David Lean, Repost

David Lean: A Retrospective

*note: This is an old one I simply missed to port over.*

David Lean’s career can easily break down between two major periods. The first is made up of small, relationship based films usually based in Britain and in black and white with a couple of Charles Dickens adaptations thrown in. The second is a series of five epic films set in more exotic locales with big, broad visual scopes. He’s mostly known for his second period with films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago, but his first period has jewels like Brief Encounter (my personal favorite of his films), Great Expectations, and Hobson’s Choice.

One of the things I’ve learned first hand wading through several directors work in order is the prevalence of reoccurring themes and motifs. The most obvious example was Terry Gilliam who puts the idea of the balance between fantasy and reality into literally every film, and Lean is really no different. Through almost every film (the main exceptions being the Charles Dickens adaptations which would probably require major twisting to get into this vein), Lean uses the idea of temporary high emotional states attempting to replace more subdued permanent ones. This happens most frequently when dealing with affairs of married people where the affair provides the protagonists a high emotional escape, but they end up turning their backs on that to return to the marriage which is steady.

There are variations on that, of course. This Happy Breed is about the state of Britain in between the World Wars with changes coming left and right only for Britain to return to its normal steady self at the outbreak of conflict with the Nazis (nobody tell Lean what happened to Britain after WWII). The Sound Barrier is about the permanence of exploration and scientific knowledge prevailing over the tragic concerns of everyday humanity. In The Passionate Friends a woman who had a relationship with a man other than her husband before her marriage is crushed to find that he had moved on more than her, making her memories and her fantasies the temporary state.

I want to highlight two movies of his that exemplify these motifs in his work. One is probably the most straight forward presentation, and the other is actually a complete inversion. Looking at them side by side is interesting.

Brief Encounter … Straight Up


David Lean started as an editor in the British film industry and got his first directing job alongside Noel Coward when Coward wanted to direct his own first feature film, In Which We Serve. Lean largely took over the directing duties as filming progressed and Lean’s feature film directing career was born. Lean and Coward worked together through three more features. The last of their professional collaborations was Brief Encounter which Coward produced and co-wrote based on a play of his.

In it, a happily married housewife, Laura, meets a handsome general practitioner, Alec, on her Thursday excursions into Milford. He works there once a week, and she goes grocery shopping and occasionally catches a movie on the same day. They often end up in the little cafe in the train station waiting for their ride back to their homes, in opposite directions. Through a series of innocent meetings, they end up falling in love, but the relationship isn’t to last forever. Alec can’t be a GP forever. He needs to specialize and he’s presented with an opportunity to move to South Africa. Laura can’t dissolve her marriage since her husband is such a good man and her children don’t deserve such a mess if she left. And yet, they can’t deny the feelings that they share for one another.

The entire story is actually told in flashback immediately after Alec and Laura say goodbye for the last time. There are echoes of Anna Karenina as Laura looks out over the train tracks where Alec’s train just departed, but she goes home and sits with her good, welcoming, and completely ignorant of the affair husband and confesses to him. She doesn’t confess out loud, but in her head as her husband completes the daily crossword in their sitting room. This internal monologue ends up being how she cleanses herself of the affair, to a certain degree. When she finishes her tale, wracked by guilt and sadness, she breaks down in front of her husband, weeping. Her husband, being the good man that he is, embraces her, ready to try and fix whatever ails her, and that devotion brings her back.

When her affair is over, all she has left is what she had before, her husband and family who love her. While she may have gotten real happiness in her torrid little affair with Alec, her previous life is still, thankfully, there. None of this really absolves her of her cuckolding of her husband, but she does find that what she ended up running away from was far better than what she ever thought.

This sort of return to the mean, finding that the permanent state left in favor of the temporary emotional one is common, and typically presented in this same basic structural fashion. However, there is one particular example that turns it all on its head.

Doctor Zhivago… With a Twist

Out of every film Lean made with this core motif, Doctor Zhivago is the only one where the permanent state never returns. It happens on a couple of different levels in the film, but in neither case, either with the Russian Revolution or the main character’s marriage, does the original state return.
The film starts out on the eve of the First World War, and we get a good sense of life in Tsarist Russia. There’s poverty and unrest, but there is also a certain amount of wealth for the characters involved. Yuri Zhivago is a young doctor and poet who is climbing both professionally and socially. Lara is the daughter of a poor shop owner and preyed upon by her mother’s lover. Unrest from previous conditions, Tsarist overreaction, and the war tip the country into revolution, and the country never comes back from it.

The high emotional changes from the revolt become permanent. There’s no going back to the comfortable upward mobility Yuri was experiencing. He shuttles from one place to another, always seemingly on the verge of starvation. Even years later, in the movie’s coda, when a certain normalcy has returned to Russia, it’s an empty existence, bland and tasteless that Bernardo Bertolucci echoed wonderfully in The Last Emperor about China’s own transition to communism. There’s no returning to the pre-revolution, not in Russia.

The other inversion of the motif is when it comes to Yuri’s relationships with his wife, Tonya, and his lover, Lara. Yuri’s marriage with Tonya mirrors the happy humdrum reality of the marriage in Brief Encounter. It’s a happy marriage, but unexciting. The relationship Yuri develops with Lara, though, is exciting, and he ends up leaving Tanya entirely (not completely of his own accord considering the events of the film that pulls Yuri into the partisan conflict for an extended period of time). He finds Lara, and they have some happy time together in the iced over house that Yuri used to call home in the Russian countryside. He has to send Lara away in order to save her life, and he ends up alone in his house. Years later, he sees Lara on the street and dies of a heart attack chasing after her without her ever knowing that he was there.

Yuri ends up with nothing in the end. Everything about his old life is gone. His wife, his home, his children, it’s all been taken away either with his consent or without it.

David Lean, The Man and The Artist

Lean didn’t talk much about his personal life, but one this is blindingly clear: he couldn’t stay married. He wed five times, and there were rumors that he simply couldn’t keep his wandering eye in check. He loved women probably in much the same way that Ingmar Bergman loved them. They were his muses, but they were also conquests to a certain degree.

Placing that in context with the main thrust of his films, that affairs and high emotional states were inherently unstable and the less exciting ones were more reliable, is an interesting contrast. He may have believed it, it’s hard to imagine an artist returning to the same idea repeatedly over decades and not believing it, and yet he refused to live it himself.

It’s a disconnect between the artist and the art. Is it better to take Lean’s artistic output independent of the man, or must we include his personal failings at the same time?

A Final Note

David Lean is the eighth director whose work I’ve gone through from beginning to end without skipping anything that’s possible to find, and I love the exercise.

Going in order, in a concentrated period of time, and allowing the text of their work to speak for itself has allowed a much deeper appreciation for their work than just occasionally picking up a movie here or there would ever do. The focus on repeating themes helps focus my viewings on what the director is trying to say over a career, providing newer wrinkles to interpretation that I wouldn’t have picked up on before.

But, at the same time, the idea of jumping into someone like John Ford’s filmography in the same way is daunting since he has over a hundred directing credits (many of the early ones are lost or short films). It’s a practice I want to continue, but I also don’t want to do nothing but watch John Ford movies for the next six months or so. I’m always on the lookout for the next director to go through.


4 thoughts on “David Lean: A Retrospective”

  1. Martin Ritt might be a director to try. Sidney Pollack has the advantage of being dead, but I don’t know that he puts his personal stamp on his movies, maybe more like the old studio type guys, just does stories he likes with no personal Pollack identity to them. Michael Mann seems like he may have entered the Clint Eastwood phase of his career. He has a movie on Enzo Ferrari coming out later this year, but based on the time between that and his last movie, seems somewhat likely he is done. IMDB does show another movie in development, but it was (or will be) 8 years between Ferrari and his last movie. And he turns 80 tomorrow. (Happy Birthday to Michael)


    1. Ritt would definitely be interesting. I’ll have to keep him in mind. Pollack is one that I’ve flittered through my head now and again as well.

      Michael Mann is one of those I’ve considered doing even though he’s still alive, mostly because I feel the need to dig in anyway. I actually did see The Keep at the BFI in London more than a decade ago when they were doing a retrospective of Mann’s work and I just happened to be in town. Weird stuff that. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s no real home release of it, it’s because Mann is apparently a giant ass to work with and has really specific things he wants done to The Keep that the smaller boutique home video labels (namely Kino Lorber and Shout Factor) simply can’t manage to accomplish in their budgets. They both bought the licenses and simply let them expire without releasing anything rather than working with him anymore.

      Otherwise, I am looking forward to Ferrari, though I found Black Hat to be borderline unwatchable. Ferrari simply has to be better than that.


  2. Opinions very divided on Blackhat the year it was released. Made both top 10 lists and bottom 10 lists. I’ve seen it 3 times, I’d put it in the top 10. That world they dropped into had a very sinister creepy vibe to it, loved the way Mann captured (or created) that. Anyway, you aren’t reviewing it, just wanted to stick up for it.


  3. it had an interesting angle for a caper film, of course china was made hypercompetent in this tableau, the plot was overly complicated,
    Miami vice the film, had some interesting elements, it seemed to share some elements with quantum of solace it was not recognizably about Miami however,
    he put out a prequel/sequel to Heist, which gave some background to the crew and their pursuers, and what happened might have made an interesting sequel


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