Smouldering behind the lens

Haunted by sexual guilt and self-destructive forces, embarrassed by intellectuals and stunned by beauty, David Lean became a dreamer on an epic scale. Sir David Puttnam (left) reads a definitive and beautifully produced biography of the great British film director
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David Lean was a director entirely enraptured by beauty. Whether it be Pip roaming the foggy marshes of the Thames Estuary in Great Expectations or Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia wandering the undulating desert sands, Lean's films continually conjure up an expressive romanticism that stands in stark contrast to the then-dominant British tradition of dour realism. Increasingly, that romanticism expressed itself through a taste for epic grandeur, which ultimately threatened to defeat - even to consume - his remarkable talent. But at the height of his powers, in Lawrence or The Bridge on the River Kwai, he displayed a command of cinematic scale and spectacle which has rarely been surpassed. Little wonder that Steven Spielberg, who shares Lean's taste for painting on a large canvas, should cite him as a major influence. He was truly, as an American critic once put it, ''a poet of the far horizon.''

It could be difficult to get close to Lean. He had a habit of abstracting himself from his immediate surroundings and gazing into the middle distance. His conversation was punctuated by pregnant silences. Kay Walsh, his first wife, saw all this as one more sign of Lean's brooding guilt. She described him as ''A disturbed, split man'' and alluded to darkly self-destructive forces that lay smouldering just below Lean's fastidiously elegant surface.

He never shone academically. Aged seven, he was told that he might never learn to read or write, and obviously didn't enjoy schoolwork. For the rest of his life, he would feel uncomfortable in the company of intellectuals. In part, this accounts for his deeply ingrained mistrust of reviewers, whom he looked on as a cerebral and malevolent tribe, forever sharpening their knives in readiness for some act of critical savagery.

His parents were Quakers, and this created a legacy of guilt - notably regarding sex - which he never really managed to throw off. It was because of that guilt, as much as anything, that he worked his way through six marriages. For Lean was haunted by the idea of impotence, and as soon as he felt his sexual energies waning, he would be compelled to find some new woman to rejuvenate them. But his sexual anxieties also energised him creatively. ''If you want to make a good movie," he said, "get yourself a new wonderful woman.''

Cinema started out as a hobby, its excitement and energy a much-needed antidote to the tedious routine of schoolwork. He would return to his home in the dismal Croydon suburbs bubbling over with enthusiasm about some new movie he'd just seen in the grand cinemas of the West End. Lean was determined to make his career in cinema, and his father found him a job at the Gaumont studios in Shepherds Bush. Starting as an unpaid teaboy, he quickly worked his way through the ranks to become one of the industry's most admired editors. Michael Powell, with whom Lean worked on 49th Parallel, regarded him as the best film editor since D W Griffith.

His early forays into directing, such as This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit and, of course, Brief Encounter, remain satisfying enough. But it was with his two adaptations of Dickens, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, that he first emerged as a really outstanding director. Spielberg called him a ''visual novelist'', and it's easy to see why. Yet, curiously, before he decided to make Great Expectations, Lean hadn't even read the book. Cinema became the prism through which he was able to understand and appreciate the literature that had defeated him at school.

As his films became more expensive, and he became more reliant on American money, so Lean became increasingly distrustful of producers. ''I think it's time that all of us movie-makers band together to get rid of these crooks, every producer who has ever had his hands in our pockets,'' he told a somewhat startled audience at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. When I met him to discuss producing Out of Africa, which he wanted to direct, he instantly launched into a tirade against producers, insisting that he only wanted to work with me because I was ''different''. But I realised that his dislike was, to all intents and purposes, generic. I too would have inevitably joined the ranks of those who had ''betrayed'' him.

His ideal producer was a man like J Arthur Rank who, when Lean suggested making a film of Great Expectations, said simply, ''Go away and make it. Don't spend more than you have to. Tell us when we can see it.'' Distributors too were vilified. One can't help feeling that Lean's backers, had they been asked, may have seen things rather differently. After all, as the last chapters of Kevin Brownlow's monumental 800-page David Lean - A Biography (Richard Cohen, pounds 25) reveal, he could be incredibly obstinate and uncompromising, even with long-time collaborators like the screenwriter Robert Bolt.

While he was preparing to make Doctor Zhivago, Lean was greatly struck by a quote from Tolstoy: ''The more a man devotes himself to beauty, the further he moves away from goodness.'' But sadly, his reach seemed increasingly to exceed his grasp, and where he aimed solely for beauty he ended up capturing something more akin to a cloying prettiness. He himself recognised that his romantic impulses might seduce him into ''picturesque falsehood''. Certainly that was how most critics viewed Ryan's Daughter, perhaps the only Lean film which seems devoid of an identifiable creative ambition.

Yet the fire never went out completely. In his seventies, he dreamed of making a film based on the mutiny aboard the Bounty. But the project foundered, destroyed by soaring costs and endless fights with producers. He turned instead to a version of E M Forster's A Passage to India and shortly before his death, at the age of 83, he still harboured the ambition of hewing an epic from Nostromo, Joseph Conrad's sprawling novel of self- consuming greed and ambition. It was a dream never realised.

Film historian Brownlow, another national treasure, has written a monumental 800-page life which parallels his subject's taste for the epic sweep. Brownlow is the author of some of the most influential and authoritative books ever published on the history of early film. Like The Parade's Gone By, his classic study of silent cinema, his Lean biography is really an all-encompassing oral history which seems certain to become the standard work on the director's life. The book is meticulously researched - so much so that the wealth of production detail occasionally threatens to overwhelm the narrative. But on the whole the sheer variety of voices, and the way in which Brownlow's own passion for cinema keeps breaking through, makes for an enthralling and panoramic view of the director's life. Quite apart from anything else, this has to be one of the most beautifully produced books published on cinema in recent years. It's packed with wonderful production stills and photographs from Lean's personal collection, all of which are superbly presented.

''I think we're only at the beginning of making movies,'' Lean once said, in a phrase that stands as the closing epigraph to the book. In Kevin Brownlow, he is lucky enough to have a biographer who truly does set out to do justice to the strength and depth of an ambition that, for more than seven decades, remained focussed on the beauty of that ''far horizon''.

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