Doctor Zhivago (1965) Written by Robert Bolt Directed by David Lean
Coming off the meteoric success of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean desired to make a film more romantic & relationship-centered, a counter to Lawrence’s epic war themes. However, Hollywood now saw him as a filmmaker of sprawling bombastic movies. Doctor Zhivago, based on the worldwide bestseller by Boris Pasternak. Originally, Omar Sharif signed on with the expectation of playing Pasha, while Lean wanted Peter O’Toole as the lead again. O’Toole opted out, and so Lean asked Sharif to play the lead part. On December 22, 1965, just in time for Christmas, Doctor Zhivago was released in theaters and became one of the highest-grossing movies of all-time.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Written by Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson Directed by David Lean
In the 19th century, Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle gave a series of lectures positing the great man theory. This belief is that history is simply the impact of a series of great men who were highly influential and better than the ordinary person. This was attributed to some innate superiority or divine providence. This has become a well-deserved point of contention in modern history discourse as it’s become clear that white men did a very efficient job of suppressing the accounts and perspective of women, black people, and other non-white, LGBTQ+ people that lived alongside them. T.E. Lawrence was definitely seen as a great man, but David Lean’s controversial film about the historical figure explores that the myths and stories did not match the reality.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson Directed by David Lean
Of all David Lean’s films, this remains my absolute favorite and rewatching it many years since the last viewing, I saw so much more than I ever have before. I think The Bridge on the River Kwai actually serves as a perfect allegory for the incoming Biden presidency and the unity message of Liberals towards Leftists and Progressives in America. While the film is set during World War II, we aren’t in the middle of the action. Instead, the narrative has two prominent locations: a Japanese POW camp and the Club Med-like hospital and Allied base of operations in Ceylon. We never see massive battleships or armed soldiers moving en masse across hills and fields. These are people broken by war, yet some are still unable to see the madness in their actions and cling to the procedures.
Oliver Twist (1948) Written by David Lean & Stanley Haynes Directed by David Lean
David Lean’s second attempt at adapting Charles Dickens is even better, in my opinion. This time around, instead of relying on other screenwriters, Lean and Stanley Haynes worked out the script together and managed to keep most of the story’s high points. Lean was audacious enough to add to the story with two critical bits at the beginning and end that work beautifully and are some of the best scenes of the entire film. Even more so than Great Expectations, we find the director leaning into noir-ish Gothic production design and lighting, which leads to an incredibly memorable viewing experience.
Great Expectations (1946) Written by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, and Kay Walsh Directed by David Lean
The success of Brief Encounter rocketed David Lean into a level of acclaim that would only grow for the remainder of his career. His next projects would be adaptations of two classic Charles Dickens novels, starting with Great Expectations. The idea to adapt the story to the screen came after Lean saw a stage production that abbreviated the text and turned it into a digestible narrative while cutting away subplots. It took a couple of years of drafts, explaining the writing credits until Lean was satisfied with the final product. On Boxing Day (December 26) 1946, Great Expectations premiered in the U.K.
Brief Encounter (1945) Written by Noël Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame Directed by David Lean
David Lean was born into the Quaker faith in 1908 in the pastoral environs of Surrey, England. While in school, Lean was deemed too dreamy and not up to snuff with the level of academics he was expected to master. At age 18, he entered into an apprenticeship under his father’s accountancy firm. At age ten, Lean had been given a Brownie box camera, and this event was looked back at by the director as one of the most formative experiences in his life. The next formative moment came when at age 15, Lean’s father left his family. Lean would follow suit with his first wife and child. He would remarry five additional times, and friends claimed he slept with around 1,000 women in his lifetime.