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David Lean was born in Croydon, England on March 25, 1908 to strict Quaker parents. Growing up in a very rigid religious household, he was not allowed to attend the movies. After attending Quaker-founded schools, Lean began working at his father’s accounting firm. He quickly got bored, and by a suggestion from his relative to follow his dreams, he joined Gaumont Studios. During his first month as a tea boy he received no pay to prove his dedication, and was consequently promoted to clapper boy in only a short time. He worked his way up to assistant director in 1928 with “The Physician”, and then to an editor of newsreels in 1930 starting with “The Night Porter”. Lean then went on to edit a great number of pictures throughout the decade for Gaumont Studios and Movietone, including titles such as “Insult” (1932), “Dangerous Ground” (1943), “Dreaming Lips” (1937), and “Pygmalion” (1938). By the mid thirties, he was considered one of the top in the field.

In 1942 Lean elevated to a new level of filmmaking: directing. In his debut, “In Which We Serve” (1942), he co-directed with Noel Coward and helped the war drama helm two Oscar nominations. The film told the story of a ship, the British destroyer HMS Torrin, and its passengers, in a series of moving flashbacks as seen by the survivors who cling to life in the middle of the ocean. It illustrated how the ideals of duty, loyalty, and responsibility far outweigh the pursuit of personal gain in each soldier’s life. After that, Lean’s career had been made.

He went on to solo direct and adapt some more of Coward’s plays, including “This Happy Breed” (1944), which followed the lives of ordinary people, “Blithe Spirit” (1945), a comical ghost story, and “Brief Encounter” (1945), a story of two married people who have an affair and fall in love. The latter poetically explored values of trust, fidelity, and loyalty, earning the film three Academy Award nominations. After Coward, Lean switched to the great writer Charles Dickens for his film versions of “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948), both of which starred actor Alec Guinness, who would show up in some of Lean’s subsequent features. “Great Expectations” expertly showcased the director’s talent for light, sound, and stage manipulation, with the result of an exaggerated and hazy world that seems detached from reality. It was so skillfully crafted that it earned numerous Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. “Oliver Twist”, while equally explicit in the harshness and heartlessness found in Dickens’ novels, found criticism from some for proposed anti-Semitic nuances.

In 1949 Lean directed another film based on a book, “The Passionate Friends”, which was written by H.G. Wells. It was similar to “Brief Encounter” in the way that it examined a married woman’s feelings for a man who was not her husband, but differed in the fact that it lacked the same emotion of his prior film. “Madeleine” (1950) came next, and was the true story of Madeleine Smith, a woman accused of murdering her French lover. His subsequent feature was the aviation drama “Breaking the Sound Barrier” (1952), which became a quick success in Britain and set the epic-like tone for some of his later work. The film after, a comedy titled “Hobson’s Choice” (1954), also set the stage for his future pictures in that it starred a strong female lead.

Lean scored his third Oscar nomination next, for the Venice shot romantic comedy “Summertime” (1955). The director’s film after turned out to be a pivotal point in his career, as it became his first true epic. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) followed a group of prisoner of war soldiers in an exotic location who must cooperate with their POW general. Its artistry was not found only in the photographic strategies employed, but in the plot itself and how it depicted the relationship of the captive British general and his imprisoning Japanese counterpart.  It was hailed as both a commercial and critical masterpiece, and even earned seven Academy Awards. Lean’s subsequent epic was the period piece “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), which also became a cinematic feat and helmed seven Oscars. “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) became the director’s next big hit, and was based off of Boris Pasternak’s novel. The film followed a Russian poet in the middle of the Bolshevik Revolution who falls in love with his mistress, who was raped by her politician husband, and must figure out want he wants in all of the hardships of that time. The romantic drama received mixed critical reviews, but found amazing success at the box office and won multiple Academy Awards.

Due to the success of “Doctor Zhivago”, Lean decided to try and make another dramatic love story with a background of political turmoil. However, the film, “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970), was too hyped up by the time it came out that it got unforgiving reviews and disappointed audiences. His next and last picture came fourteen years later, and was based on the Indian independence movement in the 1920's. Titled “A Passage to India” (1984), it won favorable reviews and was hailed as another one of his masterpieces. Winning two Oscars, the film allowed Lean to end his career on a high note.

Less than ten years later, on April 16, 1991, the director passed away from throat cancer while in London, England. He was unfortunately in the process of creating another film which had been years in the making. The eighty three year old needed not to put out another picture to raise his reputation however, as it was already strong. For his great work in the art of cinema, immense skills in the showcasing of emotions on screen, and talent for direction, Lean was voted the 34th Greatest Director of all time by Entertainment Weekly, and has earned a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute, a DGA Honorary Life Member Award and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Director’s Guild of America, and over twenty five other assorted honors.


1984       A Passage to India  

1979       Lost and Found: The Story of Cook's Anchor

1970       Ryan's Daughter

1965       Doctor Zhivago 

1965       The Greatest Story Ever Told 

1962       Lawrence of Arabia

1957       The Bridge on the River Kwai

1955       Summertime

1954       Hobson's Choice

1952       Breaking the Sound Barrier

1950       Madeleine

1949       The Passionate Friends

1948       Oliver Twist

1946       Great Expectations

1945       Brief Encounter

1945       Blithe Spirit

1944       This Happy Breed

1942       In Which We Serve 

1942       One of Our Aircraft Is Missing

1941       49th Parallel

1941       Major Barbara

1940       Spies of the Air

1940       Spy for a Day

1940       French Without Tears

1938       Pygmalion

1937       The Last Adventurers

1937       The Wife of General Ling

1937       Dreaming Lips

1936       With Pleasure, Madame

1936       As You Like It

1935       The Crouching Beast

1935       Escape Me Never

1935       Brewster's Millions 

1935       Turn of the Tide  

1934       Tiger Bay

1934       Java Head

1934       Dangerous Ground

1934       The Secret of the Loch

1933       Money for Speed

1933       Matinee Idol

1933       Song of the Plough

1933       The Ghost Camera

1932       Insult

1931       These Charming People

1930       The Night Porter

1929       Sailors Don't Care 

1929       High Treason 

1928       Balaclava 

1928       The Physician 

1927       Quinneys  

Matinee Classics - The Bridge on the River Kwai starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, Geoffrey Horne, Andre Morell, Peter Williams, John Boxer, Percy Herbert, Harold Goodwin, Ann Sears, Henry Okawa and Keiichiro Katsumoto

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