Lean vs Guinness: archive letters reveal clash of the film titans

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The Independent Culture

They worked together for nearly 40 years and created some of the greatest films of the last century. But behind the scenes, David Lean and Alec Guinness nursed differences that rankled for decades.

Letters between the actor and the director, held in the special collections of the British Film Institute's (BFI) national archives in Berkhamsted and reproduced here for the first time, shed light on the fragile relationship in a series of bittersweet exchanges.

The two cinema titans worked together on such epics as Great Expectations, Bridge on the River Kwai – for which Guinness won an Oscar – and Lawrence of Arabia. These were the high points of a collaboration that went back to 1946, when the director gave the young actor his break, casting him as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Two years later, Guinness was cast as Fagin in Oliver Twist.

They teamed up again for the classic Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, during which they argued, as they did on Doctor Zhivago. But it was their last collaboration, on A Passage to India, that left Guinness regretting the worst performance of his career – blacking up for the role of Godbole. Much of the performance ended up on the cutting room floor.

The letters reveal that Guinness was eager initially, writing after reading the script in November 1982: "I think you have done a marvellous job. He [Godbole] works." Six months later, he had changed his mind. "Godbole is not for me," he wrote. "I... think the script first class, but for some time now I have been uneasy at the idea of trying to tackle it. It shouts for a Hindu..."

Lean prevailed. "He was deathly afraid of doing a parody of a Peter Sellers Indian," the director said. "But... I'm afraid he did exactly what he was afraid of doing. We had to cut chunks of it out."

After the film premiered, Guinness, who died in 2000 aged 86, wrote to Lean, concerned that the director might be angry with him. "It seems to me very sad that, after an association getting on for 40 years, a rift should develop between us now," he wrote. "I have always publicly expressed my gratitude to you for giving me my first film chances and subsequent rare opportunities."

In the final letter, written a little more than a year before the director's death at 83, Guinness told Lean: "I have been asked to go to LA in early March to sing your praises at the Lifetime Achievement Award. I'd be more than happy to sing your praises and pay my tribute but really don't think I have the energy, stamina or whatever is required for such splendid junketings."

The BFI is restoring Lean's films to mark his centenary next year with money from the Lean estate. The BFI has thousands of original film reels, many of which are in danger of decaying. Last month, it was awarded £25m from the Government to help preserve some of its priceless stock.