The Films of David Lean

David Lean was one of the most significant film directors of the 20th century, the maker of classic films such as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

Born in Croydon in Surrey, England in 1908, Lean joined the film industry as a tea boy at Gaumont-British Studios in 1927. He eventually moved into the editing room, where he became one of the leading British film editors of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Valerie Hobson and John Mills in Great Expectations (1946)

Lean worked on around two dozen feature films as editor, including Pygmalion (1938), and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's films 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). He turned down several opportunities to direct low budget B pictures, before accepting an offer from Noel Coward to make his directorial debut on Coward's production of In Which We Serve (1942).

This article gives an overview of all of the 17 films directed by David Lean. Lean also worked uncredited on a few scenes of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Major Barbara (1941), but the following films are all of those on which he was credited as director.

In Which We Serve (1942)

Noel Coward addresses the ship's crew in In Which We Serve

This WWII drama marked Lean's directorial debut, with a co-director credit shared with the film's writer, producer and star Noël Coward. Inspired by the experiences of Lord Louis Mountbatten, the film focuses on HMS Torrin, a British destroyer which is sunk during the Battle of Crete in 1941. The film unfolds in flashback and details the experiences of Captain Kinross (Noël Coward), his crew (including John Mills, Michael Wilding, Bernard Miles and Richard Attenborough) and their families on the home front, including Kinross's wife (Celia Johnson).

One of the best war films to emerge during WWII, In Which We Serve was highly acclaimed and nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, and won a special Academy Award for “outstanding production achievement” for Noël Coward. By all accounts, it was Lean who did most of the actual direction, but the then much more famous Coward won almost all of the praise at the time. As well as beginning Lean's association with Coward, it also saw him work with several actors who would become regulars in his films, including John Mills, Celia Johnson and his second wife Kay Walsh.

This Happy Breed (1944)

Robert Newton and Stanley Holloway

Following the success of In Which We Serve, David Lean, his cinematographer on that film, Ronald Neame, and the producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, formed their own production company, Cineguild. The company would produce all of Lean's films from 1944 to 1950, the first of which was This Happy Breed. 

This Happy Breed is a quietly patriotic domestic drama, following the trials and tribulations of an ordinary, lower middle class family, living in London in the years between the two world wars. The film was based on Noël Coward's popular stage play, with a title taken from Shakespeare's Richard II, and the film version was a big box office hit. Lean's first film in Technicolor, still relatively rare in WWII, this is a moving but unshowy effort, with appealing performances from a cast including Lean regulars Celia Johnson, John Mills, Kay Walsh, and an unusually understated Robert Newton.

Blithe Spirit (1945)

Rex Harrison, Kay Hammond and Constance Cummings

Successful author Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) invites the eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford) to conduct a séance at his house, as part of his research for a new book. But Madame Arcati accidentally summons the ghost of Condomine's late wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond), to the consternation of his current wife Ruth (Constance Cummings).

This elegant supernatural comedy is not the sort of subject we associate with David Lean, and as a filmed play it doesn't give much scope for visual extravagance. But Lean handles it well and the performances are a delight, including a star-making supporting turn from Margaret Rutherford, reprising her stage role as Madame Arcati. The film was based on the successful play by Noël Coward, and this was the second of three films Lean made based on his plays. This was also Lean's second Technicolor production, and his last colour film for a decade.

Brief Encounter (1945)

Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard

In Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson plays Laura, an ordinary housewife who has a chance meeting at a railway station with doctor Alec (Trevor Howard). Although both are already married, a friendship develops that soon becomes a romantic affair. But Laura can't find lasting happiness with Alec without abandoning her husband and children.

Brief Encounter is a beautifully crafted film, directed with remarkable sensitivity by Lean, and featuring fine performances from its two stars, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. In its central character of a woman torn between a dull marriage and the possibility of happiness with another man, its theme of the desire of the individual versus their duty to others, and its evident interest in the visual possibilities offered by steam trains, it points to some of the preoccupations that would recur in Lean's later work.

It was in Brief Encounter that Lean first demonstrated his extraordinary visual sense, and the film has become one of the most popular and fondly remembered British films of the 1940s. This was the last of Lean's three films based on Noël Coward plays, in this case the one act play "Still Life". The film won the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for Oscars for Best Screenplay, Best Director and Best Actress (Celia Johnson).

Great Expectations (1946)

John Mills and Finlay Currie

This masterly adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel follows young orphan boy Pip (Anthony Wager), whose life unexpectedly benefits from an unknown benefactor, who may be the mysterious and reclusive Miss Haversham (Martita Hunt). Pip grows into a young man about town (John Mills) who still harbours desires for Haversham's beautiful, but cold, adopted daughter Estella (Jean Simmons as a child, Valerie Hobson as an adult). The situation becomes more complex when Pip learns the true identity of his mystery benefactor.

Arguably the best film adaptation of a Dickens novel, Great Expectations is wonderfully atmospheric and evocative, and benefits from great performances from a perfect cast of character actors, including Hunt as Miss Haversham, Finlay Currie as the convict Magwitch, Francis L. Sullivan as the solicitor Jaggers, Bernard Miles as Joe Gargery and Alec Guinness, in his first major film role, as Pip's friend Herbert Pocket. This is a model version of how to adapt a dense book for the screen without losing its essence. The film won Oscars for its cinematography and art direction, and was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

Oliver Twist (1948)

Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) with the Beadle (Francis L. Sullivan)

Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) is a young boy brought up in a Victorian workhouse, after being left on the doorstep as a baby by his unmarried mother. Eventually he is sold to an undertaker as an apprentice, but he runs away and falls in with a gang of pickpockets in London. The gang are led by the sinister Fagin (Alec Guinness) and abetted by the dangerously violent Bill Sykes (Robert Newton).

David Lean's second masterpiece based on a Charles Dickens novel, this is a brilliantly made and cast period film, using much of the same team (and some of the same actors) as Great Expectations. Lean's film version is brimming with atmosphere and is beautifully designed and photographed. Very few films have captured the spirit and style of Dickens so perfectly as this. Nominated for the British Academy Award for Best British film.

The Passionate Friends (1949)

Ann Todd, Claude Rains and Trevor Howard

This is one of Lean's lesser-known films and the first of three starring Ann Todd. The Passionate Friends is based on the novel by H.G. Wells and covers some similar ground to Lean's earlier film Brief Encounter. The film details a love triangle involving Mary (Ann Todd), her husband Howard (Claude Rains) and her old flame Steven (Trevor Howard). When Mary and Howard are holidaying in Switzerland, they coincidentally meet Steven again, and Mary and Steven's feelings for each other resurface.

Lean took over the reigns from original director Ronald Neame and didn't enjoy the experience much, although it did introduce him to Ann Todd, who became his third wife. A solid and intelligent drama, but not a critical or a commercial success, The Passionate Friends remains of interest for its narrative experimentation and for its re-working of themes that would recur in other David Lean films.

Madeleine (1950)

Madeleine Smith (Ann Todd) in the dock in Madeleine

Madeleine is based on the true story of Madeleine Smith, a young woman living with her family in Victorian Glasgow when she was accused of poisoning her former lover, a penniless Frenchman who tried to blackmail her into marriage. The story attracted Lean's wife Ann Todd, who played the part of Madeleine Smith on stage and wanted to make a film version. 

Lean seems to have been ambivalent about the film and it has never been particularly popular with audiences or critics. But Madeleine is made with Lean's customary craftsmanship and attention to detail, and has many interesting elements that suggest a re-evaluation might be in order. This is probably Lean's most underrated film.

See also: Film Review - Madeleine (1950).

The Sound Barrier (1952)

John Justin in jet cockpit

Wealthy industrialist John Ridgefield (Ralph Richardson) is determined that his company will build a plane that will be the first to successfully break the sound barrier. In doing so, he pushes his engineers and test pilots to the limit. Matters are complicated by the fact that Ridgefield's daughter Susan (Ann Todd) is married to Tony Garthwaite (Nigel Patrick), one of the pilots risking their lives for his firm.

David Lean was fascinated by stories of engineering and scientific endeavour, and never was that more clearly put on screen than in The Sound Barrier. There is more location filming than we are used to in Lean's earlier films, and the scenes of jet planes crossing the desert, or a Spitfire aloft over the cliffs of Dover, show Lean's ability to make use of a striking location, and point to the kind of epic film-making that he would soon make his own.

Still an underrated entry in Lean's filmography, The Sound Barrier was scripted by the playwright Terence Rattigan, and was a critical and commercial success on its release in Britain. In the US it was re-titled Breaking the Sound Barrier. The film won the British Academy Awards for Best Film, Best British Film and Best British Actor (Ralph Richardson) and was nominated for Nigel Patrick and Ann Todd. It also received two Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay for Terence Rattigan.

Hobson's Choice (1954)

Charles Laughton and Brenda De Banzie

In this comedy, Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton) is the tyrannical and often intoxicated owner of Hobson's Bootmakers, based in Salford in Lancashire in the 1880s. He lives with his three daughters, Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales). At 30 years old, Maggie is considered to be over the hill, but she manages to persuade Hobson's shy employee Will Mossop (John Mills), to marry her, and the two set up a rival business in competition with Hobson's firm.

Sharply scripted from the play by Harold Brighouse, handsomely photographed by Jack Hildyard and amusingly scored by Malcolm Arnold, Hobson's Choice is a beautifully judged comedy, boasting terrific performances from Laughton, Brenda de Banzie and John Mills. One of Lean's best films of the 1950s, this was also his last film in black & white.

Hobson's Choice won the British Academy Award for Best British Film and was also nominated for the performances of John Mills and de Banzie, for Best Film and for Best British Screenplay. Also Winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Summertime (1955)

Katharine Hepburn in Summertime

In a change of pace for Lean, Summertime, also known as Summer Madness, stars Katharine Hepburn as a middle aged American spinster who enjoys a romantic holiday in Venice, where she meets handsome Italian man Renato (Rossano Brazzi).

Written by Lean and the novelist H.E. Bates and based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents, Summertime seems like an atypical David Lean film. But it's one that again focuses on a female protagonist, and shows Lean's increasing confidence on location, this time showcasing the tourist sites of Venice. The film received a British Academy Award nomination for Best Film and Oscar nominations for Lean (as director) and Hepburn as Best Actress.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Alec Guinness and British prisoners

In WWII, British prisoners of war are forced by the Japanese to construct a railway line and rail bridge through the jungle and over a stretch of the Kwai river. After initially refusing, the British commanding officer, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), resolves to build a perfectly constructed bridge, one that will show the superiority of British engineering and act as a morale builder for his men. Meanwhile, British commandos, led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) and aided by an American prisoner who escaped from the camp (William Holden), are dispatched to destroy the bridge.

The events in The Bridge on the River Kwai shouldn't be confused with the building of the real-life Burma Railway, but it's an intelligent and ironic war adventure marked by detailed and believable characterisations and by Lean's excellent use of the Cinemascope frame. The first of Lean's “epic” films and the first of two he made with producer Sam Spiegel, The Bridge on the River Kwai was an enormous international critical and commercial success.

The film won 7 Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Original Music and Best Actor (for Alec Guinness), and Sessue Hayakawa was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Winner of 4 BAFTAs, including Best Film, Best British Film and Best British Actor (Alec Guinness).

See also: Film Review - The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Peter O'Toole and Anthony Quinn

The second of two films David Lean made with producer Sam Spiegel, Lawrence of Arabia represents the pinnacle of Lean's (or anyone else's) style of epic film making. Based on the true story of T. E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), a British officer who united Arab tribes against the Ottoman Turks in WWI, the film shows Lean at his best, with engaging characterisations, detailed mise-en-scene and superb use of locations in 70 mm widescreen.

Although it has a literate script (by Robert Bolt) and a strong cast, including O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy and Anthony Quayle, it's Lean's iconic visuals that have imprinted themselves onto the collective memory. Despite its great length of nearly four hours, the film was a huge box office hit, and made stars of Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif.

Winner of 7 Academy Awards, Best Picture, Director, Art Direction, Editing, Cinematography, Music and Sound, and nominated for O'Toole, Sharif and for the screenplay. 4 BAFTA wins, for Best Film, Best British Film, Best British Actor (O'Toole) and Best British Screenplay.

Dr Zhivago (1965)

Ralph Richardson, Omar Sharif and Geraldine Chaplin

This sprawling saga, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, stars Omar Sharif, fresh from a star-making turn in Lawrence of Arabia, as Yuri Zhivago, a Russian doctor married to Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin), but in love with Lara (Julie Christie). Yuri and the other characters, including the ruthless Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) and the political activist Strelnikoff (Tom Courtenay), are caught up in The First World War and the Russian Revolution.

The contemporary reviews for Dr Zhivago were mixed, but audiences didn't care and the film was a huge box office success. Mostly filmed in Spain (with a lot of fake snow), Zhivago inevitably doesn't have the authentic feel of Lean's other epics, and the director doesn't have quite the same grip on the narrative as he showed in the even longer Lawrence of Arabia. But much of Dr Zhivago is very good, the eclectic cast is intriguing, Lean shows his customary mastery of the technical side, and the audience is treated to some beautiful visuals.

The film reunited much of the Lawrence of Arabia team, including screenwriter Robert Bolt, cinematographer Freddie Young, composer Maurice Jarre, production designer John Box and costume designer Phyllis Dalton.

Winner of 5 Academy Awards, for Best Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Cinematography, Music and Costumes, and nominated for Best Picture, Director, Sound, Editing and Best Supporting Actor (Tom Courtenay). Also nominated for 3 BAFTAs including Best Film.

Ryan's Daughter (1970)

Sarah Miles and Christopher Jones

Ryan's Daughter is set in Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising of 1916. Rosey (Sarah Miles) is a naïve, but headstrong young woman, constricted by life in a small village and by her marriage to a dull but dependable schoolmaster (Robert Mitchum). But her life changes dramatically when she meets and falls in love with a handsome young British officer (Christopher Jones).

Ryan's Daughter was loosely based on Gustave Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary, and was the third and final David Lean film to be scripted by Robert Bolt. Although it did reasonable business at the box office, the film was savaged by the critics, especially in the US, where many rounded on Lean personally when they met him in New York. Too long, too bloated and too insubstantial, were the criticisms, but Ryan's Daughter has been largely rehabilitated today.

The film shows Lean at his most painstaking and perfectionist, producing a 3 hours plus movie that took a year to film, and which involved building an entire Irish village set and even taking the crew to South Africa to find the perfect Irish beach (the ones in Ireland evidently weren't Irish enough).

The film reunited Lean with his former producer Anthony Havelock-Allan for one last time, and is beautifully photographed in 70 mm by Freddie Young, in the last of his three films for Lean. Despite the critical disapproval, Lean was still highly regarded in the film industry, and Ryan's Daughter was nominated for 10 BAFTAs including Best Film, Director, Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing and Costumes. Nominated for 4 Oscars, the film won two, Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor (for John Mills).

Lost & Found: The Story of an Anchor (1978)

Also known as Lost & Found: The Story of Cook's Anchor, this is Lean's most obscure film, a 40 minute documentary about the operation to salvage an anchor lost from Captain Cook's ship in 1773. The film was made for New Zealand television and won the Festival Choice Award at the London Film Festival.

Lean became interested in this story while carrying out research and location scouting for his projected films about the mutiny on the Bounty. He intended to make two films, both scripted by his regular screenwriter Robert Bolt. The first film, The Lawbreakers, would tell the story of the mutiny and the second, The Long Arm, would focus on the aftermath and the mutineers' efforts to evade capture. Although the films were never made, the project evolved into the 1984 film The Bounty, written by Bolt and directed by Roger Donaldson.

A Passage to India (1984)

scene from A Passage to India

In the 1920s, Englishwomen Mrs Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) and Adela Quested (Judy Davis) travel to India, where Adela is intending to marry Mrs Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers). While there, the women befriend a local doctor, Aziz Ahmed (Victor Banerjee). But on a trip to some caves, Adela disappears, only to return bloodied and bruised. She accuses Aziz of trying to rape her, and the subsequent trial causes a schism between the British and Indian communities.

Based on the novel by E. M. Forster, A Passage to India is an impressive and intelligent production, with Lean's storytelling more controlled and succinct than in Zhivago or Ryan's Daughter. This was David Lean's final film, and after 14 years away from feature films, he found that his style of prestige film making was back in fashion again, especially in the British film industry. So too were stories about the British Raj, with contemporaries including Gandhi (1982), Heat and Dust (1982), The Jewel in the Crown (1983) and The Far Pavilions (1984).

The film won Oscars for Maurice Jarre's music and for Peggy Ashcroft as Best Supporting Actress, with nominations for Best Picture, Director, Writing, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costumes, Sound and Best Actress (Judy Davis). Peggy Ashcroft also won the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress, and the film was nominated for another 8 BAFTAS, including Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lean.

David Lean was knighted in 1984. He was intending to film an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel Nostromo when he died in 1991 at the age of 83.

For a brief summary of Lean's career, please see Director Profile: David Lean.


  1. Fabulous overview of David Lean's films, Jay. You know how much I love him and his films. I love his 1940's dramas the most, but I also love the big epics such as Lawrence Of Arabia. I love that his films could so often be intimate and epic at the same time, not every director can do that. He was such a talented man.

    1. It's a great shame that he stopped making films for such a long time. The criticism of Ryan's Daughter wasn't completely invalid but it was over the top. I think he said he lost confidence after that. Without that backlash we probably would have had at least another two David Lean films.

  2. Brilliant filmmaker. One of my favorite directors. He didn't make enough movies! BTW, Kevin Brownlow's bio is a great read. According to Brownlow, Lean almost directed Out of Africa (1985) and Empire of the Sun (1987)!

    1. He could definitely have squeezed in a couple more in the 1970s and 80s, so it is disappointing. I would like to have seen the two Bounty films, although I do like the Roger Donaldson one.

      That's interesting about Out of Africa and Empire of the Sun. I can see why he would be in line for those two. Empire of the Sun is pretty much Spielberg's attempt to make a David Lean film.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts