My Dinner with David
David Lean. An artist in every sense of the word. Known for his ability to bring the literary to life. His work, not exclusive to the likes of Doctor Zhivago, Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia, has influenced countless directors and revolutionised the way the ‘epic’ looks and feels. If you came here looking for a story about what makes those films so fantastic, this isn’t that story. Rather this is about what stopped all that. David Lean stopped directing between 1970 and 1984. This is after producing 15 pictures in the 28 years preceding. A director at the height of his powers went into an early retirement. How did one dinner push someone to make that decision? Well, let’s find out.
To understand how significant Lean’s retirement was we must start where the best stories do; smack bang in the middle. After directing successful pictures such as Blithe Spirit, The Sound Barrier and Charles Dickens adaptations Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, Lean leant (get it) into making The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The first real foray into the ‘Epic’ genre for Lean this film tells the tale of a group of British POWs constructing the Burma Railway during WWII. Set in Burma and filmed in Sri Lanka it is a huge success. Commercially it made 15 times its budget and critically it won seven academy awards. The Bridge on the River Kwai deals with the horrors of life as POW deftly and anchored by a performance from Alec Guiness analysed the sense of duty that came with leadership within the armed forces. Lean’s name is cemented at this point, but he wants to go bigger.
So, he follows up in the only way possible, with Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. A sprawling epic telling the tale of T. E. Lawrence, who successfully unites the Arabian tribes during WWI. It has been easily recognised as a one of the greatest films in the history of cinema. The sprawling locations, Peter O’Toole’s performance as Lawrence, and an iconic score all make for a truly stunning picture. The fact Lean was able to hold all these moving parts together is a feat itself, to make it into such a fantastic picture is a borderline miracle. If you have 3 ½ hours spare it really is a must watch. Winner of another seven academy awards, critics and audiences alike were all aboard the Lean express. Next stop Doctor Zhivago.
Three years after Lawrence of Arabia, Lean produces his third outstanding epic adapted from the Boris Pasternak novel, Doctor Zhivago. This story is one of two lovers caught in the middle of the civil war in Russia at the height of Revolution. Filmed in Spain because the text was banned in Russia, Lean directed a romance intertwined in an adventure epic and audiences loved it. Amongst certain circles it wasn’t the biggest hit critically, yet it still won five Acadamy Awards. Commercially it made 111 million in 1965 which adjusted to ticket sales in 2019 would add up to 1.1 billion USD. Sufficed to say the film going community couldn’t get enough of David Lean. So you’re thinking eight years of unrequited success, what could possibly have happened in five years to push Lean to take a hiatus. The answer: Ryan’s Daughter.
Ryan’s Daughter was the film that followed Doctor Zhivago released in 1970. It’s a stark difference from the epics that proceeded it telling a smaller story set in an equally smaller setting, a West Coast village in Ireland. Notably it placed Hollywood heavyweight Robert Mitchum in an against type role of an emasculated husband and despite the location shots hinting at an epic it seems far more concerned with the personal and intimate touches of a relationship and affair. Sufficed to say this film is a departure from Lean’s last decade of work. So how did critics react to a filmmaker deciding to scale back and take risks.
The critical response was hostile to say the least, critics were baffled by choices Lean had made feeling he had lost his touch. Looking back at this film with hindsight today it’s easy to see why people were unhappy. Ryan’s Daughter’s greatest crime is it wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia. Simply put many of the critical community had set the loftiest of expectations for Lean after such significant success.
So, the story goes, Lean read these negative reviews and was perplexed. He couldn’t understand why this film wasn’t popular, why critics were labelling him as unimaginative and selling out on successes of the past. We are talking about someone who had built upon each film, making them more sprawling, more vast, bigger locations, more extras. Where can you go from there? This isn’t 2018 where you can release Avengers and then four years later follow up with Avengers 4D: Attack of the Age of the Apocalypse of Gleep Glops vs Razmatangs. Budgets at some point needed to get tighter, you can only juggle so much before you need to slow down, before you burn out.
But it didn’t end at negative reviews. Criticism is valuable and important, art should constantly be questioned and criticized but this didn’t seem to be the same. Ryan’s Daughter wasn’t bad it just wasn’t as good as those before. The New York Critics Circle, many of whom trashed Lean’s latest project invited him to Algonquin Hotel. Lean seems to feel this is an opportunity to learn and understand. It was anything but. Speaking with Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post he had this to say:
"It was on a Sunday night when they have their meetings. I don't know if they were tight, or what it was, but I thought it was going to be a nice sort of chat with the critics, and it was absolutely terrible. I had a sort of two hours of real grilling. I mean one of the first questions was, 'Can you explain how the man who did "Brief Encounter" can produce this load of bullshit'? "And it went on from there. I remember saying at the end, 'Well, it's been a wretched evening, and I don't think you people will be happy until I make a 16-millimeter in black-and-white,' and Pauline Kael said, 'No, we could allow you to shoot it in color,' you know."
It was this encounter that Lean says drove him away from filmmaking for some time. One dinner spent being told that your work is bullshit. To be grilled on every decision made. For two whole hours. I hate an angry react on a post let alone go through an ordeal like that. When watching Ryan’s Daughter, it is clear it is full of risks, that’s what filmmaking is about and while that shouldn’t go unchecked, I think the power of criticism without substance can go understated.
Lean questioned his process, once a visionary who blazed the trail for the way epics looked now felt old and out of touch with a critical community who had lambasted him over dinner. While unsupported it can be thought that this extended into how studios would have seen him for future projects. The power of print is unrivalled. We lost so much potential and for what? Some cheap gotems by Schickel (who produced the snide ‘Bullshit’ comment at the hotel) and Kael who may have set their expectations just a little too high.
The only upshot of all this was Lean got to relax. In the same interview with Yardley he says:
“I went off around the world, I went to every conceivable sort of place, I bought a house in Rome. I love gardening; I did gardening, and that sort of thing.”
After his hiatus Lean did come back for one more project. In 1984, 14 years after the dinner in Algonquin Hotel, Lean directed A Passage to India another smaller epic dealing with split of factions in the 1920’s India. This film seemed to be a return to form for Lean who received 11 Academy nominations and critics praising it as his greatest success since Lawrence of Arabia.
I just know there was more in Lean that we never got to explore. While I’m sure living in Rome and gardening would have been a hoot, filmmaking was Lean’s life. Criticism is important, it’s fundamentally the heart of art and reacting to art is what makes us human. Let’s not forget empty criticism can do more damage than we think. Save we lose another David Lean to an early retirement.