David Lean
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes

Arguably the most rewarding English language director after John Ford, the exact genius of DAVID LEAN (1908-91) remains contentious. An indifferent student obsessed with movies, by 1930, Lean was a film editor, first for newsreels, then features. In Which We Serve (1942), Noël Coward’s superior British Navy picture, was Lean’s directorial debut. Over the next thirteen years, Lean helmed ten mostly small-scale films, none less than excellent, including three more Coward collaborations, two astonishing Charles Dickens adaptations and the ineffable Hobson’s Choice (1954), which like Madeleine (1950) and Summertime (1955), showed Lean’s exceptional empathy for women characters. Both balletic and brutal, Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) was a popular sensation and rightly so. Those who doubt the subtlety of such grand gestures should heed Armond White’s admonition: “All Lean’s movies are Life Epics, about individuals… and their dawning conscience.” Lawrence of Arabia (1962) showed Lean at his ambitious, ambiguous best, and if Dr. Zhivago (1965) was less rich in mystery, the filmmaker was on a plateau few ever approach. With Ryan’s Daughter (1970) it all came crashing down. Following the bravely intimate epic’s premiere, Lean met with members of the National Society of Film Critics. Richard Schickel, the group’s president, voiced the group’s foolish confusion, saying they didn’t understand how Lean had “made this piece of shit.” Pauline Kael was at least sarcastic. “Are you telling me Robert Mitchum was a lousy lay?”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Flannery O’Connor.

READ MORE about members of the Partisans generation (1904-13).

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Historian, journalist, and poet Brian Berger is coeditor of New York Calling. He has written for many publications, a few of which even still exist.