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Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean

by Gene D. Phillips

A Picture Chap

A review by David Thomson

David Lean! The name presides over some famous epics, big pictures made in that era when size impressed audiences and film-makers alike. There have been trailers where Lean's hawk's gaze confronts the snowy steppes of Russia or the undulating dunes of the desert, the voice-over intoning, "The jungle!" "Arabia!" "Russia! "India!" The infinite seventy-millimeter images seem to wait for instructions coming from that artillery officer's survey. But the rapt voice of movie hype was sometimes a prelude to platitudes. Lean could look as romantic as some of the great British explorers -- and alas, like some of them, he hardly knew what he was doing in the great open spaces. Except, of course, bringing grand pictures home -- his trophies.

Gene D. Phillips ends his long book on Lean by quoting the director himself on how pictures mean more in movies than words: "I'm a picture chap. I like pictures, and when I go to the movies I go to see pictures. I think dialogue is nearly always secondary in a movie. It's awfully hard, when you look back over the really great movies that you see in your life, to remember a line of dialogue. You will not forget the pictures." A lot of movie directors and movie enthusiasts talk that way, and it can amount to a sort of religion, a way even of saying that what we see in this world is always more important than what is said and done in it. It is nonsense. In "seeing," say, Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will -- truly a beautiful thing, a very cinematic picture -- you may remember the moment when Hitler's salute catches a splash of sunlight in his hand, or you may know by heart the undoubted force of linked arms and leather belts in a row of stormtroopers coming down the steps. But are these "pictures," these "beauties," what the film is about? Of course not. Even in the 1930s, when it first appeared, the movie was not just about the pictures, it was about the Nazi philosophy, about Hitler and his madness. And because the film was an edited whole, something like an argument, it was waiting to be accepted by us or rejected. If it had been only the pictures, we might all be Nazis now.

Or, to apply the lesson more precisely to David Lean: what are the pictures we recall from Lawrence of Arabia, a work that many people would regard as his greatest? Well, there are the shots of Omar Sharif's desert warrior, in black on a camel, coming from the far distance, the image shimmering as vision does in hot air. There is the moment early on when a match that Lawrence has been using to demonstrate his "not minding" pain is snuffed out and, on a warning chord of music, the image cuts to the sun rising in the desert. There is Peter O'Toole's Lawrence dancing in the white Arab robes that he has just discovered. Knockout pictures, all of them; no doubt about it.

The match/sun effect is even a radical advancement of the film's story: it is movie thinking, a great cut. The view of Sharif is not much more than illustration: the way things look in the desert meant to impress the newcomer. But the shot of Lawrence enthralled by dressing up is something else: it is drama, human meaning embodied as a beautiful image. It may be the result of a collaboration between writer, director, cameraman, and actor, or a single individual's imposed vision, but it is real film-making, and Lean was capable of it.

But then look at Lawrence of Arabia again and notice the omissions or errors that it perpetrates: Western actors playing Arab roles (Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn); the flimsy suggestion of Lawrence's homosexual nature being revealed to him during the war and altering everything; the wholesale way in which spectacle and illustration stand in for politics, history, and their lasting impact on us. There was much more to the Lawrence story than the romance that Lean delivers. And who would notice from this romance that this story contains the beginnings of an explanation for modern Iraq?

So, yes, Lawrence is big-time cinema of the sort that still wins the best awards. It is radiant with the assurance that meaning is completely available in visual things. Yet it is close to helpless with the pile-up of consequences that actually require verbal accounting and moral discrimination. T.E. Lawrence is presented as an insolent performer, averse to explanation. Is that really what Lawrence of Arabia was about? It is hard not to reflect that this famously ravishing movie embodies something that it wishes to deride: Britain's ignorance of, and indifference to, places it may conquer. It is "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun," offered with a mix of pride and perplexity -- a Nol Coward song -- under the impression that it is something much, much more.

But that romantic shrug -- take it or leave it -- is pervasive in Lean. Indeed, it may be the most interesting thing about him: a deeply confused feeling for England. You see it in The Bridge on the River Kwai, where twin contingents of British forces are trying to build a bridge for the Japanese and to destroy it. There is a narrative irony that reconciles these contrary thrusts, but it is not deep or strong. At that inner level, the film is agonized and desperate over different senses of duty. It is like being in love with feelings while being afraid of them -- the very condition that motivates what is still one of Lean's best films, Brief Encounter, made in 1945, the story of a love affair that is allowed no physical fulfillment, and therefore has no consequences.

It is the kind of British film so good at smothering desire that it helped persuade French critics that the British would never be able to make films. Of course, that's not so. In London the whole work of Carol Reed has recently been revived with great enthusiasm. And there are others, of Reed's exact generation, who stand tall now in film studies -- not just David Lean, but also Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and Robert Hamer (a small master). And let's not forget their odd contemporary, odd in that he was the greengrocer's son among gents, the one who believed in emotion so repressed, tied down, and strapped in that it might one day leap out as murder -- I mean Alfred Hitchcock, another picture chap who obsessed over the visuals and sometimes theorized that a motion picture was just a number of plastic effects in the dark put in the right order.

Many years after that gang, in 2006, along comes The Queen, in which you might anticipate a republican boot being put in. But then, just as Cherie Blair warns her husband, "Don't be like one of those Labour prime ministers that fall in love with the queen," the wry, ironic and usually agreeably detached Stephen Frears finds himself unaccountably fond of HRH, or of her unthinking kind of duty. Britain has been vulgarized, the queen feels. So the public is besotted with Princess Diana (as if she had won a TV talent show, which was indeed the level of her achievement). So they want "Feelings," just like Barbra Streisand. In fact, Frears would be the very man to do the Diana story, and it would be a more scathing satire on empty prettiness than even John Schlesinger's Darling. The queen, in The Queen, is a media chump not able to go public with a show of grief -- that is, to match Diana. She can't, she does it badly -- she acts badly, which hardly anyone does even on television these days. But Frears and Helen Mirren admire her for it, for staying honest, for buttoning up that dangerous thing, emotion -- in just the way Celia Johnson's wife does in Brief Encounter, where she puts away love, Rachmaninoff, and Trevor Howard and goes home to a husband duller than Prince Philip.

The whole thing is awfully like the T.E. Lawrence whom Lean spent years on. Lawrence is depicted as a harsh spirit who rejoices in the desert, and at the chance of cuddling with native boys by the campfire. He is an inspired leader but a dangerous politician. We never realize that he is a wonderful writer, too, as well as a cheeky bugger. As Peter O'Toole, he was as tall, blond, and removed from the real Lawrence as could be (this after Albert Finney started the film). At the end he goes home in mortification or grief -- or is it in horror at his own briefly exposed emotionalism? He becomes "Ross," a subaltern's name, dry where "Lawrence" is flowery, and he does away with himself in the quiet of an English lane. He has opted for obscurity, when he might have entered Baghdad in robes and jewels, with people throwing flowers in his path.

Gene Phillips has worked hard at his book. He has studied the films in detail, even if that close an eye hardly helps him to read their meaning. Phillips is a Jesuit (he teaches film at Loyola University), and he takes as an epigraph a remark from one of Lean's most valued producers: "He thought about film as a Jesuit thinks about his vocation." Yet some shyness has gotten in the way. Though this is called a book about the life and the films, Phillips seems timid about exploring the teeming love life of his subject, which has been better treated in books by Kevin Brownlow and Adrian Turner.

So he reports but cannot be illuminating on the thing that any Englishman (or woman) notices first in Lean, which is more mysterious than the sound in the Marabar Caves, and which has already begun to reveal a kind of madness or savagery in other books. For this David Lean, the son of a Quaker and an accountant; a boy raised in Croydon, where suburbia met the countryside, and arguably the most handsome of film directors -- he was married six times in his eighty-three years. Henry VIII is his only rival. When the English reader gets that part of Lean's history, he knows that the chap had a real problem with the emotion thing.

Divorce is a British habit nowadays, of course. But an essential skepticism about it comes from Dr. Johnson, who, seeing a man who had been unhappy in marriage but re-married immediately after his wife died, thought that "it was the triumph of hope over experience." Lean's father and mother separated when he was in his teens, and on doing so the father quit his religion in the fear that the divorce would be looked at askance by other Quakers. (As a Quaker, young David had not been allowed to visit the cinema.) The father, a City accountant, did remarry, and so David Lean grew up with two mothers and a father who neglected him, and who in due course responded to the son's lack of aptitude at school by enrolling him as an accountant. That left far too little room for hope, and so his hobby -- photography -- carried him into the British picture business at a time when an eighteen-year-old might expect to make the tea and rise very slowly while the gentlemen, the university people, the foreigners, and the theatricals ran the show. Lean became a film editor, with a reputation that got him ahead.

An editor is not exactly "a picture chap," and so another conflict in Lean emerges. A film is made, more or less, out of an idea or a story (called a script), which is then cast and shot. But all too often, in the dry estimate of editors, that writing and shooting end in a mess that the editor must rectify. Editors become very tough with "picture" people -- there you go, they say, cutting out three minutes of gorgeous atmosphere so that the audience can get to the story. Editors know that in three minutes you can lose an audience forever. So they marvel at writers being paid to write a dramatic shape and the picture coming in so untidy that the editor has to start over again. They will tell you that no one should ever be hired to write a film unless they have worked in editing. And when you know that those three minutes are dead on arrival, then maybe you can save a million dollars by not going to the ends of the earth to shoot them.

By the late 1930s, Lean had risen the humble way from tea and biscuits to become a clapper boy, a camera assistant, a cutting assistant, and then a real editor on quite important pictures -- Nell Gwyn (with the English star Anna Neagle), Escape Me Never (with Elisabeth Bergner), and Pygmalion and Major Barbara, two Shavian adaptations made by the Hungarian exile Gabriel Pascal, and so tidily done that Shaw himself was dripping praise on Lean. So it was in 1942, with Lean thirty-four, when no less than Nol Coward got talking to him about a film meant to celebrate the Royal Navy, based on the experiences of Lord Louis Mountbatten (the king's cousin), but taking in the ordinary seaman, too. Lean asked if he could co-direct, and -- as if he hardly knew what co-directing meant -- Coward said why not.

Gene Phillips doesn't dig too far into the friendship of these two men, but it was uplifting to Lean and probably an inspiration to his modest upbringing. They co-directed In Which We Serve (a very British title), then Coward wrote and produced and Lean directed This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, and Brief Encounter. Four films in a row, all hits, all pretty good, and Brief Encounter still a landmark in film history and in England's battle between outrage and gentility. Coward, of course, was gay, though acting for all the world as if English love and marriage were meat and two veg for him. His versatility as an entertainer, and his almost effortless wit in talk, should not conceal that in the 1930s and 1940s he was a wonderful writer so in love with language that if you can't hear his fond chipping away at clich and his mannered terseness in Pinter, then you are deaf to English speech.

Brief Encounter is still the great British tribute to smothered emotion. A married woman, Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), meets a married man, Dr. Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). She is at a railway station and gets a speck of grit in her eye; he takes it out with his white handkerchief. It is almost their most intimate exchange. They fall in love, meeting at the railway station and having afternoons together -- at the movies, or escaping into the countryside. He does borrow a friend's flat, but that relief is denied them. They never do it. And Alec is off to Johannesburg -- Africa! or more pointedly, South Africa! -- before that was a suspect place for the English. In a way, the movie is the clash of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto and the reliable timing of the railway schedule (this was 1945, when you could count on the trains). Disorder and control are in contest. And in the end Laura doesn't give up everything and go off to Africa. She doesn't throw herself under the train. She takes experience over hope (or dream), goes home to her husband, and everything is going to be all right, or as it was -- no fuss, no split, no turmoil. Laura can get Rachmaninoff on an LP. And she can daydream of Alec. Brief Encounter is for people who know that in a safe world the movies are an inducement to no more than passive reverie. (Certainly not divorced, re-married, cried; divorced, re-married, died.)

In the decades since, Brief Encounter has been mocked and parodied by the English who live out its sad lesson. With reason: it is brilliantly made, and it is crammed full of "pictures" -- if you are content with the proposal that the most special effect ever filmed is the human face changing its mind (and, if you're English, opting for lengthy sadness instead of brief madness). It is the film of a writer and an editor -- if you are prepared to accept that it springs from the dismayed, hopeful eyes of Celia Johnson. Coward's dialogue is clipped, fragile, and naked. And the editing together of the shots, the points of view, is the real dynamic of its eighty-six minutes. It makes claustrophobia cozy.

Here we have Lean's mastery at top form. Not that Phillips gives it all the credit that he might. Between 1942 (In Which We Serve) and 1950 (Madeleine), Lean directed the eight films on which his future will depend. Seven were black-and-white; they were economical to the degree that postwar restrictions required; and they are "small" stories, even if two of them embrace the vision of Charles Dickens. It is one of the great bodies of work in film history. It includes Great Expectations (John Mills as Pip, Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket, a very young Jean Simmons as Estella, and Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham) and Oliver Twist (Guinness as Fagin -- thought to be anti-Semitic in some quarters -- Robert Newton as Bill Sikes, and the second Mrs. Lean, Kay Walsh, as Nancy), masterpieces of condensation and vivid evocations of the nineteenth century -- thanks to a great designer, John Bryan, and the lustrous photography of Guy Green. But Lean's intense picturing is also what makes them great. They remain the works that prompted BBC television to do serial adaptations of great novels -- a line of goods that may have earned as much as Rolls-Royce and Bentley and which run as well fifty years later.

Then, with a third wife -- the actress Ann Todd -- Lean did The Passionate Friends, a triangle love story with Trevor Howard and Claude Rains, written by Eric Ambler from an H.G. Wells novel. This is a film that Phillips underestimates. It is in many ways Lean's most perceptive view of mixed emotions in people, and it is another film that appreciates steps not taken. Then there is Madeleine, in which Todd plays a Scots woman of the nineteenth century accused of poisoning a lover, and the subject of a "not proven" verdict. In other words, the court could not make up its mind. The uncertainty over the case stopped the film from being a hit, but it is now what permits the depth of the character study. For we, the viewers, must decide.

For anyone reading this book, the chance to catch up with these films is a huge pleasure and the best reason for praising Lean. Alas, I think Phillips sees the career the other way around. He feels that these are apprentice works that led to the big pictures. But in the 1950s, David Lean lost his way. The third marriage (to Todd) came apart (she questioned him about character motivation, on screen and perhaps in life). It ended in dire recriminations and a ruinous financial settlement. He owed the Inland Revenue a lot of money, and that old chum Nol Coward suggested living overseas, old boy. In the 1950s, Lean made The Sound Barrier, Summertime (or Summer Madness), and Hobson's Choice -- none of them very good. And it was then, hoping at last to make a really big picture, an American picture, that he teamed up with the producer Sam Spiegel and did The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Who can predict such things? Hitchcock turned out to be enriched as an artist by leaving England. There is no doubt that his American pictures are the great ones. But Lean, I think, suffered in traveling, giving up the close scrutiny of people and social structures for landscapes and epics in which there is painfully thin content or meaning at the end. He finished badly, wanting to re-do Bligh and the Bounty (another story of duty and melodramatic escape). A Passage to India has not lasted well. Ryan's Daughter was a small romance ruined by inflation. Doctor Zhivago is nowadays pretty hard to take, a film that is happening somewhere "foreign" where Lean hardly knows how people think or what Bolshevism really meant for them.

Lawrence of Arabia is the question mark. It has great scenes, and a flourish of tragedy. It had the chance to be an interpretation of the open wound we call the Middle East. But in the end it is the sidelong portrait of a show-off who was ashamed of his own melodrama. That it is a glimpse of Lean as well as Lawrence is clear. Amid all the spectacle and the leading with self-conscious visuals, Lean had abandoned the test editors always insist on -- that films are information systems in which every word and act should build the story. When he was good, Lean made films about crushed, hidden lives. He coaxed them out with all the skill of a man who was himself shy about feeling. But when he was famous, his films were lost trying to match the breathlessness of the advertising -- rather like Flames of Passion, one of the "silly" American films Laura and Alec go to see on their modest afternoons.

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