Blithe cutting spirit

David Lean
June 28, 1996

Britain has never cared for its cinema. The film industry has limped on, sometimes defiantly sometimes wearily, in the margins of commerce and culture, attracting dreamers, riff-raff, aristocrats, outcasts, crooks, poets, failures and, in the words of an egregious financier, "people with zed in their name". David Lean was one of the "failures". Kevin Brownlow recounts in his epic, David Lean, that when Lean was seven his mother told him that his teacher prophesied that "you will never be able to read or write". She was wrong; he managed it somehow, but he did turn away from words. Lindsay Anderson once said that it took him ten years to get over Oxford and become a film-maker. Lean was lucky. His dyslexia took him straight to pictures.

Initially Lean had asked Brownlow to help him write his autobiography. At first sight it seems an odd choice but it turned out to be brilliant casting. Brownlow has never been part of the feature film establishment but as his histories- books, films and notably his reconstruction of Abel Gance's Napoleon - show, in his mind he lives and breathes Lean's own era. I recall in 1962 the startled reaction of Bessie Love, the great silent film star, when Brownlow asked her to confirm the name of a second assistant cameraman back in 1912: "Don't you ever live in the present, Kevin?" All biography is to some extent history but Brownlow's is more history than most. His research is meticulous and he does not make claims that cannot be substantiated. For instance, he never says Lean was dyslexic but details the symptoms and invites the reader to make the diagnosis. You feel he is there watching when Lean was born to Quaker parents in a three-storey yellow-brick house in South Croydon. A fascinating documentary ensues of Lean's mother's Tangye-Cornish background, which was lower middle class or was it middle class? In pre-great-war Britain one had to get this right; there were as many class subdivisions as points on a compass. What is certain is that the family was dysfunctional (my word).

Brownlow's attitude to Lean emerges early. Of an entry in the Lean family's visitors' book, he notes: "The most distinguished name of all appeared against the date of Wednesday, 25 March 1908. The name was written in bold letters in red ink: David Lean. There were no further entries." So Lean was a visitor in his own home: painful and useful training for the objective/subjective business of film-making. He had a brother, Edward Tangye, three years younger and the intellectual of the family.

When Lean was 13 his chartered accountant father left home to join his mistress and her son. In a puritan time and for an even more puritan family, this was a great scandal and the effect was devastating. For Lean the lesson was simple: "You must cut. Anything that is finished is finished. You must just pretend people aren't there." Over the years there would be numerous women, and some men, on the receiving end.

His father helped Lean to get into films. From this point on, the book is impossible to put down. A history of British cinema is part-farce, part-tragedy and part-mission impossible. Timing, as they say, is everything. Lean was lucky to get into films just as an industry was being created. It was the year of the Cinematograph Films Act, 19, which was to be the first of two attempts by government to help British films. Before 19, British films were hardly seen in Britain. Not only did audiences prefer, then as now, Hollywood product but the Hollywood majors blind and block-booked cinemas for months ahead on the basis of titles of films, some of which were not even scripted. The Act stipulated a quota for British films and so "quota quickies" - very low budget, mostly low quality - were born. Maybe not the ideal system but before that, says Brownlow, "films were made, but in a spasmodic and haphazard fashion". Now does that sound familiar?

Lean made his way, determinedly, obsessively, showing total commitment, through most departments to settle for a while as a film editor. For instance, he would edit through the night and watch the shooting on the floor during the day. He learnt his craft - his craft is at the centre of what he was. He would always regard himself, first and last, as a craftsman. Nowadays the notion of craft, an agreed way of doing things, is, to say the least, problematic. In a structuralist heaven the word would be outlawed for suggesting a hidden hierarchy of values and subservience. Craft has been displaced by a diversity of "techniques" all apparently equally valid. This puts pressure on everyone to understand the past, deconstruct, be self-taught and innovate. Teachers in media studies give lectures on how to do it. Brownlow, by contrast, admires craft. He paints a picture of a renaissance artist, whose art grows out of craft. No wonder Lean's most vocal supporters are to be found in Hollywood.

The story of the industry of the time is one of dynamism, energy, belief, confusion, betrayal and conflict. The characters of the famous and not-so-famous are vivid and immediate. Lean, Carol Reed, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and Anthony Asquith kick, scratch and use their elbows but move forward together as a group. The father figures are Alexander Korda and J. Arthur Rank, who comes over as a straightforward man who knew his limitations, set financial boundaries, gave directors the money and told them to get on with it. Then John Davis and the accountants took over.

But there was another British cinema and other values. There was documentary, and there was Michael Balcon's Ealing. Lean dismisses documentary as elitist and without an audience base. This pains and puzzles Brownlow, who himself started as a documentary editor and director. He even introduces Lean to Humphrey Jennings but without success. About Ealing the book is silent. There was, however, a fundamental split. You can see it in the logos. Ealing's was ears of corn, Rank's that great big gong; Ealing offered wholesome fare, Rank promised - but did not often deliver-a fabulous feast, or perhaps an audience with the King Emperor. Lean, Reed and Asquith were sons of Empire, who wanted to tell epic stories; Alexander McKendrick and Robert Hamer were outsiders who wanted to tickle audiences and undermine authority, Powell and Pressburger perhaps stood somewhere between the two.

Almost simultaneous with Lean's introduction to the film industry was his initiation, at 18, into sex. His first experience, with the wife of a distant relative, twice his age, was fulfilling and it put sex at the centre of his life. He was a strikingly handsome man, extremely attractive to women and he practised assiduously. As Lean seemed to see life as a film, it is tempting to view his women - half a dozen leading ladies, a few cameo roles and numerous extras - as taking part in one. Lean complained that his puritan upbringing was responsible for much of the trouble. Hmm. Brownlow records the marriages and affairs without being judgemental, except in one case. Lean's first marriage to his cousin, Isabel, when they were both 21 and she was pregnant with their son, Peter. Three years later he told her he was going. "I saw him pack. When he got up to go, Peter said, 'Bye, Bye.' It made David laugh." This reads like a film all right but it does not have Lean's cool style. While Lean cut and moved on, Brownlow uses a cut of his own: "As David, at 28, became the highest-paid editor in Britain, Isabel was visited by a bailiff." What is consistent and remarkable is the absence of complaint or bitterness among the women he left.

The film industry does not offer many breaks, so most directors take the first chance that comes. Not Lean: he waited. He knew when it was right: the right script, the right cast, the right budget. He is credited as codirector with Noel Coward, but everyone knows David Lean made In Which We Serve. Lean was three years junior to Reed and he made his entry some seven years later, but they were soon regarded as the two frontrunners in British cinema. Brownlow gives the most detailed account of the writing, financing, shooting and editing of Lean's films but does not himself give a critical analysis. He quotes from reviews and comments and does not shirk from quoting hostile reactions but does not set out a stall. We know where he stands but not what he stands for. I suspect this has to do with his historian's stance. It does not present a problem when he is dealing with the two Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, which most people agree are masterpieces. But after Brief Encounter - perhaps the most eloquent picture ever made on middle-class hypocrisy, anxiety and inhibitions - I want to know what he, Brownlow, thinks. Particularly about the epics: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter and A Passage to India.

Kwai was the result of the first collaboration with Sam Spiegel, whom Lean excoriates for crookedness, manipulation, deviousness and so on. He may be fully justified but there is always another side and it is the only occasion when we do not get it. The fact is that both Kwai and Lawrence went over budget and Spiegel kept Columbia in there. In addition to the raves Brownlow quotes Lindsay Anderson's famous nine-line dismissal of Kwai as a "chocolate box war".

My reservations are somewhat different. It is most curious for a man who confessed he was apolitical to select stories with charged political themes and then to be neutral. He would probably argue that he was uncovering some universal core in the behaviour of individuals set against the demand of groups and nations. But James Donald's summing-up, "Madness. Madness" at the end of Kwai, is not so much an attenuated echo of Kurtz's "The horror. The horror" in Heart of Darkness, as a weak shrug of "What can one do?" Lean's outlook is not far from Alec Guinness's Colonel Nicholson, who may be able to organise the building of a bridge but has no idea of the meaning of what he does. In all these films one finds a repeated pattern of almost wordless sequences that unfold slowly and majestically orchestrated by Lean like some grandiloquent symphony: the images impress but leave no lasting emotional impact.

What his "English" pictures have is density. Take Pip's jolting encounter with Magwich in the graveyard in Great Expectations. The camera pans with Pip as he collides with Magwich and there is a shock cut to his face - the film puts you inside Pip's head. The construction, shooting and rhythm engage one's feelings and make the scene unforgettable. Similarly in Oliver Twist, when Sykes is shot by a sharpshooter, Lean holds on a close-up of the rope as it suddenly tautens. We hear a thud and the rope goes out of focus. Lean makes us imagine everything without showing a single pornographic detail: in our mind's eye we see Sykes hanged, we see his body hit the side of the building, and then we are inside his head as the world recedes. Here is a gritty imagination at work.

Now look at the cut in Lawrence from the blown flame of the matchstick to the sun rising out of the scorching desert. The contrasts of scale, the physical nature of the flaming desert and the hint of masochistic bravura are all there. But one is on the outside, with a laying on of calculated interpretations. Clever and impressive, certainly, but not organic. As a Saudi born I find Lean's Arab characters embarrassing. They can be summed up in Allenby's words as he watches the Arab warriors leave Damascus: "Marvellous-looking beggars, aren't they!" This exoticisation extends to the way they speak - always in exclamations, apart from Guinness's Feisal, who drawls in neat aphorisms with an accent similar to his Fagin.

The Soviet director Grigori Kozintsev, Pasternak's friend, had a similar view - but about the Russians in Zhivago. He too greatly admired the Dickens adaptations and Brief Encounter. In 1967 he had this to say of Zhivago: "You know at the end of the book one of the poems is about candles, which is a metaphor about life and so on. And do you know what David Lean gives us? He gives us a great big close-up of a candle. It is what I call samovar film-making."

Maybe both of us have missed the point and we are looking for authenticity when Lean is after something else. There are different kinds of realities. But his reality leads me only to the pictorial. I draw a distinction between the visual and the pictorial. The visual is experienced and recollected in context. The shot and its meaning come together and cannot be separated. The pictorial is abstracted, unconnected and the detail mostly forgettable.

Before discussing A Passage to India I must declare an interest. When I was in charge at the National Film Finance Corporation, I heard from David Robinson, writer and film critic, that Bernard Williams and King's College, Cambridge, were willing to allow films to be made of Forster's books. Robinson became an intermediary between the NFFC and King's to get Passage made. We discussed two possible directors: Lindsay Anderson and Satyajit Ray. Anderson went with Robinson to Cambridge and the fellows at King's were very keen. Finally, Anderson told me that he would do it - but after making Britannia Hospital, which NFFC part-financed. Later, on a visit to the Bangalore Film Festival, I met Ray and he told me he was "no longer interested in the Raj. It is ten years too late". It still causes me grief because I find it hard even to sit through Lean's version. He has taken a beautiful watercolour and projected it on to the wall of the Uffizi. All colour and form have dispersed. The film has no guts, only grandiosity.

Brownlow gives a compassionate account of Lean's last years. It is painful to read. As Lean vainly tries to get one film after another off the ground, he cuts away from many old friends and colleagues. Despite the love and support of a handful of people, one senses a deepening isolation. He must have known he would not make another film - but films were his life.

Brownlow's book raises the question of what kind of stories British film artists should tell. British audiences cleave to American, not British dreams. But if we go touristing, though we may get the audience - no guarantee - we may also lose our way. Read Brownlow's David Lean. It is a classic.

Mamoun Hassan devised Movie Masterclass for Channel Four, and teaches at the National Film and Television School; he was managing director, National Film Finance Corporation, 1979-84.

David Lean: A Biography

Author - Kevin Brownlow
ISBN - 1 86066 042 8
Publisher - Richard Cohen
Price - £25.00
Pages - 809

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