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"Hunting, Hunting, Hunting"

A hefty, riveting profile of David Lean, one of this century's great filmmakers

by Jack Beatty

lean picture
David Lean: A Biography
by Kevin Brownlow.
A Wyatt Book
for St. Martin's Press,
$40.00, 809 pages.

The prevailing rap on David Lean is that his epic films -- The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr. Zhivago (1965), Ryan's Daughter (1970), and A Passage to India (1984) -- are long on beauty but short on vitality. "Humorlessly meticulous, his pieces have no driving emotional energy," Pauline Kael wrote in a pan of Ryan's Daughter that helped drive Lean into premature retirement. In an American Film Institute tribute to Lean a year before his death, in April, 1991, Martin Scorsese met this criticism head-on with the best appreciation of Lean's films extant:

His images stay with me forever. But what makes them memorable isn't necessarily their beauty. That's just good photography. It's the emotion behind those images that's meant the most to me over the years. It's the way David Lean can put feeling on film. The way he shows a whole landscape of the spirit. For me, that's the real geography of David Lean country. And that's why, in a David Lean movie, there's no such thing as an empty landscape. Thank you, David.

And thank you, Kevin Brownlow, for this suitably epic-scale life. Handsomely produced, with more than twenty-five pages of full-page movie stills -- in both color and black-and-white -- and scores of smaller black-and-white stills adorning page after page of text, David Lean: A Biography is a feast of a book.

David Lean was born in 1908 into a middle-class Quaker family living in South Croyden, a suburb of London. As a schoolboy he had a great deal of difficulty learning how to read. "One of the few books with David's name in it that survived from his childhood," Brownlow writes, relating a resonant biographical discovery, "is The Look About You In Nature Book, by T. W. Hoare. Judging from its battered state, it was much loved." When David was a teenager his father left his mother for another woman; thereafter, he all but abandoned David and his younger brother, Edward. This cruel blow had cruel consequences: David Lean would leave his first wife and his infant son and go on to leave five other wives. Strangely, and although in every case he left them for other (and nearly all younger) women, Lean's surviving wives have repeatedly expressed their devotion to him. What was it about David Lean that made him so lovable to these women?

Handsome, generous, and, in due course, famous, Lean also had the enviable capacity of listening to his lovers as if they were the only people in the world. Hard to resist a great artist who's interested in you. He also communicated to them somehow the importance of sex: he needed lots of it, because his work needed it. The often erotic feeling conveyed in his most beautiful images was in part the objective correlative of the restless, reckless passion that made him, at eighty, leave his thirty-five-year-old wife for another woman.

"I think pretty much the whole of this creativity is sex, " he told Brownlow. "There's no two ways about it. . . . If you want to make a good movie, get yourself a new, wonderful woman and that movie will be fifty if not seventy percent better than it would have been if she hadn't existed."

The other connection between Lean's loves and his works lay in his mania for perfection. Katharine Hepburn, the star of Lean's 1955 romance, Summertime, made this link in her interview with Brownlow.

"He had a lot of trouble with relationships. . . . Why do you think that was?"

"Because he was interested in perfection, which is terribly important. And nothing seemed perfect to him. I think he was hunting, hunting, hunting, his way through life."

"In private life as well as on the screen?"

"Oh, yes, yes, yes. Hopeless. . . ."

The hunt for perfection led him to spend a whole year on location in the west of Ireland, waiting out nature for Ryan's Daughter. When he couldn't find the beach-scape of his dreams, he sent a crew to South Africa to photograph the Irish-looking beaches around Cape Town. "We just had to spray the rocks black," he told Brownlow. "And I'll tell you, if you showed me the film now, I'd have to think hard which beach was Ireland and which was South Africa."

At the same time, Lean was open to serendipity. One of the most celebrated shots in Lawrence of Arabia -- which shows Omar Sharif emerging from a mirage a quarter-mile from the camera and which originally ran for eight to ten minutes -- was done in just one take.

Like Kwai, Lawrence was both a critical and commercial success. Zhivago made Lean a rich man, though it was heavily mauled by the critics. But Ryan's Daughter was a flop in both categories. Lean agreed to sit in at a meeting of the New York Film Critics to discuss the film. One asked him, "Can you please explain how the man who directed Brief Encounter can have directed this load of shit you call Ryan's Daughter?" Outraged at Lean's casting of Robert Mitchum as a sedate schoolmaster unable to satisfy his new young wife, Pauline Kael got down to cases. "Are you trying to tell me that Robert Mitchum is a lousy lay?"

Lean, who could not bear criticism, was sent reeling. "I thought, 'What the hell am I doing if my work is as bad as all this?' I didn't want to do another film. I thought, 'I'll do something else.' I went travelling round the world and I didn't make a film for fourteen years."

His last film, an adaptation of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India, appeared in 1984. The New York Film Critics named it the best foreign film of the year. Time put him on its cover. The Queen knighted him. And Pauline Kael wrote a rave review:

He knows how to do pomp and the moral hideousness of empire better than practically anyone else around. He enlarges the scale of Forster's irony, and the characters live in more sumptuous settings than we might have expected. But they do live. Lean knows how to give the smallest inflections overpowering psychological weight.

Thereafter, Lean nearly made a two-part movie on the Bounty mutiny and nearly made Joseph Conrad's Nostromo; Brownlow's accounts of how these projects misfired will confirm every prejudice you have against Hollywood big shots. Heavy with honors and regrets, David Lean died of cancer on April 16, 1991. In October of that year a memorial service was held at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. As all the great figures in British cinema emerged from the service, a military band on the steps outside played them off with the "Colonel Bogie" march, from The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Brownlow was there and described it thus:

When I saw them in their glistening helmets, looking for all the world like David's "Buckingham Palace Swagger" come to life, it brought tears to my eyes.

It was a terrible shame he had to miss it.

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