Taken as wed

DAVID LEAN by Kevin Brownlow, Richard Cohen Books pounds 25
Most of Sir David Lean's films were literary adaptations: Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India - even Lawrence of Arabia, which might have been called Seven Pillars of Wisdom if the Lawrence estate had allowed the title to be used. This preference for literary sources is surprising, since Lean was not much of a reader. When he was seven, a teacher told his parents that it was possible he would never learn to read or write. Young David confounded the prediction, but still grew up with a sense of intellectual inferiority. Thirty years later, when he started work on Great Expectations, he had read nothing by Dickens except A Christmas Carol.

However, one doesn't have to like literature to transfer books successfully to the screen. A fondness for words might even be a disadvantage. What Lean could do was to extract the essence of a story and visualise how it might translate into images and sounds. Moreover, academic failure - while his elder brother was up at Oxford, editing Isis - and lack of any promise at accountancy (his father's career) were what first brought this alleged dunce to the Gaumont film studios. He arrived just when the 1927 Cinematographic Films Act, hoping to ensure that cinemas showed a minimum of British-made films, was providing employment for "quota-quickie" specialists like Maurice Elvey. On the sets of Elvey's Balaclava and High Treason, Lean picked up the basics of film-making and, in the cutting rooms of the 1930s, discovered his metier. By the end of the decade, he was probably the most respected and highest-paid editor in British cinema.

He remained a superb craftsman, at his happiest when editing his own films, and much less competent when it came to soothing the vanity of actors or reconciling the demands of writers, producers and technicians. Kevin Brownlow's successive accounts of how the films were made tend to follow the same broad outline, proceeding from agonised pre-production hassles with writers over scripts, through envious bickerings during filming, down to resentments about the final attribution of credits. There were also the rows with producers (notably Sam Spiegel, with whom he was not on speaking terms during the filming of Bridge on the River Kwai) and the private traumas which meant that, as Julie Christie noted during the making of Doctor Zhivago, he "seemed distraught about his personal life a lot of the time".

No wonder. By all accounts, Lean was charming, sexually attractive and harmful to women; most of those who talked to Brownlow seemed to remember the first two with gratitude and to harbour little or no resentment for the last. There was a pattern to his more serious affairs: he tended to marry just as he was growing tired of the relationship - according to Brownlow from a sense of guilt inherited from his Quaker upbringing. Lean's own explanation had to do with familiarity leading to impotence, for which the cure was somebody new. In all, he had six marriages. His policy was to make a "clean break", leaving a lot of pieces scattered around behind him.

Brownlow's book on this life, work and loves developed from a proposal for Lean to write his own autobiography, with Brownlow's help, on the basis of tape-recorded interviews. After Lean's death, Brownlow expanded the material with contributions from friends, associates, family and collaborators, merely adding these new voices to Lean's. He defends this technique on the ground that Lean himself approved of it in Brownlow's fine study of silent movies, The Parade's Gone By: "Since David had liked my approach ... I thought the least I could do was to adopt a similar approach with his biography." Lean also wanted "bloody good pictures" and has got them: 56 superb plates (23 in colour), together with numerous illustrations in the text.

This method of composition, assembling the text like a documentary from interviews and written sources, was effective in Brownlow's books on silent cinema, but works less well in this attempt to capture a personality. For a start, it leaves contradictions irritatingly unresolved (for example, Michael Powell's view of the young David Lean, and Lean's own recollection of Powell's attitude). It also means that a revealing remark, like Lean's observation that "men can be terribly hostile to other men who they think are a success with women", instead of being picked out and given its full weight with reference to his own experience, is allowed to remain buried in the middle of a rather dull passage about the characters in Brief Encounter.

The narrative is most engrossing when it tells the story of how the different films came to be made, and in its picture of the British film industry in the early years of sound. But it gives one little sense of how the man's life bore on his work, and still less of the work's wider significance. Like one of Lean's later films, this is an impressive piece of work, yet one which fails to deliver as much as it promises.