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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition