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Sir David Lean CBE (25 March 1908 16 April 1991) was an Englishmarker filmmaker, producer, screenwriter and editor, best remembered for big-screen epics such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwaimarker,Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter, and A Passage to India. Acclaimed and praised by directors such as Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, Lean was voted 9th greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute Sight & Sound "Directors Top Directors" poll 2002. Lean has four films in the top eleven of the British Film Institute's Top 100 British Films.

Early life

David Lean was born in Croydonmarker, Surreymarker (now part of Greater Londonmarker), to Francis William le Blount Lean and the former Helena Tangye (niece of Sir Richard Trevithick Tangye). His parents were Quakers and he was a pupil at the Quaker-founded Leighton Park Schoolmarker in Readingmarker. His younger brother, Edward Tangye Lean (1911–1974), founded the original Inklings literary club when a student at Oxford Universitymarker.

Film career


Lean started at the bottom, as a clapperboard assistant. By 1930 he was working as an editor on newsreels, including those of Gaumont Pictures and Movietone. His career in feature films began with Freedom of the Seas in 1934 and Escape Me Never in 1935.

He edited Gabriel Pascal's film productions of two George Bernard Shaw plays, Pygmalion (1938) and Major Barbara (1941). He edited Powell & Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). After this last film, Lean began his directing career, after editing more than two dozen features by 1942. As Tony Sloman wrote in 1999, "As the varied likes of David Lean, Robert Wise, Terence Fisher and Dorothy Arzner have proved, the cutting rooms are easily the finest grounding for film direction."

For Lean's final film, A Passage to India (1984), he chose to both direct and edit, and the two roles were given precisely equal status in the film's credits. Lean was nominated for Academy Awards in directing, editing, and writing for the film.


His first work as a director was in collaboration with Noël Coward on In Which We Serve (1942), and he later adapted several of Coward's plays into successful films. These included This Happy Breed (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945). Two celebrated Charles Dickens adaptations followed - Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). The Sound Barrier (1952) had a screenplay by the playwright Terence Rattigan and Hobson's Choice (1954) was based on the play by Harold Brighouse.

Summertime (1955), marked a new direction for Lean. It was shot entirely on location in Venicemarker. U.S.-financed, the film starred Katharine Hepburn as a middle-aged American woman who has a romance while on holiday in Venicemarker. In the following years, Lean made the epics for which he is best known: The Bridge on the River Kwaimarker (1957), for which he won an Academy Award, followed by another for Lawrence of Arabia, (1962). Doctor Zhivago (1965) was another major hit. In addition, Lean directed some scenes of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) while George Stevens was doing location work in Nevada. Most of his scenes involved Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer, both of whom had previously worked with Lean on Lawrence of Arabia. Following the moderately successful Ryan's Daughter in 1970, he did not direct another film until A Passage to India (1984), which would be his last.

From 1977 until 1980, Lean and Robert Bolt were working on a film adaptation of Captain Bligh and Mr. Christian by Richard Hough, which is a dramatized account of the Mutiny on the Bounty. It was originally written to be a two-part film, the first film was titled "The Lawbreakers" which dealt with the voyage out to Tahiti and the subsequent mutiny, and the second named "The Long Arm" that studied the journey of the mutineers after the mutiny, as well as the admiralty's response in sending out the frigate HMS Pandora and her famous box in which some of the mutineers were imprisoned. Lean could not find financial backing for both films after Warner Bros. withdrew from the project. Lean decided to combine it into one, and even looked at a seven-part TV series. The project suffered a further setback when Bolt suffered a massive stroke and was unable to continue writing. Melvyn Bragg ended up writing a considerable portion of the script. Lean was ultimately forced to abandon the project. The project was eventually released as The Bounty.

During the last years of his life, Lean was in pre-production of a film version of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo. Lean assembled an all star cast for his film, including Marlon Brando, Paul Scofield, Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Lambert, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Quaid and Georges Corraface as the title character. Lean also wanted Alec Guinness to play Doctor Monyghan, but the aged actor turned him down in a letter from 1989: "I believe I would be disastrous casting. The only thing in the part I might have done well is the crippled crab-like walk." Steven Spielberg came on board as producer, with the backing of Warner Bros., but after several rewrites and disagreements on the script, Spielberg left the project and was replaced by Serge Silberman, a respected producer at Greenwich Film Productions. The project went through several writers; among those were Christopher Hampton and Robert Bolt. But in the end, Lean decided to write the film himself with the assistance of Maggie Unsworth, with whom he had worked on the scripts for Brief Encounter, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and The Passionate Friends. Originally Lean considered filming in Mexicomarker, but later decided to film in Londonmarker and Madridmarker, partly to secure O'Toole, who had insisted he would only take part if the film was shot close to home. Nostromo had a total budget of $46m and was just six weeks away from filming at the time of Lean's death.

Lean was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1973, and was knighted in 1984.

Lean died of throat cancer. It was rumoured that fellow film director John Boorman would be taking over direction, but the production collapsed and Nostromo soon became a BBC television mini-series.


Lean was one of the founding members of the British Film Academy (later the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, or BAFTA) and was appointed its first chairman in 1947.


David Lean received the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1990.

Lean is the most represented director on the BFI Top 100 British films list, having a total of seven films on the list, and four films in the top eleven. Lean's films in general have always been extremely popular with the general public, with The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago among the highest-grossing films of all time. While Ryan's Daughter and A Passage to India were less successful on release, they have found wide and appreciative audiences since their release on DVD.

As Lean himself pointed out, his films are often admired by fellow directors as a showcase of the filmmaker's art. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese in particular were huge fans of Lean's epic films, and claimed him as one of their primary influences. Both Spielberg and Scorsese also helped in the 1989 restoration of Lawrence of Arabia which, when released, greatly revived Lean's reputation.

George Lucas has referenced Lean's films, Lawrence of Arabia in particular, throughout his Star Wars film series. John Milius, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and Sydney Pollack also claimed influence from Lean's films. Mel Brooks is also an admirer and parodied several of Lean's films in his sci-fi spoof Spaceballs. More recently, Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement) has cited Lean's works, particularly Doctor Zhivago, as an important influence on his work, and Baz Luhrmann has named Lean as one of the inspirations for his 2008 epic Australia.

Personal life

Lean was a long-term resident of Limehousemarker, East Londonmarker. His home on Narrow Street is still owned by his family. He was married six times, had one son, and was divorced five times. He was survived by his last wife, Sandra Cooke.

  1. Isabel Lean (28 June 1930 – 1936) (his first cousin) — one son, Peter
  2. Kay Walsh (23 November 1940 – 1949)
  3. Ann Todd (21 May 1949 – 1957)
  4. Leila Matkar (4 July 1960 – 1978)
  5. Sandra Hotz (28 October 1981 – 1984)
  6. Sandra Cooke (15 December 1990 – 16 April 1991)


Academy Awards

2 Wins and 9 Nominations


  1. - Indiana Jones' Influences: Inspirations
  2. The Kubrick Site FAQ
  3. Sight & Sound. British Film Institute
  4. The BFI 100: 1-10
  5. The BFI 100: 11-20
  6. Sloman, Tony (1999). "Obituary: Harold Kress", The Independent, October 26, 1999. Online version retrieved April 8, 2009.
  7. Kerr, Walter (1985). "Films are made in the Cutting Room", New York Times, March 17, 1985. Online version retrieved November 15, 2007.
  8. David Lean Foundation
  9. Brownlow, p. 483
  10. Times Online report

External links

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