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8 Must-See David Lean Films

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Though not a household name like Hitchcock or Wilder, David Lean was an integral part of cinema history. His sweeping historical epics were some of the grandest Hollywood has ever known and possessed a technical command few were able to master.

Lean started as an editor and segued into directing with smaller dramas and comedies, often in collaboration with celebrated playwright Noël Coward. But it was with the massive blockbusters of the late 1950s and 1960s that he made his mark and won two Academy Awards. While few may remember his name, Lean’s indelible movies and the powerful images they conjure remain infused in our collective psyche.

1. ‘Brief Encounter’ – 1945

MGM Home Entertainment
Lean’s best movie based on Noël Coward’s stage work, Brief Encounter was a bittersweet romantic drama about a bored housewife (Celia Johnson) who has a passing encounter with a doctor (Trevor Howard) while traveling, which quickly develops into an intense love affair. As the two grow to find themselves in love, tragedy strikes when both realize that they cannot abandon their respective families and consummate the affair, forever consigning themselves to a life of unhappiness. The film was a great success in Lean’s native U.K. and in the United States, where it earned three Academy Award nominations, including his first for Best Director.

2. ‘Great Expectations’ – 1946

Universal Studios
Lean began his well known collaboration with actor Alec Guinness on a pair of Charles Dickens adaptations, 1946’s Great Expectations and 1948’s Oliver Twist. Both were exemplary translations of the author’s work, but it was the former that was the more widely hailed of the two and considered to be one of the finest literary adaptations ever made. Guinness had his first starring role as the adult version of the carefree Herbert Pocket, but it was Lean’s narrative precision that brought Dicken’s novel into sharp focus and earned him more Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Picture.

3. ‘Summertime’ – 1955

United Artists
Following a bit of a career lull, Lean went on to earn his third Academy Award nomination for Best Director with Summertime, which starred Katharine Hepburn as a lonely American spinster who falls for a married Italian man (Rossano Brazzi) while traveling in Venice. Of course, the realization that he is married with a family comes after she falls in love. But this being Katharine Hepburn, it’s damn the consequences in pursuit of what she really wants, though in the end she relents in an effort to do what’s best for all. Not one of Lean’s greatest efforts, nonetheless received his third Oscar nod for Best Director.

4. ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ – 1957

Sony Pictures
Lean entered his most fruitful years with the epic World War II drama, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which once again saw him in collaboration with Alec Guinness. Guinness played an obsessive British officer imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp who engages in a battle of wills with the camp’s commander (Sessue Hayakawa) and runs into trouble with an American saboteur (William Holden). It’s only when tasked with building the titular bridge that Guinness’ character loses the fight with the commander and his grip on sanity. Lean’s first blockbuster adventure was one of his best movies, if not one of the greatest of all time. He deservedly won an Oscar for Best Director – the first of two consecutive wins.

5. ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ – 1962

Sony Pictures
It’s tough to say which one of Lean’s epic adventures is the best, but one could make the case for Lawrence of Arabia, his stunning look at the real-life adventures of British office T.E. Lawrence, played by Peter O’Toole in his career-defining role. The film was one of the last to be shot in 70mm, which was put to brilliant use all throughout, especially in the iconic image of Omar Sharif emerging from the blinding heat of the vast desert. Laurence of Arabia was not a perfect movie and lost a bit of steam in the second act, but that matters little given its vast scale and amazing performance by O’Toole. Once again, Lean was the recipient of an Oscar for Best Director.

6. ‘Doctor Zhivago’ – 1965

MGM Home Entertainment
Set during World War I and the Russian Revolution, Doctor Zhivago rounded out Lean’s trilogy of historical epics that would stand as the director’s best. Starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger and Alec Guinness, Lean’s adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s acclaimed novel was a huge box office hit, but was met with some mixed critical reviews for its length and changing the source material. As is often the case, such criticisms have mellowed over time. Of course, it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, but this time Lean went home empty handed.

7. ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ – 1970

MGM Home Entertainment
Lean scaled back from the grandeur of his sweeping historical epics to make the more intimate romantic drama, Ryan’s Daughter, which starred Sarah Miles as an Irish lass trapped in a loveless marriage with a local schoolmaster (Robert Mitchum), which prompts her to have an affair with a British officer (Christopher Jones). That misstep eventually brands her as an informer on the IRA and leads to public humiliation. Though it pales in comparison to the previous three films, Ryan’s Daughter is still a fine effort. Still, the movie received a harsh response from critics and Lean wouldn’t make another for 14 years.

8. ‘A Passage to India’ – 1984

Sony Pictures
Lean returned to the fore with this spectacular adaptation of E.M. Forster’s well known novel and ended his career by making another masterpiece. Set in 1920s India during their drive for independence, A Passage to India starred Judy Davis as a cloistered English woman who travels to the country and forges a friendship with a local doctor, only to cause a national outrage when she accuses him of rape. The film earned 11 Oscar nominations, but only won two. But it was a brilliant film for Lean’s last, who died in 1991 before being able to commence his next project.
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