Beyond the Epic

Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean

GENE D. PHILLIPS
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 592
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jcmkh
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    Beyond the Epic
    Book Description:

    Two-time Academy Award winner Sir David Lean (1908--1991) was one of the most prominent directors of the twentieth century, responsible for the classics The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). British-born Lean asserted himself in Hollywood as a major filmmaker with his epic storytelling and panoramic visions of history, but he started out as a talented film editor and director in Great Britain. As a result, he brought an art-house mentality to blockbuster films. Combining elements of biography and film criticism, Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean uses screenplays and production histories to assess Lean's body of work. Author Gene D. Phillips interviews actors who worked with Lean and directors who knew him, and their comments reveal new details about the director's life and career. Phillips also explores Lean's lesser-studied films, such as The Passionate Friends (1949), Hobson's Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955). The result is an in-depth examination of the director in cultural, historical, and cinematic contexts. Lean's approach to filmmaking was far different than that of many of his contemporaries. He chose his films carefully and, as a result, directed only sixteen films in a period of more than forty years. Those films, however, have become some of the landmarks of motion-picture history. Lean is best known for his epics, but Phillips also focuses on Lean's successful adaptations of famous works of literature, including retellings of plays such as Brief Encounter (1945) and novels such as Great Expectations (1946), Oliver Twist (1948), and A Passage to India (1984). From expansive studies of war and strife to some of literature's greatest high comedies and domestic dramas, Lean imbued all of his films with his unique creative vision. Few directors can match Lean's ability to combine narrative sweep and psychological detail, and Phillips goes beyond Lean's epics to reveal this unifying characteristic in the director's body of work. Beyond the Epic is a vital assessment of a great director's artistic process and his place in the film industry.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7155-5
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. FOREWORD: ALEC GUINNESS SPEAKING
    (pp. ix-xii)

    I left school at eighteen and took acting lessons from Martita Hunt, who dismissed me after two lessons with the advice that I would never be an actor, though later she continued the lessons. (We were subsequently to appear together in my first film, David Lean’sGreat Expectations.) Undaunted, I managed to obtain a two-year scholarship to a dramatic academy in 1934. Later I joined the Old Vic, and in 1939 I played Michael Ransom in a revival of Auden and Isherwood’sThe Ascent of F6. I was drawn to the latter role because Ransom reminded me of T. E....

  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. CHRONOLOGY
    (pp. xv-2)
  6. PROLOGUE: A WORLD ON FILM
    (pp. 3-8)

    The French filmmaker Jean Renoir once said that, if all the films of a good director are laid end to end, what results is not a group of separate films but a series of chapters of the same film. This is another way of saying that, more than anyone else involved in the production of a film, it is the director who leaves his personal stamp on a motion picture. Filmmaking, it is true, is a corporate effort to which a whole host of individuals, from actors to technicians, must make their contribution. But it is the director who must...

  7. PART ONE: GETTING STARTED

    • Chapter One FROM SILENTS TO SOUND: THE EARLY YEARS AS A FILM EDITOR
      (pp. 11-28)

      The American Film Institute bestowed on David Lean its Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the art of the cinema in a television special that aired on March 8, 1990. Among those who paid tribute to Lean on that occasion was Billy Wilder, a former recipient of the AFI award. He concluded his remarks with the succinct “Who more than David Lean deserves this award?” After all, when one considers the positive critical and public response to many of Lean’s films, it is evident that few directors have commanded such a large portion of the mass audience.

      In his...

    • Chapter Two A TOUCH OF CLASS: PYGMALION, MAJOR BARBARA, AND OTHER FILMS
      (pp. 29-48)

      In 1938, the Quota Act was revised with a view to discouraging the production of quota quickies. The new version stipulated that British producers must allocate sufficient funds for the making of domestic films to allow an adequate amount of time for preproduction preparation, shooting, and the final shaping of each picture. At this point, Hitchcock was soon to depart for America, but directors like Anthony Asquith and Michael Powell took advantage of this increased support to produce films that, though still modestly made by Hollywood standards, demonstrated incontestably the artistry of which British filmmakers were capable.

      “Naturally we were...

    • Chapter Three HOPE AND GLORY: IN WHICH WE SERVE AND THIS HAPPY BREED
      (pp. 49-72)

      Carol Reed, David Lean’s fellow filmmaker, told me in conversation that British documentary filmmakers were put to good advantage in the production of propaganda films during the war. Under the banner of the Ministry of Information (MOI), Humphrey Jennings and Harry Watt filmedLondon Can Take It(1940); David Lean madeFailure of a Strategy(1944), about preparations for the Allies’ D-day invasion of occupied Europe; and Reed himself jointly directedThe True Glory(1945) with Garson Kanin, also about D-day. “The documentary impulse was noticeable in many of the wartime fiction films as well,” said Reed, many of which...

  8. PART TWO: THE PEAK YEARS IN BRITAIN

    • Chapter Four ENCHANTMENT: BLITHE SPIRIT AND BRIEF ENCOUNTER
      (pp. 75-100)

      The budding realism that had been initiated in British cinema in the early 1940s by films like Powell and Pressberger’sThe 49th Parallelcontinued to grow during the war years because of stark patriotic films likeIn Which We ServeandThis Happy Breed. Nevertheless, escapism dominated most of the output of British studios during the war.¹

      Light-minded farces, as well as historical spectacles, were also part of this trend in escapist entertainment, and to the former genre Lean contributedBlithe Spirit. The film was derived from a Noël Coward play that the playwright had described as an improbable farce...

    • Chapter Five LONG DAY’S JOURNEY: GREAT EXPECTATIONS
      (pp. 101-122)

      British films during the war years and after were characterized largely by escapism. As already stated, highly romantic historical pictures were much in evidence. These movies gloried in “endless permutations of the same star équipe, as James Mason and Stewart Granger, Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert flung themselves into Regency disguise, took to the roads as highwaymen, poisoned off old retainers (with, if memory can be trusted, doses from large bottles obligingly labelled ‘poison’), and cheated each other out of inheritances.” To keep the audience’s interest from flagging, the director could always have the villain unhook the heroine’s bodice. “One...

    • Chapter Six CHILD’S PLAY: OLIVER TWIST
      (pp. 123-140)

      WithGreat Expectations, Lean had taken “a glorious plunge into the surging emotions and melodramatic fiction of Dickens.” The film had taken the period movie well beyond the “historical escapism” of many of the British costume dramas made in the 1940s; unlike them, it had “a feeling for the daily life of the times.”¹

      Lean was initially hesitant about adapting a second Dickens novel for the screen. For one thing, he feared repeating himself. For another, he had no wish to pigeonhole himself as a mere illustrator of classic novels and plays. Still, he reasoned, he had adapted three Noël...

  9. PART THREE: FROM RANK TO KORDA

    • Chapter Seven THE BEAUTIFUL AND THE DAMNED: THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS AND MADELEINE
      (pp. 143-170)

      AfterOliver Twist, David Lean made two melodramas, both vehicles for Anne Todd, who would become his third wife.The Passionate Friendswas the first; it began its artistic life as a novel by H. G. Wells. No commentator on Lean’s films examines the novel from which this film was derived in any detail. Yet, because the book is the work of a major English novelist, it deserves attention. Wells is mostly known as the author of science-fiction tales likeThe Shape of Things to Come(1933). This novel was filmed asThings to Come(1936) by William Cameron Menzies,...

    • Chapter Eight THE WILD BLUE YONDER: THE SOUND BARRIER
      (pp. 171-186)

      It was inevitable that, having made films under the banner of J. Arthur Rank, David Lean would eventually become allied with Alexander Korda, the British film industry’s other major movie mogul. Korda had established his own production company in his native Hungary in 1917, for which he also directed some films. After an interlude as a director in Hollywood in the late 1920s, he returned to Europe in 1930. Korda worked as a producer briefly at Paramount Pictures’ European studio in France, where he first encountered David Lean (see chapter 1).

      Like his fellow Hungarian Gabriel Pascal, Korda settled eventually...

    • Chapter Nine THE STAG AT EVE: HOBSON’S CHOICE
      (pp. 187-202)

      Alexander Korda casually inquired one day whether David Lean had heard of a stage comedy calledHobson’s Choiceby Harold Brighouse. Lean was vaguely familiar with the play, set in the north of England, which had been popular in repertory and in summer stock since it was first staged in 1915. Brighouse set the play in 1880, in the late Victorian era—though several commentators assume that, because it was written in 1915, it takes place in 1915. Brighouse chose to set the play in 1880 because that was when the first stirrings of the women’s rights movement were being...

    • Chapter Ten LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON: SUMMERTIME
      (pp. 203-220)

      David Lean was bent on filmingSummertimeentirely on location in Venice, where the story takes place. Alexander Korda, the executive producer, and Ilya Lopert, the producer, agreed with him. Furthermore, United Artists, with which Lopert’s American distribution company, Lopert Films, was affiliated, had provided major funding for the production, and it too went along with the decision to film in Italy.

      Lopert’s own judgment about Lean was that he would need the supervision of a vigilant producer while he was filming on the Continent. Lopert had, apparently, heard that Ronald Neame had complained about Lean’s falling behind schedule while...

  10. PART FOUR: THE PEAK YEARS IN HOLLYWOOD

    • Chapter Eleven THE UNDEFEATED: THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI
      (pp. 223-256)

      With the gradual collapse of the studio system in the 1950s, independent producers began to come to the fore in Hollywood. Sam Spiegel, who was an eminent independent producer, would produce Lean’s next two films. He was born in 1901 in Galacia, in southwestern Poland, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the early 1930s, he worked in the Berlin branch of Universal Studios, preparing its films for European distribution. He fled Hitler’s Germany in 1933 and emigrated to England, along with other producers like Gabriel Pascal and Alexander Korda.

      Spiegel did not immediately succeed in the film...

    • Chapter Twelve PILLAR OF FIRE: PLANNING LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
      (pp. 257-290)

      The first indication that David Lean was interested in making a picture about T. E. Lawrence surfaced in 1952. After seeingOliver Twist, Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, was impressed with the way in which Lean had been able to make a quality period picture on a relatively modest budget. Cohn accordingly wrote Lean, inquiring whether he would make a film about Lawrence for Columbia.

      Lean had been intrigued by the legend of Lawrence for years. “During the First World War,” the historian John Kifner writes, “Lawrence had been present at the birth of modern Arab nationalism and...

    • Chapter Thirteen IN SEARCH OF A HERO: FILMING LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
      (pp. 291-320)

      “Bernard Shaw once said that no one has satisfactorily placed a boundary between myth and history,” Peter O’Toole said in a 2004 interview. “You can see the enormous attraction of a historical film which has an aura of myth.” He further indicated that no epic film mingles history and myth quite the wayLawrence of Arabiadoes. O’Toole recalled the first day of shooting onLawrence, when David Lean said to him, “Pete, this could be the start of a great adventure.” Concluded O’Toole, “And for the next twenty months, it was.”¹

      Principal photography onLawrencecommenced in Jordan on...

    • Chapter Fourteen KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOR: DR. ZHIVAGO
      (pp. 321-360)

      After reading Boris Pasternak’s internationally acclaimedDr. Zhivago, Lean wrote John Box that it was the best novel he had read in a long while: “It’s wonderfully written with great compassion and understanding for human beings.”¹ The producer Carlo Ponti owned the screen rights and was keen on having Lean direct it.

      The novel, first published in 1957, had gained international attention when Pasternak was forced by the Kremlin to decline the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature. The Soviets condemned the novel, which dealt with the Russian Revolution, for not following the Communist Party line in the portrayal of the...

    • Chapter Fifteen THE LOWER DEPTHS: RYAN’S DAUGHTER AND THE BOUNTY
      (pp. 361-402)

      Lean was mulling over possible film projects while residing with Sandy Hotz at the Hotel Parco del Principe in Rome. Robert Bolt was dialoguing with him by mail about adapting Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novelMadame Bovaryfor film. Bolt was working on a preliminary screen treatment of Flaubert’s classic tale of adultery. He made no bones about the fact that he was developing the treatment with his second wife, the actress Sarah Miles (The Servant[Joseph Losey, 1963]), in mind for the lead.

      Commentators onRyan’s Daughterhave customarily not made very much of the link between it andMadame...

    • Chapter Sixteen DARKNESS AT NOON: A PASSAGE TO INDIA
      (pp. 403-436)

      In his world travels, David Lean developed a predilection for India. He eventually set his sights on adapting for film E. M. Forster’sPassage to India, a novel that had become an instant classic when it was published in 1924. But he encountered a firm wall of resistance from Forster, who did not consider motion pictures a serious art form.

      Edward Morgan Forster, who had written the six novels that constitute his main claim to fame by the age of forty-five, was born in London on January 1, 1879. While he was still an infant, his father died, and he...

  11. EPILOGUE: THE CRAFTSMAN AS ARTIST
    (pp. 437-448)

    It is somewhat ironic that David Lean set his sights on filming Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novelNostromoas his last project since Conrad never thought of motion pictures as a suitable medium for the adaptation of literature. Indeed, he was even more acerbic in his attitude toward movies than E. M. Forster. If Forster said that the movie studios were run by barbarians, Conrad called films “just a silly stunt for silly people.”¹ Conrad, who died in 1924, considered most of the silent pictures of his day to be crude and shallow; he believed that the cinema had yet to...

  12. FILMOGRAPHY
    (pp. 449-464)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 465-506)
  14. SELECT BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 507-518)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 519-546)
  16. Illustrations
    (pp. 547-570)