Brief encounters: How David Lean's sex life shaped his films

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As fans of David Lean celebrate his centenary, Geoffrey Macnab asks: was the director's chaotic love life responsible for some of his greatest films?

When David Lean left London for Paris in the spring of 1955, the film-maker's finances were in a parlous state. The 47-year-old had separated from his wife, the actor Ann Todd (whom he was to divorce two years later), while the taxman was clamouring for payment of £20,000 – an astronomical amount for those days – in unpaid dues.

The details of Lean's financial problems are contained in Gene D Phillips's thorough biography, Beyond the Epic, which reveals that while he may have been among the most celebrated film-makers in British film history, in the mid-1950s, at least, Lean certainly wasn't one of the richest. The director of Brief Encounter couldn't even afford to have his teeth fixed and, at one stage, was reduced to pawning his gold cigarette case.

The British film industry wasn't exactly thriving during this period either. The Rank Organisation (Lean's main patron) was in a period of retrenchment; the extravagance and artistic ambition of the 1940s, when Rank had tried to gate-crash the American market with a series of big-budget "prestige" pictures made by the likes of Lean and Powell and Pressburger were long forgotten.

At Pinewood Studios, the emphasis was now on Norman Wisdom comedies, Doctor in the House and stiff upper-lipped war movies. Gone were the days when – as Lean enthused of the time he was filming the Dickens adaptations Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) – he and his collaborators in the Rank stable could "make any subject we wish, with as much money as we think that subject should have spent on it... cast whichever actors we choose and have no interference with the way the film is made".

Yet, while his erstwhile colleagues floundered, Lean reinvented himself as the director of widescreen spectacles such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965). And so the young man who once used to sit chain-smoking in the refreshment room of Victoria Station, because he didn't want to go home to Croydon after venturing into town to see the latest movie, became a film-maker feted in Hollywood and Britain alike.

It was Lean's genius that he took an international perspective at a time when other British film-makers were becoming increasingly insular. He had the vision and ruthlessness to work on an epic scale. He also had plenty of reason to escape Britain: his acrimonious divorce from Todd may have left him broke, but it gave him as compelling a reason to look further afield as his disenchantment with the British film industry.

Lean was a relentless womaniser. He was married six times and had many mistresses. His approach to marriage was certainly erratic; on the one hand, thanks to his Quaker upbringing, he took it seriously. On the other, he didn't want anything to get in the way of his career – and he couldn't escape his own nature. As his former cinematographer and producer Ronald Neame told Kevin Brownlow, the author of the definitive Lean biography, his old producer Anthony Havelock-Allan had said of Lean: "David always had to have a girl on any film he worked on."

The irony was that Lean was often thought of as a supreme technician – the former editor who knew everything about cutting, rhythm and camera lenses – who lacked the human touch. "David, a very fine director, never had very much consideration for what actors sometimes have to go through – just a relentless drive for what he wanted for the scene," said Todd, who starred in three of his films.

Lean showed similarly little compunction about ending relationships. "When David leaves you, you are rubbed out. It was like an amputation. He came with nothing... and he left with nothing," his second wife, the actor Kay Walsh, told Brownlow of the end of their marriage. There was an element of bedroom farce about his private life, too. He used the same flair that his films showed for choreography to keep mistresses and wives apart.

As was once observed by Lean's fellow director Ingmar Bergman, also married six times, the very process of film-making lends itself to erotic conspiracy: "Drama and film are incontrovertibly two professions that are immensely erotically charged."

In The Passionate Friends (1949), Lean explores such themes as sexual jealousy and adultery with far more depth than in any of his earlier films – even Brief Encounter (1945). What is surprising is the sympathy the film shows for the jealous husband (Claude Rains), who is terrified that his wife (Todd) will leave him for her former sweetheart (Trevor Howard). At times Rains' character is made to seem absurd – he's too stiff to dance and too pedantic to speak in anything other than a banker's dry discourse. Yet Lean – despite his own reputation for breaking up relationships – treats the character with sensitivity; we are always aware of his suffering.

Nevertheless, in real life, he was at it again: during the making of the film, Lean began an affair with his leading lady, who was to become his third wife. Todd's divorce from her then-husband Nigel Tangye was bitter, and her autobiography contains a comic account of Tangye (a keen aviator who was also Lean's cousin) swooping down in vengeful mood in a small plane and terrifying Lean and his crew when they were shooting his next feature, Madeleine (1950).

Whatever misery Lean inflicted on Tangye, he suffered in equal measure during his own calamitous marriage to Todd. "She treated me so horribly that I think I was far more hurt than I have ever acknowledged," he later wrote. He complained about being used as "a tool for the sex gratification of someone who doesn't really give a damn for you".

However, during the making of The Passionate Friends, Lean had shot abroad for the first time, in the lakes and mountains of the Chamonix and Haute-Savoie regions in France. And as his relationship with Todd soured, his urge to escape the UK grew. He shot Summertime with Katharine Hepburn in Venice. Then, once he began to work with flamboyant Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel, he made The Bridge on the River Kwai in Sri Lanka.

It wasn't just the taxman and his ex-wife who were driving Lean from Britain. It was the country's faltering film industry and even its actors. During production of The Bridge On The River Kwai, the director was constantly at loggerheads with his British cast members, growing so infuriated with the surly behaviour of Alec Guinness and James Donald that after one scene he yelled: "Now you can all fuck off and go home, you English actors. Thank God that I'm starting work tomorrow with an American actor [William Holden]."

While the careers of contemporaries such as Michael Powell were stuttering back home, Lean was working on a bigger canvas than ever, establishing an international reputation in the process. Maybe Todd deserves some of the credit: if they had enjoyed a stable married life, he could as easily have ended up staying in England and taking whatever chances came his way. Then again, as he freely admitted, he was "a monomaniac" who knew how to be ruthless when making a film. And however turbulent his private life, he was never going to let such matters distract him from his work, at home or abroad.

As part of the David Lean centenary celebrations, 'The Passionate Friends' has been re-released, a two-month season at BFI Southbank is under way and there is a UK tour of his newly restored films. For more information, go to www.bfi.org.uk/lean

The joy of six: The leading ladies of David Lean

David Lean's first wife was his cousin, Isabel Jean, who he married in 1930. She gave him his only son, Peter, but Lean soon decided that cosy family domesticity was not for him, and just six years after the wedding, the marriage was over.

Kay Walsh, a brilliant actor who helped push Lean's career as a director, was under no pretences as to how married life would be after wedding him in 1940. "David warned me that life with him would be very difficult," she later recalled. "He had damaged so many women and didn't want to damage me. Being in love with David was a killer... how I survived I don't know." The marriage lasted nine years.

Ann Todd had emerged as a major British movie star thanks to her masochistic role as the pianist tormented by James Mason in The Seventh Veil. Sometimes called the "British Garbo", she was initially suspicious of Lean's standoffish attitude toward her on the set of The Passionate Friends, but then – as she later wrote – he swept her off her feet. The marriage, which lasted from 1949 to 1957, didn't turn out well. As Todd later said, "There are some people who shouldn't be married and David Lean was one of them."

Leila Matkar met Lean in India in the mid-1950s. She left her husband and two children to be with him. They married in 1960. The marriage was Lean's longest-lasting, but ended in 1978.

Lean's fifth wife, Sandra Hotz, appears briefly in his final feature, A Passage To India. He had met her in the 1960s when she was only 20 and fell in love with her. They wed in 1981 and split in 1984.

Lean met his sixth wife, Sandra Cooke, in the food hall at Harrods. "I just wanted to congratulate David Lean and ask what he was doing next," she later recalled. They married in December 1990; Lean died four months later.

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