Acclaimed British director David Lean could have easily ended up as an accountant. That was the profession his father took and the young Lean was expected to follow in his footsteps. Luckily though, his passion for cinema was so great that his family allowed him to seek employment within the film industry.
His first job was as a tea-boy at Gaumont studios in the mid-1920s. From there he was lucky enough to move into editing just as sound films were beginning to take off.
Lean was to become a highly respected editor, working on Gaumont Sound News (1930) and British Movietone News (1931-32), and later fictional features such Escape Me Never (1935), As You Like It (1936) and Pygmalion (1938). In 1940, he moved on to work as assistant director on the film Major Barbara.
Celebrated playwright and actor Noel Coward hired Lean as his directorial collaborator on the wartime classic In Which We Serve (1943). The following year, Lean made his solo directorial debut with This Happy Breed. After this, he went on to work on further films written by Coward. These included the comedy Blithe Spirit (1945) and the very English, middle class tale of forbidden romance Brief Encounter (1945).
He then made two very impressive adaptations of Charles Dickens books, Oliver Twist (1948) and Great Expectations (1946).
In 1957, in association with producer Sam Spiegel, Lean moved out of England and into international production with his epic adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s Japanese prisoner-of-war story The Bridge on The River Kwai, which starred Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, and William Holden.
Lean’s next film, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) became the definitive dramatic film epic of its generation. Featuring an intense performance from Peter O’Toole, the told the tale of the Arab revolt against German-allied Turkey during World War I.
Doctor Zhivago (1965), a complex romantic tale about life in Russia before and during the revolution, opened to mixed reviews but went on to become one of the top-grossing movies of the 1960s, despite a three-hour running time.
Gaining both critical and commercial success, it was clear that Lean had become one of the biggest directors of the day. However, he was soon to receive some knocks. The 1970 film, Ryan’s Daughter (1970) was savaged by critics, who criticised it’s slowness and self-indulgence.
A quiet period followed for Lean. Disheartened by the first consistently negative reviews of his illustrious career, he stayed away from the cinema for fourteen years.
His return was with A Passage to India (1984), a comeback which proved to both a critical and box office success. In 1990, Lean, who has been cited as an influence for directors such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, was the first non-American recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement award. The director was in final pre-production for the a film version of the Joseph Conrad novel Nostromo when he died in 1991.