Mar 092011

David Lean (March 25, 1908-April 16, 1991) was an extremely successful editor until famous playwright Noel Coward offered him the position of co-director on Coward’s first film, In Which We Serve. After directing several of Coward’s plays, Lean branched out on his own, and films like Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter made him one of Britain’s leading directors. However, he appeared to have reached his limits until he agreed to direct Bridge on the River Kwai for producer Sam Spiegel. It was an international hit, followed by Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, so Lean became synonymous with epic films.

Early Life

David Lean’s father was a chartered accountant and was already a partner in an accounting firm when Lean was born on March 25, 1908, so the family was considered well-off. His father’s side of the family were famous Quaker educators and headmasters, while his mother’s side were also Quakers but engineers. Although both sides of the family had been quite successful, Lean did so badly in school as a child that the teacher told his parents he would probably never be able to read and write. When his parents adopted a forceful attitude to motivate him to study, Lean would simply remain silent, which became a lifelong habit. He did not read and he had no interest in sports, so he would sit and stare into space for hours.

In 1921, the family moved to a smaller house and left their Quaker group because their marriage was coming to an end. Lean’s father had fallen in love with a widow. Divorce was a serious scandal at the time, so Lean’s father initially resigned himself to a private affair, but he finally left the family to live with his new lover and her son. However, Lean’s mother refused to grant a divorce. Lean was fifteen-years-old when his father left and had to cope with a mother who cried all of the time, which made him even more withdrawn.

Around the same time as the breakup of his parents’ marriage, Lean had discovered the cinema and was entranced. Lean’s grades had not improved and he failed his first entrance examination for public school, but a strong letter of recommendation from his headmaster won Lean admission to a Quaker school. This would prove fortunate for Lean, since the school was quite progressive for the time, and he became one of the more popular students. All of his money and much of his free time was spent on photography, and he developed his own film. Lean became fascinated by a number of subjects, including classical music, jazz, Charlie Chaplin, butterflies, and cameras, but his attention never lasted for long.

After graduation, Lean returned home and threw himself into filmmaking, having bought a small camera, while watching all of the most recent releases. Life at home was painful, since his mother continued to grieve and his younger brother would exist in his room, emerging only at mealtimes.

Early Film Career

Unable to find a career, Lean’s father arranged for him to join the accounting firm, but he hated the mindless drudgery. When his father admitted that Lean would not only fail the accountancy exams but that he did not feel that it was worthwhile sending Lean to Oxford, it naturally shattered Lean. However, an open-minded aunt suggested that Lean go into film, and Lean’s father was convinced to arrange an interview for Lean at Gaumont Studios, which led to an unpaid internship. Starting at the bottom of the ladder enabled Lean to learn how a film is made. Fortunately, the government had introduced a quota for British films in 1927, so all of the studios had expanded. After completing his internship, Lean was given a regular job as the lowest member of the camera crew. Directors cut their own films at the time and Lean persuaded a director to let him help with the editing. Impressed by his deep enthusiasm, people in different departments began giving him advice and letting him learn how their departments worked. However, he finally became a newsreel editor.


Although he had had a brief affair with a married woman during his last year of high school, Lean first real relationship occurred when he fell in love with Isabel Lean, his first cousin, when he was twenty-two-years-old. His parents only accepted the marriage after Isabel revealed that she was pregnant, but Isabel’s father disowned her. The couple were happy at first because they were young and in love, but she did not share Lean’s fascination with the cinema. Life changed when Isabel gave birth. Lean had not wanted to be a father, and was not really ready for the responsibility. Routinely working overtime at the studio, he did not look forward to returning to a small apartment with a crying baby. When the Depression hit England, Lean managed to keep his job but he had to work overtime but without extra pay.

Attracted by a higher salary and access to better equipment, Lean eagerly accepted an offer to move to British Movietone News in 1931. Right after joining the company, he was loaned by the company to cut a feature film, which offered a way out of newsreels. Excited by the opportunity to edit a real movie, Lean indulged in all of the techniques and angles that he had long wanted to experiment with, therefore he over-edited the film and was fired, so he returned to Movietone News.

Pre-occupied with work, Lean spent little time with his family and never discussed his career with Isabel, so the marriage gradually fell apart. Lean left his family in August 1932, suddenly and without explanation. Unknown to Isabel, Lean had started an affair with a woman named Jo Kirby, who he had met on a Mediterranean cruise that was a gift from his father to the couple. Lean gave so little money to his ex-wife that she had to take the baby and return to her parents. Unable to handle the responsibility of fatherhood, he edited them out of his life. This would become a pattern in his life.


Lean’s career began to improve around the same time. Aside from working with director Bernard Vorhaus on two movies, Lean learned a great deal from the head of the editing department at Movietone. In fact, Lean became known in the industry as a good editor, and he was often asked to save troubled movies, therefore he frequently worked long hours. The British film industry was hampered by extremely limited budgets until the success of Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) stimulated the industry for a few years. He had also become very popular with women, although his affairs never lasted long. As soon as he became bored, he would send them passion fruit, which signalled the end of the affair.

He seemed to treat women like the movies he cut, focusing a tremendous amount of energy on both and then putting them away when they were done. Lean’s relationship with Kirby ended in late 1935, after he had become interested in an actress, Lu-Anne Meredith. Although devastated, Kirby realized that Lean was not capable of being faithful.

Lean and Meredith ended up living together long enough for Lean to ask his brother to convince Isabel to agree to a divorce, which she did, but Lean ended up leaving Meredith as well.

Recognized as a leading editor after Escape Me Never (1935) became a huge hit, Lean asked for a raise for his next film and became the highest paid editor in England. He also stopped supporting his ex-wife and son.

In 1936, he began a relationship with Kay Walsh, an actress. Unfortunately, the man who was financing the film that had given Lean the high salary went bankrupt and disappeared. Lean had not saved any money, so he had to find a job, but the industry had fallen into a depression. A year-long contract with Ealing Studios enabled Walsh to support him. Walsh ignored Lean’s warnings that he would break her heart in the end because she was in love. The couple got work on another film, The Last Adventurers, but Lean was incapable of managing money, so Walsh had to continue to pay the bills for both of them. Fortunately, they survived long enough to get more steady work.

When WWII started, Lean was thirty-one, so he was classified as being in a Reserved Occupation, therefore he would not be called up to serve in the military. Unlike Nazi Germany and the United States, the British government did not realize the potential of the film industry to rally the population.

Walsh had earned enough to buy a small house but Lean chose to live at Pinewood Studios, officially to save time during work, but really to pursue women. Aware of his affairs, Walsh often thought of ending the relationship, but never did. After Walsh threatened several times to leave Lean, he finally asked her to marry him.

Lean’s career made progress when he helped direct Major Barbara (1941) because the official director, Gabriel Pascal, was a producer and accepted that he did not know how to direct. Lean had been asked to direct a number of scenes in Major Barbara because Pascal had quarreled with the other co-director. Due to these problems, the film took eighteen months to complete, but the experience gave Lean the confidence that he was ready to direct.

Noel Coward

Lean’s career had rebounded enough that when he was hired to edit Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film The 49th Parallel (1941), he was able to get a much higher salary. Lean threw himself into the editing and the film was a big hit, so he was hired for Powell and Pressburger’s next film, One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). Noel Coward visited the set, and since he was about to direct his first film, he decided to hire Lean based on his remarkable technical ability. Realizing that it was his big chance, Lean only agreed after he was promised co-director’s credit. The film was a huge hit, but none of the reviewers gave him credit, unsurprisingly since Coward starred, produced, wrote and co-directed the film.

However, Coward asked producer Havelock-Allan, Lean and cinematographer Ronald Neame to film more of Coward’s plays, and the three men formed Cineguild Productions. Lawrence Olivier invited Lean to co-direct Henry V (1944) but Lean was intimidated by Shakespeare and did not want another job as the technician-for-hire.

Instead, the Cineguild trio decided to make This Happy Breed (1944), which presented several decades in the life of an average British family. It would be Lean’s first film in color and he would be the official director. Although Coward had played the lead in the play, Lean convinced him to let another actor have the lead role in the film and Coward grudgingly agreed. The film was the highest-earning film in Britain in 1944. After This Happy Breed, Lean adapted two more of Coward’s plays, Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945). The latter film was a big success, and he was even nominated for an Academy Award, which was a rare occurrence for a British director at the time. However, Lean was feeling trapped as Coward’s personal director of his plays, so he left Coward to explore his own career.

Even though Lean and Walsh had watched the Luftwaffe bomb the docklands in London during the Battle of Britain and had experienced the nightly bombings during the Blitz, Lean was not emotionally involved in the war.


A chance viewing of Alec Guinness’ stage performance of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations drove Lean to persuade his partners in Cineguild to back a production of the film. After a horrible first draft by a screenwriter, Lean and his producer Havelock hashed out a rough draft where they kept the key scenes from the novel, and Lean’s wife Kay Walsh wrote the ending. Great Expectations (1946) was a huge hit and he became one of England’s top directors. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards and won best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

While filming Great Expectations, Lean fell for Maggie Furse, and left Walsh, cutting off all non-work related contact with her.

Reuniting with Guinness, Lean filmed another Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist (1948), which was a commercial success. The movie solidified his position as one of England’s greatest directors.

Following the repeated urging of his brother, Lean began seeing a psychologist during the filming of Oliver Twist. He did it for three years, five nights a week, and he believed that it had made a huge difference in his life.

A conflict over the production of The Passionate Friends (1949) ended with Lean taking over the production of the film but losing the friendship of Ronald Neame, one of his original partners in Cineguild. He also started a relationship with Ann Todd, the star of the movie, even though his girlfriend Maggie Furse was working on the film and even drove Todd around. Although he was supposed to marry Furse, he persuaded Walsh to divorce him and then married Todd on May 21, 1949. Lean’s brother thought Lean had treated Walsh horribly and stopped speaking to him.

Lean’s son had turned eighteen and ended up working on the film but Lean had not developed a close relationship with him, since he only saw his son on birthdays and Christmas. Lean became more involved with Todd’s son, making an effort to spend time with him and bond.

More interested in social climbing than Lean, Todd forced him to entertain notables in the theatre and film industry to strengthen his status as a leading director. The couple made a movie together, Madeleine (1950), but they had conflicting attitudes towards work, and the production was not a happy one. The failure of the film combined with the problems with The Passionate Friends led to the closure of Cineguild.

Realizing that his career was in a dangerous place, Lean considered his next project carefully, so he made The Sound Barrier (1952) for Alexander Korda, who saw the advantage of hiring a first-rate director like Lean at a discount. Motivated by a genuine love of flying, Lean spent months visiting pilots to learn more. He earned their trust by reassuring them that he did not plan to over-dramatize the story and put flying in the background. Lean and screenwriter Terence Rattigan decided to make the story about the civilian engineers and aviators before WWII, rather than a traditional wartime aviation film. The film was a huge hit and Lean’s career was back on track.

Although Ann Todd had starred in the film, their marriage was coming to an end because she wanted him to be a proper gentleman who was chauffeured to work, but Lean could not accept the lifestyle or Todd’s desire to star in all of his films in order to help her own career. Working together simply made the situation worse.

Lean’s decision to make Hobson’s Choice (1954) after Sound Barrier was an odd choice, since he did not have a natural ear for comedy, but Charles Laughton’s performance ensured that it was a very amusing film.

After being awarded a CBE, Lean restarted his relationship with his brother.

Korda sent Lean to India to prepare for a movie about the Taj Mahal. The project never got off the ground but Lean met his next wife, Leila Matkar, as well as developed a fascination with the world outside of Europe. Lean was attracted by Matkar’s gentle personality, which was the complete opposite of Todd. Summertime (1955), his next film was shot in Venice, so he sent Todd a letter from Venice explaining that he was not meant for marriage. When the film ended, he lived in a hotel in London for a month before sneaking into his home to retrieve his belongings. Soon after, he started an affair with Leila. Discovering that he was liable for Todd’s debts, he sold his share in Summertime and left England, along with his house and almost all of his belongings.


Aside from Summertime, Lean had been an English director, who focused on English stories. Starting as the in-house director for Noel Coward, the arch-typical English upper-class urbanite, he had made his name with adaptations of two Dickens novels, while Hobson’s Choice and the Sound Barrier were also very British movies. However, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) would take his career in a new direction.

Although Lean had spent months travellling in Japan and India planning how to film Richard Mason’s novel The Wind Cannot Read, Alexander Korda refused to finance the film. Since no other studio would back him, Lean ended up agreeing to make The Bridge on the River Kwai for producer Sam Spiegel.

The movie was only offered to Lean after Spiegel had spent a year looking for a director, and had rejected more obvious choices like William Wyler, John Ford or Howard Hawks because they did not understand the novel. To be fair, the idea of British PoWs willingly helping their Japanese captors build a bridge was difficult to understand. Lean was lured by both the exotic locations and the need for a salary. The movie would be based on the novel The Bridge over the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle, who had been a member of the Free French resistance during WWII and had been one of the Allied POWs forced to help build a railway and bridge for the Japanese. The novel had been a satirical attack on collaborating French officers, disguised as British officers. Lean decided to take out all of the satire and play it straight. After repeated arguements with writer Carl Foreman about the script, Lean won, and Spiegel fired Foreman, although much of Foreman’s script ended up in the final film.

Spiegel persuaded Alec Guinness to accept the part of Colonel Nicolson against the opposition of Lean, who felt that Guinness would not do it the way that they wanted, but no other actor had been found. Lean wanted Nicholson to be a stiff bore, but Guinness wanted to introduce some humor. Although Spiegel and Lean had a number of fights during the production, Spiegel also proved effective at mediating between the director and his star, helping Lean to convince Guinness to play the role as a man who had tragically misled himself.

Lean and Spiegel frequently quarreled over the budget but Spiegel knew he had been lucky to get the budget he had. Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Studios, had been furious when he had learned that a “crook” like Spiegel had been given two million dollars and permitted to disappear to Ceylon. It did not help that Spiegel traveled in luxury but sent the film crew to fly coach.

The film was a huge success both in Britain and the United States. Although William Holden and Spiegel made fortunes on the movie, Lean did not, but job offers poured in. Actually, Spiegel was not happy with how Columbia handled the division of profits because the studio used Hollywood accounting to cut into the net profits. This did not stop Lean from blaming Spiegel for his meager share of the profits, maybe because it was safer than blaming Columbia.

Unhappy with his collaboration with Spiegel and conscious of his new-found fame, Lean intended to have more control over his next project, so he financed the early stage of research on a film about Gandhi. Lean wanted Guinness to play Gandhi because he felt that Indian actors could not act. However, relations with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger deteriorated, and Lean’s attention drifted towards T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who had gained fame during WWI for helping to lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire.

Lawrence had been a hero to Lean’s generation. Spiegel was the most recent in a long list of producers, including Alexander Korda and Harry Cohn, who had been trying to make a film about Lawrence since he had become famous. Lean and Spiegel persuaded Lawrence’s younger brother, who held the rights, to agree, partially because the film only dealt with the Arab Revolt, so all of the controversial aspects of Lawrence’s life, his illegitimacy, masochism and rumored homosexuality, would be ignored.

Marlon Brando was originally chosen to play Lawrence, but decided to do a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty instead. After considering Albert Finney, they went with Peter O’Toole, even though he was unknown at the time. Michael Wilson, the initial writer, had wanted to show the cynical way that Lawrence had used the Arabs, but he left the film after clashing with Lean over their conflicting visions. Even though Robert Bolt was hired as the new writer, Lean was stuck out in Jordan trying to prepare a film without a working script, and was understandably unhappy.

Although Lean had married Leila in Paris on July 4, 1960, the relationship had fizzled out. Instead of divorcing her, he commenced an affair with Barbara Cole, the continuity girl, who was in her early-forties.

Lean had rejected the Quakers, his personality had naturally been shaped by their deep distrust of actors, since acting is essentially lying, and aversion to amusements and recreations of any kind. Lean did not get along well with actors during good circumstances and his attitude did not improve during long shoots. Instead of complimenting a performance or expressing sympathy for the harsh conditions, he simply expected them to do what he told them and when he told them. The strain on the crew and the huge expense of keeping them out in the desert did not matter, all that mattered was the film, so it took a long time. In fact, the film took more than two years, which naturally increased the strain between Lean and Spiegel. However, the struggle proved worthwhile and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was a huge success, winning seven Academy Awards.

While Spiegel had not been easy to deal with, Lean would nurse a lifelong grudge against him, forgetting that the movie would have never happened except for Spiegel’s ability and tenacity as a producer. Lean would later claim that Spiegel had forced cuts on Lean, when Lean had actually accepted the need for cuts and had personally decided which ones would be made. He had also claimed that Spiegel had not arranged for him to receive his fair share of the film’s profits, but it was Columbia Studios that had handled profit participation, not Spiegel, and Lean did eventually receive a million dollars in royalties. Unfortunately, Lean had made these claims during after the release of the restored version of Lawrence, when Spiegel was dead and could not defend himself.

On a cruise from New York to Naples, Lean read Doctor Zhivago, which was about the Russian Revolution, and found himself crying, so he decided to make a movie based on the novel. Lean was pleased that he would make the movie with MGM, since he did not want to do another movie for Columbia, which would mean dealing with Spiegel. MGM needed a hit, and Lean’s last two films had been monster hits.

However, the film proved more difficult to make than expected. Adapting a five-hundred-page novel that spanned WWI, the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War would have been sufficient challenge, but Bolt experienced trouble writing the screenplay because his wife had just left him. The filming was tense because the production was steadily going over-budget, largely due to uncooperative weather, and would eventually cost twice the original budget. The situation was worsened by the fact that Lean did not see eye-to-eye with cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, and replaced him when Freddie Young, his usual cinematographer, became available.

Despite receiving mixed reviews from critics, Dr. Zhivago (1965) enjoyed the greatest financial success of his films, and Lean had negotiated a very favorable contract, which made him wealthy.

While traveling in India with his wife Leila, who had a nervous breakdown and was sent to Paris for treatment, he fell in love with Sandy Hotz, a twenty-one-year-old woman, and was forced to break up with his mistress Barbara. Sandy’s parents were so shocked that they cut off contact with her. They stayed together for another twenty years, but he remained married to Leila for twelve years, because he felt that breaking the news would drive her to suicide.

Ryan’s Daughter

Having done three large-scale productions, Lean chose Ryan’s Daughter (1970) because he wanted to prove that he could still make the smaller-scale films that had originally made him famous. Needing a star to convince MGM to approve the huge budget, Lean went against type and hired famous tough-guy Robert Mitchum to play a shy schoolmaster who marries a former pupil but is forced to watch her start an affair with another man. Unfortunately, Lean and Mitchum clashed because Lean treated film as art and Mitchum looked at the paycheck. The two men did not talk to each other for long parts of the film, so co-star Sarah Miles had to be the go-between. Mitchum was a very complex man who complained of being typecast as a tough guy and sought out roles where he could stretch his acting ability but would have to be handled properly by a director, and Lean found it harder than expected. One of the reasons why the shooting took so long is that Mitchum could not naturally play a shy introvert and it took Lean a long time to coax that performance out of him. Once he had, he decided to reshoot all of the previous footage.

The filming lasted so long that the management of MGM had changed. Kirk Kerkorian, owner of Las Vegas hotels, had taken control of MGM and put James Aubrey in charge of the studio. Told to cut costs, Aubrey brought a ruthless attitude to the task, carrying out mass firings of staff and auctioning props and costumes from MGM movies, including the Wizard of Oz. Future films would be limited to budgets of two million but Lean had long since burned through his budget of nine million, and Aubrey was not inclined to be generous. However, repeated visits by increasing numbers of MGM brass failed to convince Lean to economize. Lean had completely underestimated the difficulty of shooting completely on location where he was dependent on fickle Irish weather, so countless days were wasted waiting for the rain to stop so they could shoot a sunshine scene or the sun to go away so they could film a rain scene. In the end, the film took fifty-two weeks, twice as long as he had originally planned.

Ryan’s Daughter received an unexpected amount of criticism. The British film industry was short of funding, so Lean was blamed for having wasted a massive budget on a single film. Furthermore, Lean had become the victim of his own success, and critics expected another epic. Having not experienced a commercial failure in decades, Lean was stunned that the film was rejected by the public. Worse, the film was savaged by the critics. In particular, a meeting with members of the National Society of Film Critics at the Alonquin Hotel in New York was a turning point. Accustomed to dealing with domesticated critics from movie magazines supervised by handlers from the studios, Lean was not prepared to face the aggressive anger of critics, including Pauline Kael and Richard Schickel. The experience was such a shock that he spent the next fifteen years traveling instead of making movies.


While Ryan’s Daughter had not been a success, Lean had been paid a million dollars for both Ryan’s Daughter and Doctor Zhivago, and he received royalties from the three epics, so he lived very well. However, he was so angered by English taxes, which he called the envy tax, that he rarely returned. Instead, Lean and Sandy bought a villa in Rome.

Lean never actually decided to stop making films for fifteen years. He looked at scripts but nothing attracted him. A project about Gandhi never took off.

He also rebuilt his relationship with his brother, and his niece often traveled with Lean and Sandy. Lean spent a lot of time filming safaris or tours of Egyptian tombs, basically for himself and a few friends to watch. Like many directors, he had been too busy directing to learn how to take care of himself, so Sandy kept Lean’s life organized for him. When Edward died, Lean embraced the father-figure role for his niece, but he never established contact with his own son.

As Rome became increasingly violent, Lean moved to Bora Bora, where he started a project about the Bounty, intending to end the traditional image of William Bligh as a tyrant. Robert Bolt believed that both Bligh and Fletcher Christian were right, but had conflicting viewpoints. Warner Bros had been chasing Lean for years to do a film for them, so they eagerly agreed to the Bounty project. The original screenplay had focused on Bligh’s astonishing feat of navigating a lifeboat 6,701 kilometres to reach Timor in forty-seven days with only a sextant and a pocket watch. Lean gradually expanded the story and his ideas became increasingly extravagant, including the decision to build a replica of the Bounty from scratch.

However, when Lean decided to break the story into two films, the first about the mutiny and the second about Pitcairn Island, Warner Bros balked. Refusing to do a single movie, Lean ended the deal and returned the studio’s money. Lean’s longtime art director John Box had been worried about the difficulty of making a movie at Bora Bora, which had no facilities, and left the project when Lean and he had a falling out.

Lean was willing to leave Warner Bros because Dino De Laurentiis had agreed to finance the two films. The terms were extremely generous, Lean received final cut, a budget of $40 million, a million dollar salary, 10% of gross until the break-even point and 27% of the gross after. De Laurentiis’ offer had been extremely generous, but he could not afford it because his current production, The Hurricane, was already over-budget, he had built a luxurious hotel for the cast and crew on Bora Bora, and had opened a chain of restaurants and delicatessens. De Laurentiis suddenly informed Lean that he would charge the fifteen percent overhead traditionally charged by studios, which Lean had hoped to avoid. All contracted salaries were cancelled, and Laurentiis sent in an associate producer to work out a proper budget with Lean. After a lengthy exchange of letters, Laurentiis flew Lean and producer Phil Kellogg to Los Angeles, where he said that Lean’s refusal to make a smaller budget put him in breach of contract, so he did not have to pay Lean. Worse, Lean ended up paying De Laurentiis $1,750,000 to keep the two scripts, which he then shopped around Hollywood. Unfortunately, no one picked it up. When Bolt and Lean returned to Tahiti, Bolt began to lose enthusiasm, especially since he was tiring of Lean’s dictatorial nature.

United Artists (UA) appeared interested until Heaven’s Gate (1980) became known as a major disaster in the making, and UA lost interest in another big-budget outdoors film. Having been given only ninety days to find a new buyer, a desperate Lean turned to Spiegel, who also needed a hit. Although Spiegel agreed to become involved and Lean reluctantly agreed to make a single film, Bolt had a triple bypass and suffered a massive stroke two days later. Melvyn Bragg was selected as the new writer, but Lean eventually rejected the script, and moved to Switzerland to write his own script. Spiegel’s insistence on equal artistic control finally ended the partnership with Lean. Dennis Potter was very briefly brought on as a writer but clashed with Lean. Unfortunately, Paramount now owned the Bolt scripts and did not want to risk another big-budget film because it was already committed to Reds (1981), Warren Beatty’s epic. Nor would they sell the scripts to another studio because they feared the embarrassment of a different studio achieving success with a project they had let go, so the project was finally dead in 1981.

Lean married Sandy in October 1981 after having lived together for seventeen years. Leila had divorced Lean in August 1978 after receiving a settlement of a million dollars, although she still continued to publicly refer to herself as Mrs. David Lean.

A Passage to India

E. M. Forster despised the cinema, so he simply refused to sell the movie rights for his books, including A Passage to India, despite the efforts of a number of producers and directors. After Forster’s death in 1970, King’s College of Cambridge University and Santha Rama Rau were named as his executors. Every offer for the movie rights was turned down until a new provost of King’s College finally agreed to sell the rights on the condition that Rau, a famous playwright and novelist, wrote the script, since she had already adapted the novel for the theatre in 1960 with Forster’s approval.

Lean was hired as director and had ten days of productive meetings with Rau, but he felt that she had produced a script for the theatre. Instead of working with her to fix it, he decided to write the script on his own without actually telling Rau. He had cooperated with Bolt but had never been credited as writer, so he decided to write it on his own to get credit and prove that he could do it. Claiming that the British had done more good than harm in India, Lean toned down the parts of the story that reflected Forster’s anti-Raj attitude. Rau was not happy to see that Lean had written a screenplay that contained parts of her original screenplay without credit and that he had changed parts of the novel. When she suggested changes, Lean refused to accept them, saying that as a playwright, she simply did not understand film.

Financing proved difficult. Lean had been gone for so long that the heads of the Hollywood studios did not really know him and were unenthusiastic about a film with far too many older characters that was based on a British author they had never heard of. Finally, producer John Heyman persuaded Columbia, HBO and Thorn-EMI to finance the film.

Although Lean had the budget, the film industry had changed during the fourteen years since he had last made a movie. Studios had the technology to keep better track of his progress, and when he fell behind schedule, they communicated their concerns, which worsened the situation. The budget did not leave room for delays, and Lean was working with a different cinematographer, since Freddie Young was too old. Lean had never been good at managing relationships, but he was older and had just quit smoking, so the relationship between him and Ernie Day quickly dissolved into acrimony. Also, the actors, especially Victor Bannerjee and Judy Davis, were not as deferential as he would have liked. Bannerjee was unhappy with an English director and Davis wanted a director who actually knew how to talk to actors. While Peggy Ashcroft felt that Lean did not treat actors well, she was particularly uncomfortable because she had agreed to do Foster’s A Passage to India, and found herself doing Lean’s version instead.

Feeling surrounded by strangers, Lean chose Alec Guinness to play Professor Godbole, a Brahmic Hindu, even though his producer had begged him not to use Guinness. Lean defended the decision by saying that there were no good Indian actors, and that he did not want to have the stress of directing an Indian, which makes one wonder why he wanted to direct a film set in India. Guinness later placed most of the blame on Lean, but he should have looked in a mirror, and refused the role. Angered that much of his performance ended up on the cutting-room floor, Guinness never forgave Lean and their friendship ended.

Having written the screenplay, Lean decided to take credit as both director and editor, which was a surprise to Eunice Mountjoy, who had been hired as editor. Lean had always wanted to take credit as editor and knew that it was his last film, so Mountjoy had to settle for Associate Editor.

Santha Rama Rau felt that the final version of the film had little to do with Forster’s novel and had only kept the basic framework because Lean disagreed so strongly with Forster’s attitudes towards the British and India that he was simply incapable of filming the novel, therefore he made his own movie. However, Lean undoubtedly felt vindicated when A Passage to India (1984) was nominated for eleven Academy awards, including Best Director, although he did not win, and was a financial success.

Final Years

After A Passage to India was finished, Lean was knighted, and finally returned to England, where he bought several small warehouses near the docks in London and converted them into a home. Lean had become increasingly self-centered but Sandy had begun to feel suffocated in the relationship. Lean had met Sandra Cooke, an art dealer, in 1985 and they rapidly started an affair, even though she was in her mid-forties and he was seventy-eight. When Sandy learned that he had started an affair, the marriage quickly dissolved, although Lean gave her a very generous divorce settlement.

Lean took part in the laborious restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, where the key actors re-recorded their lines for the parts of rediscovered film that had no sound. The restored version sold out theatres, which combined with a birthday tribute from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) at the Cannes film festival and the success of A Passage to India, brought Lean back into the public eye.

After A Passage to India, he tried to film Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. Stephen Spielberg agreed to produce it for Warner Bros and Christopher Hampton was brought in to write the screenplay. As producer, Spielberg naturally felt that he had the right to make some suggestions, but Lean reacted with fury because he had thought that Spielberg would simply arrange the money and stand back. Realizing that there would be trouble, Spielberg withdrew from the project. Believing that the movie would never happen, Hampton left to prepare the film version of Dangerous Liaisons (1988), and Lean replaced him with Bolt, thus restarting their friendship. Unfortunately, Lean became ill and his health began to decline. The situation was not helped by his bad relationship with producer Serge Silberman, who was trying to finance Nostromo. Lean’s age and health made it difficult to raise money, since studios worried that he would die during the filming.

When Lean flew to Los Angeles for a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1990, he had to bring his doctor and night nurse. He had failed to prepare a speech, so he spent much of his acceptance speech attacking the moneymen at the studios for not being willing to finance films, which unsurprisingly offended some of the heads of production at studios.

Lean married Sandra in December 1990. Unfortunately, immediately after the wedding he found that he had developed a large tumor in the back of his tongue and had to undergo radiation treatment. After ending up in the hospital, he contracted pneumonia, and he seemed to be on the verge of death, but he recovered and the tumor was destroyed. However, the pneumonia re-appeared and he died on April 16, 1991.

Historical Movies:

In Which We Serve (1942)

Directed by Noel Coward and David Lean, starring Noel Coward and John Mills
The film follows the crew of a British destroyer from the eve of WWII to the Battle of Crete in 1941. (full review)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness
Colonel Nicholson, a British POW, leads his fellow prisoners to help the Japanese build a crucial railroad bridge in Thailand during WWII, while Allied commandos plan to blow it up.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Directed by David Lean, starring Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness
A young British intelligence officer finds himself leading an Arab revolt against the Turkish Empire during WWI, while struggling to balance his duty and his loyalty to the Arabs.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie
A Russian doctor and poet experiences the turmoil of the Russian Revolution while struggling to be with his true love, even though they are both married.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

Starring Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles
A married Irish woman has an affair with a British officer, shortly after the failed Easter Rebellion in Ireland in 1916.

A Passage to India (1984)

Starring Judy Davis and Victor Bannerjee
An Indian doctor is accused of attempting to rape a recently arrived British woman, which fuels the already growing Indian independence movement in British-controlled India during the 1920s.

Further Reading:

David Lean: A Biography-Kevin Brownlow, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

Brownlow’s exhaustive research has produced an excellent book that is limited only by the author’s sympathy bordering on hero-worship for Lean.