the Telegraph that Lean, enraged, pushed her down a flight of stairs.

201011_lean_walkingIt is reported that Alec Guinness and Lean squabbled viciously during the filming of Dr. Zhivago, in which Guinness played Yevgraf. Guinness said Lean was rude and abusive while "acting the part of a super-star director." Peter O’Toole, who suffered Lean’s abusive style during the filming of Lawrence of Arabia, turned down the role of Yuri Zhivago, having had enough. O’Toole got his revenge in 1980, when he modeled his characterization of megalomaniacal director Eli Cross, in The Stunt Man, on Lean. Presumably, Sir David was not amused.

Actor James Fox, who worked with Lean on A Passage to India (1984), has a different opinion. "You cannot say this man was not good with actors," Fox said. "He was straightforward. He was something of an old-style autocrat, but there have always been great autocratic directors. He wasn’t modern, he was imposing, which distanced people from him. But he had enormous respect from his crew."

Lean was certainly aware of his reputation as an autocrat. Roger Ebert wrote, in his Awake in the Dark, "At the Cannes Film Festival one year, [cinematographer Sven Nykvist] said [director Ingmar] Bergman was talking with David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. ‘What kind of crew do you use?’ Lean asked. ‘I make my films with 18 good friends,’ Bergman said. ‘That’s interesting,’ said Lean. ‘I make mine with 150 enemies.’"

Still, Lean could somehow create the most starry-eyed romances. Harry Knowles, the quintessential guy-next-door, wrote on aintitcool.com (10-24-01): "Jesus what an evil movie DR ZHIVAGO is! It gets you introspective as all hell. It makes you ponder the issues closest to your heart, and it makes you doubt the direction of your life. These are not trivial things. They are of the most dire consequences. It’s about you. Where you are . . . I love this film because it forces me to look at myself. It is fuel for the soul. It makes you want to love, no matter how hard it may be, no matter what you must climb and endure, love is there . . . somewhere, and you must find it. Why? Because it’s why we breathe, why we exist from one instant to the next."

But Lean also had the ability to create an iconic vision that could help cement a young actor’s reputation. Just as John Ford had blessed John Wayne with one of film’s great introductions, in the opening scenes of Stagecoach (1939), Lean made Omar Sharif an instant star with his long, wide introductory shot of the actor galloping on camelback across the glittering desert in Lawrence of Arabia. While Sharif’s career eventually foundered, the dewy-eyed, Egyptian-born star remains a romantic draw and is still popular, not only with the ladies, but also among the Islamic and Arab populations.

What makes Dr. Zhivago so popular is the sheer angst of the love affairs. The ménage à cinque creates myriad opportunities for finding and losing lovers, and the most entertaining is the relationship between Lara and Komarovsky. Rod Steiger was always best as a bad guy, and after studying with Stella Adler at the New School in New York City, he was willing to do what was necessary to get the reactions he needed. He pulled two unscripted stunts during his scenes with Julie Christie. Watch her reactions in these scenes and you’ll see either the best acting in the world or one very surprised actress. In the first, she slaps Steiger and he immediately -- and unexpectedly -- slaps her back. The second is during the kissing scene: As she struggles to get away, Steiger roughly inserts his tongue in her mouth, something she neither expected nor appreciated.

201011_lean_inspectingThe film’s principal ménage à trois is a piece of tortured beauty, with the chaste Chaplin and the sizzling Christie vying for Zhivago’s suffering heart. Zhivago was the ultimate 1960s date film -- theaters filled with teenage and young adult moviegoers, holding hands and crying into wadded tissues. But it wasn’t just the sad romances that drew crowds. The larger-than-life photography helped as well. Lean’s camera direction is superb throughout Zhivago. The close-ups of Christie and Chaplin are luminous, dazzlingly elegant, exquisitely lit. The outdoor scenes, many shot on soundstages, have real life. And though the film was originally shot in 35mm Panavision, it was later blown up to 70mm, an obvious tribute to the steady hands of cinematographer Freddie Young and the uncredited Nicolas Roeg (who later directed Walkabout).

Dr. Zhivago has been a huge hit in all video formats, and the 45th-anniversary Blu-ray edition is no exception. The picture is gloriously transparent, Maurice Jarre’s music is lively, and the ambient sounds are well placed for such a studio-bound film. Warner Bros. has provided their usual wealth of extras, with helpful commentaries by Sharif, Steiger, and Sandra Lean, the director’s sixth and final wife. The second disc is a standard-definition DVD loaded with fascinating stories about the cast and crew and the making of the film.

Austin, my hometown, is lucky to have a large, old repertory cinema in town that screens Dr. Zhivago at least once a year. If you ever see it that way, it will take your breath away in ways this Blu-ray edition can only suggest. From the battle scenes to the love scenes, everything is more real. It’s a must for every movie lover.

At the centenary of Lean’s birth, in 2008, screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) wrote an elegant panegyric in Lean’s memory for Time Out. "I am well aware that Lean has many detractors who accuse him of superficiality, of creating spectacle without depth, of oversimplifying complex historical events. These criticisms are tainted with envy. Lean was an outstanding filmmaker whose movies reached vast audiences. The combination of box-office success and artistic excellence inevitably causes grapes to taste sour. In what is after all a popular art form, Lean was a popular artist, a master craftsman whose contribution to the cinema was and is of the highest order."

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com

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