The Grand Director David Lean's films examined love, duty

April 17, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

David Lean, who died yesterday in London at 83, made large films about war and small films about love that seemed to have nothing in common except excellence. But they were in some way the same film, about the same struggle -- the battle between passion and duty.

Lean was born in a London suburb to an accountant in 1908 and, after a Quaker boyhood leavened by a secret life spent sneaking off to the movies, he entered the British film industry as a teen-ager in the lowest entry position: tea boy. And the humility of that position never seemed to leave him. Even his most panoramic films, such as "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia," were a tea boy's films: polite, well-modulated, discreet and ironic. A critic once complained of him, "David Lean has too much goddamned good taste."

By 1930, Lean had progressed through lesser jobs to the position of editor and spent four years cutting newsreels. That immersion in the actual plasma of filmmaking, the snipping and gluing, served as the foundation of his considerable narrative skills. Like many another director who has started as an editor, he understood the dynamics of film storytelling, knew exactly how to move the story onward, exactly when to cut.

But it also led to a certain technical coldness toward his actors, of whom he once said, "[they] can be a terrible bore on the set, though I enjoy having dinner with them." A manic perfectionist, he could wait on the set for hours for a perfect cloud while his actors wilted in the sun.

By 1934, he was cutting features, and by the late '30s was working on A features in the flourishing British film industry, including "Pygmalion," "The 49th Parallel," and "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing."

In 1942, he made his directing debut in tandem with an English theatrical personage of great wit and flamboyance, the legendary Noel Coward. It was a fortuitous connection, first of all in the film it produced, "In Which We Serve," a truly excellent, understated war drama with Coward serving as commander of a British destroyer.

But the union also produced Lean's next three vehicles as director, all biting, witty Coward pieces, culminating in what is generally considered the first of the director's masterpieces, "Brief Encounter," in 1946. It was a prototype of the exploration of the tension between passion and repression which would thematically underlie his career: Two "respectable" middle-class people meet each other over a train trip, and the result is instant heat. But do they let go and have a ripping ride? No way, not in David Lean. Stiff-upper-lipping it, they enjoy the thought of what might have been, what could have been, what would have been, and then poignantly return to their responsibilities.

Typically in Lean, repression battles expression -- duty battles love -- and always wins. His next great picture was "Breaking the Sound Barrier," about the early British jet aviation period, featuring Ralph Richardson as a further development of "Encounter's" Trevor Howard: frightfully held-in, worried, unflamboyant yet, in his disciplined way, extremely heroic.

Lean first reached an international audience with "Summertime" of 1955, another tale of repression and expression as spinster Katharine Hepburn, in Venice for the first time, meets and falls in love with a romantic Italian -- Rossano Brazzi. Hepburn's bittersweet vulnerability played brilliantly against the exotic background, and it made, for better or worse, Lean an international figure.

His next film was, according to some (such as me), his greatest. It was the first of his "big" movies and it mined familiar territory -- that vein of repression in which both strength and madness are found. The film was "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

"Kwai" pivoted on the same theme of repression that ran through Lean's work, here embodied brilliantly by Alec Guinness. Guinness' Colonel Nicholson, a captive of the Japanese, was a rigid disciplinarian whose unbending obedience to the British officer's code enabled him to withstand grueling torture from his captors in order to win for his men some dignity and mercy.

But, as the film turns in its second half into a story of a commando mission by an escapee and others to destroy the bridge that is monument to Nicholson's heroism, that same unbending streak culminates in tragedy. The film's last words, spoken by James Donald as he overlooks the battlefield, are emblematic of war and certainly run contrary to popular visions of war heroics, then as now: "Madness! Sheer madness."

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