Time to stock up on those tissues! The 70th anniversary re-issue of “Brief Encounter” may be causing more than a few snuffles, but this November is also bookended by romances from British director David Lean. “Doctor Zhivago” celebrates its 50th birthday by returning to the big screen, the only place where its spectacular landscapes can be truly appreciated, at the end of this month. Movie Marker will be checking it out then.
In the meantime, what about David Lean himself? In a directing career that spanned over 40 years, he made less than 20 features films, not all epics and not all romances. But the one thing that characterised them all was their powerful narratives. Lean certainly knew how to pick ‘em – and here’s just five (in chronological order).
1946: Great Expectations
The first of Lean’s Dickens double bill: the other, “Oliver Twist”, came in 1948. While both were made in black and white, bringing the filth of Victorian poverty vividly to life, “Great Expectations” was memorable for a number of reasons. The story of the orphan turned into a gentleman by a mysterious benefactor introduced us to two Lean regulars. This was one of John Mills’ first leading role and one that established him as a favourite with British audiences. But it also marked the first significant on-screen role for Alec Guinness, who bounded up the stairs to share a flat with Mills.
Packed with unforgettable images – the graveyard with its sinister trees, Miss Havisham’s decaying room – the film stayed more or less true to the Dickens original, apart from the overly romantic ending. It jarred, it’s true, but it didn’t stop it from being one of the best on-screen versions of a Dickens novel ever made – even nearly 70 years on.
1954: Hobson’s Choice
A definite shift in tone to comedy, this time an adaptation of Harold Brighouse’s theatrical favourite about a tight-fisted Lancashire bootmaker who stood in the way of his daughters’ marriages. He meets his match in the shape of his determined eldest daughter when she marries his star bootmaker and they set up in competition. And, yes, it’s John Mills again, this time playing the unassuming former apprentice who comes into his own thanks to his forceful wife. Henry Hobson was a gem of a role for Charles Laughton, already a big name thanks to earlier roles including “Mutiny On The Bounty” (1935) and “The Hunchback Of Notre Dame” (1939). The scene where he drunkenly tries to catch the moon’s reflection in a puddle is something of a comedy classic, albeit a minor one.
1957: The Bridge On The River Kwai
Lean himself never won a BAFTA, but this was the film that earned him his first directing Oscar. The morally complex World War II story of the construction of the eponymous bridge in Malaya scooped seven statuettes in the end, including Best Picture and Best Actor for regular collaborator, Alec Guinness, who played the leader of the British POWs. However, some of the best lines went to Hollywood’s William Holden, the American anti-hero who leads the raid to destroy the bridge and never quite understands his British allies.
Once again, Lean demonstrated his knack of picking a powerful story, this time one of his more thought-provoking ones, and populating it with richly rounded characters. Those striking, memorable images were there too, especially the sun-up over the bridge before the grand opening.
1962: Lawrence Of Arabia
For many, Lean at his best. Another multi Oscar winner – another seven trophies, including Best Picture and Best Director – this was his first collaboration with cinematographer Freddie Young, who also scooped a gold statuette for creating scenes that have gone down in cinematic history. Omar Sharif emerging out of the shimmering desert was just one. The Egyptian actor’s career was cemented by that single moment, but the film created another star. The story of the charismatic and flamboyant T E Lawrence needed an actor with those qualities to play the role, and Peter O’Toole had them in spades.
Full of familiar faces from the time – Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness (of course) and Jack Hawkins – with smaller roles for Claude Rains and Arthur Kennedy and an uncredited Lean himself playing the motorcyclist by the Suez Canal, “Laurence of Arabia” was – and still is – an epic in just about every sense of the word.
1970: Ryan’s Daughter
“Lawrence Of Arabia” was followed three years later by “Doctor Zhivago”, after which it was another five years until Lean’s next film and it was the one that nearly destroyed him. “Ryan’s Daughter” took such a critical shellacking on its release that he didn’t make another feature film for fourteen years. It was “A Passage To India” and it turned out to be his last.
Set in rural Ireland after the 1916 Easter Rising, “Ryan’s Daughter” followed the affair between a married local woman and a British army officer. The shoot seemed cursed from the outset, with endless on-set problems: Leo McKern was nearly killed in a storm sequence, Robert Mitchum and Lean refused to speak to each other, with all communication having to go through leading lady Sarah Miles. And so it went on.
History has been kinder to the film. While Mitchum was an unlikely choice for the quiet schoolteacher married to Miles, he put in one of his most thoughtful performances. The storm sequence, as filmed by Freddie Young, was spectacular. And, of course, John Mills won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the sad mute, Michael. The film’s main weakness, however, remains Christopher Jones as the shell shocked British officer. His voice was eventually dubbed and this turned out to be his penultimate film.
“Brief Encounter” is currently in selected cinemas and is also being screened as part of the BFI’s LOVE season. “Doctor Zhivago” is released from Friday, 27 November.