10 Essential David Lean Films You Need To Watch

There are film directors, there are great film directors and then there is Sir David Lean. More than any director, his career helped to define and propel cinema throughout the 20th Century. Like James Cameron today, David Lean showed the world with each new film what other filmmakers could only imagine – he took audiences to places outside the realm of their own wildest dreams.

The word ‘Epic’ is never a hair’s breadth away from the name ‘David Lean,’ and his later work pretty much redefined what ‘Epic’ meant. However, his wider filmography reveals an artist of many moods and perfectly capable of indulging them all. What defined Lean and made him the cinematic Titan that he will always be, was his genius as a pure storyteller.

Whether it was the comic tale of a Salford cobbler’s business dispute with his own daughter, or the story of The Russian Revolution no less, Lean’s unparalleled skill was in mastering every weapon in the film-maker’s arsenal and deploying them to tell each story, as though they were oils and watercolours on an great artist’s palette. Here are ten such stories.


10. In Which We Serve (1942)

In Which We Serve

In 1941, with World War II in its vicious mid-section, the hugely popular Noël Coward was charged with writing a stirring, tub-thumping motion picture to help keep British morale up. Coward was taken with the true story of HMS Kelly, which had recently been lost during The Battle of Crete after a Luftwaffe bombardment.

Brimming with self-confidence though he was, Coward knew that he would never be able to direct such a large-scale action picture himself, and so enlisted the man considered by everyone to own the most technically capable pair of hands in the British film industry – David Lean. Fresh from editing Michael Powell’s classic war film 49th Parallel, Lean made his directorial debut here, sharing credit with Coward.

Structurally unusual, the action of the sinking battleship and the regular murderous strafing of the lifeboats by German planes is interwoven with flashbacks from three crewmen from across the class divide, showing their families and the civilian life that they’ve been ripped away from. Thus the action-packed war film is presented alongside the wistful memories of what they are fighting to defend in the first place.

The extraordinary snootiness and patronising attitudes towards the working classes make for an awkward contemporary viewing experience, but at the time it was an enormous popular success. The, ahem, lower orders were treated with far greater empathy in Lean’s next Coward collaboration, This Happy Breed (1944).


9. Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

Ryan’s Daughter (1970)

There is a moment in Lean’s underrated The Sound Barrier (1952) – a sort of Rank Charm School version of The Right Stuff – where Ralph Richardson’s obsessed aviation mogul shouts at his daughter, “You wouldn’t understand!!” at the suggestion that he tempers his quest for perfection.

You can imagine Lean himself shouting the same thing at his crew as he made them all wait on an Irish beach for hours until just the right cloud formation assembled itself in the skies ahead. In his determination to create something utterly extraordinary, Lean stumbled with this, the biggest disappointment of his career which stopped him in his tracks for 14 years.

Critics at the time complained, justifiably, that the story – a village teacher’s wife has an affair with a British soldier in 1916 Ireland – was too slight and was smothered by Lean’s inability to calm his epic tendencies: the film was 195 minutes long and filmed in Super Panavision.

Out of place on its initial release and with “The Troubles” imminent in Northern Ireland, time has done a great service to Ryan’s Daughter. A doomed romance in the finest, Shakespearean tradition, it contains some of Lean’s most memorable imagery, not least County Kerry made primal, sumptuous and glorious by Freddie Young’s camerawork.


8. Summertime (1955)


This remains one of the most undervalued films of Lean’s career: a Technicolor 1950s romance set in Venice, which could easily have starred Doris Day and featured a music number in St. Mark’s Square.

Despite the lush visuals – Venice has never looked so beautiful, before or since – there is a fissure of melancholy running through the whole jolly enterprise, as lonely spinster Katherine Hepburn briefly finds love among the gondolas and over-priced espressos. Lean was visibly overcome by the glorious sights of Venice and his love for the place and affection for his leading lady meant that he would refer to Summer Madness as his favourite of all his films.

It might seem extraordinary to modern audiences but the film (known as Summertime in the States) was a cause célèbre on its first release for its depiction of an adulterous affair – the Catholic Church was especially outspoken about such grotesque and wanton debauchery. Lean’s use of colourful imagery to depict that which the Hays Code would not allow is highly effective. A single red shoe here suggests more unspoken passion than five hundred shades of grey.


7. A Passage To India (1984)

A Passage To India (1984)

The negative critical reaction to Ryan’s Daughter knocked the stuffing out of David Lean. He spent the next ten years failing to get a two-part version of Mutiny on The Bounty made (Robert Bolt’s Bible-sized screenplay was eventually pared down and shot as The Bounty by Robert Donaldson in 1984). When Lean announced that he had a green light to shoot E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India, it appeared that the world was about to receive another gargantuan, Lawrence-style epic in the great, Lean tradition.

However, Lean had taken on board the criticism of Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage To India saw him balance the visuals and the characters in perfect equilibrium. The monumental, mountainous India, “the real India,” doesn’t dwarf the characters or their story – an Indian doctor (Victor Banerjee) is accused of raping one of a group of travelling English ladies (Judy Davis) and the case spirals out of control, instigating a possible revolution.

Instead, Lean uses the unmistakable, kaleidoscopic colours of India to depict the characters’ rollercoastering emotional journey. Lean spent the rest of his life trying to film Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo with Marlon Brando but time ran out, leaving this as his suitably majestic swan song.


6. Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Hobson’s Choice (1954)

Comedy is not something one readily associates with David Lean, but his gift for the light touch can be felt in most of his films – A Passage To India is a lot funnier than you might expect, largely due to Dame Peggy Ashcroft.

Lean only directed two out-and-out comedies and both were the work of a maestro of comic timing and someone who understood completely the maxim that ‘comedy is character.’ Blithe Spirit was his third film in partnership with Noël Coward. Hobson’s Choice, though is one of the most purely enjoyable comedies ever made in Britain.

Playfully, the opening scenes suggest another murky, shadow-painted Dickens adaptation until Henry Hobson drunkenly arrives, larger than life. Victorian bootmaker, respected local businessman and occasional drunken sot, Hobson is played by the greatest character of all, Charles Laughton.

His vast, baby-faced, dirigible-waisted persona was never put to such memorable use as he was here, spluttering indignantly as his own daughter (Brenda De Banzie – superb) opens up a rival bootmaker’s shop and marries his underpaid cobbler (John Mills). The famous drunk, puddle-splashing scene (one of the best drunk scenes ever) shows that even in potential sit-com territory, Lean’s instincts are always filmic.