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Beyond the Epic

The Life and Films of David Lean

Gene Phillips

Publication Year: 2006

Two-time Academy Award winner Sir David Lean (1908–1991) was one of the most prominent directors of the twentieth century, responsible for the classics The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). British-born Lean asserted himself in Hollywood as a major filmmaker with his epic storytelling and panoramic visions of history, but he started out as a talented film editor and director in Great Britain. As a result, he brought an art-house mentality to blockbuster films. Combining elements of biography and film criticism, Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean uses screenplays and production histories to assess Lean’s body of work. Author Gene D. Phillips interviews actors who worked with Lean and directors who knew him, and their comments reveal new details about the director’s life and career. Phillips also explores Lean’s lesser-studied films, such as The Passionate Friends (1949), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955). The result is an in-depth examination of the director in cultural, historical, and cinematic contexts. Lean’s approach to filmmaking was far different than that of many of his contemporaries. He chose his films carefully and, as a result, directed only sixteen films in a period of more than forty years. Those films, however, have become some of the landmarks of motion-picture history. Lean is best known for his epics, but Phillips also focuses on Lean’s successful adaptations of famous works of literature, including retellings of plays such as Brief Encounter (1945) and novels such as Great Expectations (1946), Oliver Twist (1948), and A Passage to India (1984). From expansive studies of war and strife to some of literature’s greatest high comedies and domestic dramas, Lean imbued all of his films with his unique creative vision. Few directors can match Lean’s ability to combine narrative sweep and psychological detail, and Phillips goes beyond Lean’s epics to reveal this unifying characteristic in the director’s body of work. Beyond the Epic is a vital assessment of a great director’s artistic process and his place in the film industry.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky


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pp. vii-viii

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Foreword: Alec Guinness Speaking

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pp. ix-xi

I left school at eighteen and took acting lessons from Martita Hunt, who dismissed me after two lessons with the advice that I would never be an actor, though later she continued the lessons. (We were subsequently to appear together in my first film, David Lean’s Great Expectations.) Undaunted, I managed to obtain a two-year scholarship to a dramatic academy in 1934. ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

First of all, I am grateful to Sir David Lean for reading the pr


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pp. xv-xvii

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Prologue: A World on Film

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pp. 3-8

The French filmmaker Jean Renoir once said that, if all the films of a good director are laid end to end, what results is not a group of separate films but a series of chapters of the same film. This is another way of saying that, more than anyone else involved in the production of a film, it is the director who leaves his personal stamp on a motion picture. Filmmaking, it is true, is a ...


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pp. 9-10

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1. From Silents to Sound: The Early Years as a Film Editor

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pp. 11-28

The American Film Institute bestowed on David Lean its Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution to the art of the cinema in a television special that aired on March 8, 1990. Among those who paid tribute to Lean on that occasion was Billy Wilder, a former recipient of the AFI award. He concluded his remarks with the succinct “Who more than David Lean deserves ...

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2. A Touch of Class: Pygmalion, Major Barbara, and Other

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pp. 48-67

In 1938, the Quota Act was revised with a view to discouraging the production of quota quickies. The new version stipulated that British producers must allocate sufficient funds for the making of domestic films to allow an adequate amount of time for preproduction preparation, shooting, and the final shaping of each picture. At this point, Hitchcock was soon to depart for ...

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3. Hope and Glory: In Which We Serve and This Happy

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pp. 49-72

Carol Reed, David Lean’s fellow filmmaker, told me in conversation that British documentary filmmakers were put to good advantage in the production of propaganda films during the war. Under the banner of the Ministry of Information (MOI), Humphrey Jennings and Harry Watt filmed London Can Take It (1940); David Lean made Failure of a Strategy (1944), about ...


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pp. 73-74

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4. Enchantment: Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter

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pp. 75-100

The budding realism that had been initiated in British cinema in the early 1940s by films like Powell and Pressberger’s The 49th Parallel continued to grow during the war years because of stark patriotic films like In Which We Serve and This Happy Breed. Nevertheless, escapism dominated most of the output of British studios during the war.1 ...

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5. Long Day's Journey: Great Expectations

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pp. 101-122

British films during the war years and after were characterized largely by escapism. As already stated, highly romantic historical pictures were much in evidence. These movies gloried in “endless permutations of the same star équipe, as James Mason and Stewart Granger, Margaret Lockwood and Phyllis Calvert flung themselves into Regency disguise, took to the roads as ...

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6. Child's Play: Oliver Twist

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pp. 123-140

With Great Expectations, Lean had taken “a glorious plunge into the surging emotions and melodramatic fiction of Dickens.” The film had taken the period movie well beyond the “historical escapism” of many of the British costume dramas made in the 1940s; unlike them, it had “a feeling for the daily life of the times.”1 ...


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pp. 141-142

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7. The Beautiful and the Damned: The Passionate Friends and Madeleine

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pp. 162-189

After Oliver Twist, David Lean made two melodramas, both vehicles for Anne Todd, who would become his third wife. The Passionate Friends was the first; it began its artistic life as a novel by H. G. Wells. No commentator on Lean’s films examines the novel from which this film was derived in any detail. Yet, because the book is the work of a major English novelist, it deserves attention. ...

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8. The Wild Blue Yonder: The Sound Barrier

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pp. 171-186

It was inevitable that, having made films under the banner of J. Arthur Rank, David Lean would eventually become allied with Alexander Korda, the British film industry’s other major movie mogul. Korda had established his own production company in his native Hungary in 1917, for which he also directed some films. After an interlude as a director in Hollywood in the late ...

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9. The Stag at Eve: Hobson’s Choice

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pp. 187-202

Alexander Korda casually inquired one day whether David Lean had heard of a stage comedy called Hobson’s Choice by Harold Brighouse. Lean was vaguely familiar with the play, set in the north of England, which had been popular in repertory and in summer stock since it was first staged in 1915. Brighouse set the play in 1880, in the late Victorian era—though several commentators assume ...

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10. Love in the Afternoon: Summertime

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pp. 203-220

David Lean was bent on filming Summertime entirely on location in Venice, where the story takes place. Alexander Korda, the executive producer, and Ilya Lopert, the producer, agreed with him. Furthermore, United Artists, with which Lopert’s American distribution company, Lopert Films, was affiliated, had provided major funding for the production, and it too went ...


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pp. 221-222

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11. The Undefeated: The Bridge on the River Kwai

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pp. 223-256

With the gradual collapse of the studio system in the 1950s, independent producers began to come to the fore in Hollywood. Sam Spiegel, who was an eminent independent producer, would produce Lean’s next two films. He was born in 1901 in Galacia, in southwestern Poland, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the early 1930s, he worked in the ...

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12. Pillar of Fire: Planning Lawrence of Arabia

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pp. 257-290

The first indication that David Lean was interested in making a picture about T. E. Lawrence surfaced in 1952. After seeing Oliver Twist, Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, was impressed with the way in which Lean had been able to make a quality period picture on a relatively modest budget. Cohn accordingly wrote Lean, inquiring whether he would make a film ...

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13. In Search of a Hero: Filming Lawrence of Arabia

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pp. 291-320

He further indicated that no epic film mingles history and myth quite the way Lawrence of Arabia does. O’Toole recalled the first day of shooting on Lawrence, when David Lean said to him, “Pete, this could be the start of a great adventure.” Concluded O’Toole, “And for the next twenty months, it was.”1 ...

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14. Knight Without Armor: Dr. Zhivago

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pp. 321-360

After reading Boris Pasternak’s internationally acclaimed Dr. Zhivago, Lean wrote John Box that it was the best novel he had read in a long while: “It’s wonderfully written with great compassion and understanding for human beings.”1 The producer Carlo Ponti owned the screen rights and was keen on having Lean direct it. The novel, first published in 1957, had gained international attention ...

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15. The Lower Depths: Ryan’s Daughter and The Bounty

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pp. 361-402

Lean was mulling over possible film projects while residing with Sandy Hotz at the Hotel Parco del Principe in Rome. Robert Bolt was dialoguing with him by mail about adapting Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel Madame Bovary for film. Bolt was working on a preliminary screen treatment of Flaubert’s classic tale of adultery. He made no bones about the fact that he was developing ...

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16. Darkness at Noon: A Passage to India

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pp. 403-436

In his world travels, David Lean developed a predilection for India. He eventually set his sights on adapting for film E. M. Forster’s Passage to India, a novel that had become an instant classic when it was published in 1924. But he encountered a firm wall of resistance from Forster, who did not consider motion pictures a serious art form. ...

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Epilogue: The Craftsman as Artist

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pp. 437-448

It is somewhat ironic that David Lean set his sights on filming Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel Nostromo as his last project since Conrad never thought of motion pictures as a suitable medium for the adaptation of literature. Indeed, he was even more acerbic in his attitude toward movies than E. M. Forster. If Forster said that the movie studios were run by barbarians, Conrad ...


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pp. 449-464


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pp. 465-506

Select Bibliography

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pp. 507-517


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pp. 518-545

Photo insert

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E-ISBN-13: 9780813171555
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813124155

Page Count: 592
Publication Year: 2006