10 Essential David Lean Films You Need To Watch

5. The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957)

Bridge on the River Kwai

Two years after Summer Madness, Lean created the first of the five epic blockbusters that would cement his almost mythical reputation as a fastidious, detail-obsessed director of widescreen extravaganzas. Based upon Planet of The Apes author Pierre Boule’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Bridge on The River Kwai was a huge success, winning seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Alec Guinness) and Best Director.

It’s one of the great movies about the insanity of war. All of the main characters are, or gradually become mad. Alec Guinness is extraordinary as Nicholson, a captured British colonel so obsessed by his determination to build a bridge worthy of The British Army that he becomes utterly blind to the fact that he is aiding the enemy. The camp commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is driven close to suicide by Nicholson’s recalcitrance.

The commando mission to blow up the bridge led by Jack Hawkins and shirker William Holden is fairly standard war movie fare but serves to highlight the disintegrating mind games between Saito and Nicholson. It isn’t the horror that James Donald rails against after the explosive climax but “Madness! Madness.”


4. Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations (1946)

The central complaint about Ryan’s Daughter – that it stretched a 90-minute story into a languid, three and a half hour epic – was especially galling for Lean, whose 23 film experience as an editor had taught him everything he needed to know about brevity and serving the narrative.

This first of two Dickens adaptations was a masterclass in reductive storytelling – especially the eerie, wordless opening shots on the marshlands that lead to Pip’s terrifying first encounter with Magwitch. “Choose what you want to do in the novel and do it proud,” said Lean of his gift for modification. “Don’t keep every character, just take a sniff of each one.”

His next Dickens film, Oliver Twist (1948) is another fine work, but has seen much of its iconography trumped by Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968). Lean’s Great Expectations, however, is how most people now remember the book!

The images of Martita Hunt as the resentful Miss Havisham and her cobweb-encrusted wedding banquet are among the most haunting and macabre ever filmed, yet Lean never lets his artist’s eye for detail hinder Pip’s progress as he is manipulated through life by one of the most eccentric casts that Dickens ever created.

So complete was Lean’s success with Great Expectations that whenever a new screen version is announced – every three years it seems – one’s first reaction must surely be, “What’s the bloody point?”


3. Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Billed as one of the great romantic films, Lean’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s literary sensation is actually one of the most chillingly downbeat tales of crushed love ever made. Lean’s widescreen sensibilities were perfectly suited to capture the enormous breadth of Pasternak’s story about lovers (Omar Sharif and Julie Christe) struggling to unite during the Russian Revolution and the outbreak of The Great War.

Lean overcame a bafflingly sniffy critical reaction which failed to stop this becoming the biggest hit of his career – adjusted for inflation, Doctor Zhivago is the eighth most successful film ever made.

For all the enormity of the scale, the charging battle scenes and the sumptuous visuals, what lingers is the remorseless contempt for simple love and poetry that rises like an unstoppable tornado when revolution is on the march. From the moment they meet, Zhivago and Laura are running away from a dust-cloud of history-in-the-making and fate is cruel enough to even refuse them a last-minute reunion.


2. Brief Encounter (1945)


It’s so easy to laugh now. The crisp, received pronunciation, the hats, the manners, the time-warp genteel Britishness now vanished, or was it ever there in the first place? So easily mockable, all of it, but it is merely set-dressing for the most unimaginably heartbreaking romance in British cinema history.

The key to its success – not to do a disservice to David Lean or his writer, Noël Coward – is the plain ordinariness of the two doomed lovers, played to absolute perfection by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. Lean would return to the theme of bourgeois infidelity in The Passionate Friends (1949) but with much less success.

A certain amount of historical awareness is necessary to appreciate just how shocking the mid-Forties reaction would have been to the idea of married, middle-class people arranging a clandestine tryst in a friend’s empty apartment, but it the yanking pull of duty and loyalty against the passion of their feelings for each other that compounds the drama.

It feels as though insistent middle-class social mores are boxing the lovers in and stamping on their desires like a stern scout-leader stamping out a campfire. Since Noël Coward’s private life became a matter of public record, the film has become seen by many as a coded critique of the persecuting attitude towards homosexuality at the time. However you choose to see it, Brief Encounter is perfect.


1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

There is probably no more awe-inspiring sequence in all of cinema than the moment when the bright orange sun begins to rise inexorably above the desert horizon. You can feel the air being sucked out of your lungs as your body gasps in a way it simply isn’t used to.

Cutting from the deliberately stuffy interiors of a Cairo embassy (via the ingenious shot of Lawrence blowing out a match), the Middle Eastern dawn blends into a frozen wave of sand; a butterscotch, 70mm landscape as Maurice Jarre’s impossibly rousing theme rises before it. Lawrence of Arabia inspired thousands of directors to pick up the bullhorn, but how many others gave up trying after watching that scene? How can you improve upon perfection?

The epic vastness of Lean’s ultimate masterpiece is matched for once by the character at its centre. T. E. Lawrence is one of the most fascinating heroes in film: awkward, shy, cocksure, reckless; possessed of the greatest Messiah-complex since Caligula, yet riddled with anxiety and uncertainty.

Premiere Magazine voted Peter O’ Toole’s performance the greatest in cinema history. Steven Spielberg called this ‘A miracle of a movie.’ There simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe Lawrence of Arabia. Cinema was invented so that someone would eventually make this film. Few who knew him would have doubted that that ‘someone’ would be David Lean.

Author Bio: Cai is a food and film writer, with articles published in The Chap, Fire & Knives, Gin & It and Cinema Retro. He is a features writer for HeyUGuys.co.uk and has yet to get over the Jaws obsession which consumed him as a callow youth.