David Lean is perhaps one of the most successful directors you’ve probably never heard of. While some of his films are recognizable to the general public, most of these people haven’t even seen these masterpieces. Sure, they know about Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago, but have they actually sat down and watched them? No. It almost seems like those who appreciate David Lean’s work are the exclusivists, the cinematic critics, the connoisseurs. And why shouldn’t they like his films? They are generally sweeping in scale, epic in stance, and timeless in quality. When it comes right down to it, this British filmmaker has directed some of the greatest modern epics of the last 100 years. In fact, The American Film Institute has put three of his films in their top 100 lists, two of which will be covered this week.
Lawrence of Arabia
Length: 216 minutes / 3.6 hours
Lawrence of Arabia really cleaned up when it came to the Oscars. Of the seven Oscars it won, most notably were Best Score (Maurice Jarre), Best Picture (Sam Spiegel) and Best Director (David Lean). And yet, this film was the last Oscar David Lean would win. Of the seven nominations for Best Director he received during his career, he only managed to win twice. Of course, when you think about that in context, he joins a very short list of 18 directors to accomplish this feat. Still, the American Film Institute recognized the huge contribution to film that Lawrence of Arabia is, having placed it in the top 7 of their top 100 lists (#5 in 1998, #7 in 2007). With this in mind, few films can hold a candle to this sandy epic.
Opening with the tragic death of T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), the film flashes back to the beginning of the man’s military career. Most people from the British empire who were sent to Egypt during World War I would think that they were being sent away or ignored so that the main military force could fight the Germans. However, Lawrence wasn’t your normal British soldier. He took it upon himself to use his time in Arabia to his advantage, to excel in a situation that was in no means ideal. Uniting the Arabs against the Turks, Lawrence took his fighting force to the north, where he joined up with the rest of the British army to finish off the Ottoman empire.
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Length: 161 minutes / 2.68 hours
Surprisingly enough, Lawrence of Arabia wasn’t even David Lean’s first Oscar. He had already won it five years earlier with The Bridge on the River Kwai. What’s interesting is that this film also won seven Oscars, of which Best Actor (Alec Guinness), Best Picture (Sam Spiegel) and Best Director (David Lean) come to mind as the most impressive. Even though Sam Spiegel has made other Oscar winning films (On the Waterfront) and veritable classics (The African Queen), it seems to me that the Lean/Spiegel team is certainly a winning combination, just based off of the evidence of these two films. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai is definitely one of my personal favorites.
What makes The Bridge on the River Kwai so great is its counter-intuitive thinking. While trapped in a POW camp during World War II, would anyone ever willingly allow their captors to force them into building a bridge to help the enemy? And even if you did end up building said bridge, wouldn’t you want to sabotage it in some way? However, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) decided to not only build a railroad bridge for the Japanese, but to build it right. In a feat of Civil Engineering, the bridge is built and is a fine specimen, a worthy testament to the talent of the POWs. And yet, would this act of aiding the enemy forever haunt Colonel Nicholson? Still, even though it’s the workmanship of their own troops, that’s not going to stop other allied forces from trying to destroy the bridge built by their comrades.
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 golden statues for David Lean
Bacon #: 3 (The Golden Gong / Joan Collins -> Seven Thieves / Eli Wallach -> Mystic River / Kevin Bacon)