British director David Lean has one of the most storied careers in film-making. He began his career adapting stage plays for the screen in the 1940's, culminating in winning the first-ever Grand Prize at Cannes in 1946 for Brief Encounter. Immediately after being honored at Cannes, he adapted two Dickens novels for screen, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), both featuring Alec Guiness, in his first two credited film roles.
But it was a trio of films in the late 1950's and early 60's that would solidify Lean's place among the great film makers of all time. They are extravagant, expensive productions; the kind for which the phrase "sweeping epic" was created and is often uttered in the same breath as their titles. All three films are set in era of war. All three of these films star Alec Guiness in a supporting role. All three films often make the top 20 lists of greatest films ever made. All three films were nominated for and won multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture for two of them. I recently watched all three of these films, having never seen them. I thought I'd introduce them to you, or as the case may be, let you revisit them.
The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
Starring: William Holden, Alec Guiness
It is loosely based on actual accounts which occurred in a Japanese POW camp in World War II. Utilizing the labor of its prisoners, the Japanese construct a train bridge across the river. Simultaneously, an Allied commando squad has been sent-in the destroy it. It has a very strong anti-war sentiment throughout the film and deals specifically with what one source described perfectly as "the irony of British pride". Holden is perfect as the cocky and charming American officer, but it's Guiness' role as the uncompromising Colonel Nicholson that is unforgettable. The final act of the film is as taut and suspenseful as there is in cinema. The way the plot has unfolded, you know bridge is going to be blown-up in spectacular fashion. So it's not a question of what is going to happen, but how it's going to happen in the final moments that is so gripping and satisfying.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer
At nearly 4 hours in length, this film can be a chore to sit through, especially with its somewhat slow pacing, but you'll be rewarded with one of the most gorgeously photographed films you'll likely ever see. Utilizing a cast of extras into the thousands, not to mention horses, camels, and machines of war, Lean brought to the screen a scope nearly unprecedented, and rare today in the age of modern CGI cinema. Set during the Arab Revolt during the first World War, it follows the amazing military career of T.E. Lawrence; an eccentric and gifted British officer with a bit of a Messiah complex . As in his previous film, Lean explores themes relating to competing loyalties and the folly of British pride in the waning decades of the Colonial Empire. It also, however, explores much deeper and complex themes than its predecessor: politics vs. leadership, morality vs. law, and humanity vs. brutality. Lean does something else which wasn't common in mainstream cinema at the time which we've become more accustomed to in modern cinema; shifting the chronology of the narrative. The opening sequence of the film depicts Lawrence's untimely demise in a motorcycle accident well after the war, and his post-humous induction into the British Military Museum. For me, it weakened the suspense of the film's final sequences, knowing that he would return home safe and sound.
Doctor Zhivago (1965)
Starring: Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger
Like the other two films, war serves as a back-drop for the story; World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the early 20th century. Unlike its predecessors however, it's a multi-faceted love story that explores the various relationships: love for a spouse, love for a mistress, love for a brother, love for one's ideal and love for a country; and the competing loyalties which operate within all of them. It is beautifully shot, and at times, eclipses anything in Lawrence of Arabia, even if it lacks its grand wallop. There is a more subtle artistry to the composition and technique that is lacking in the former. From the streets of Moscow, to the Ural Mountains, to the interiors of cottages and manors, the film is breath-taking nearly every single frame. Lean begins this film at the end of the story, too, but to much greater effect than in Lawrence of Arabia, as Zhivago's brother questions a young girl about her parents to determine if she may be his niece. Doctor Zhivago won 5 Oscars but it is the film which failed to capture the Best Picture award, only because The Sound of Music was its competition that year and Oscar was briefly in love with musicals in the 60's.
All three of these films are worth your time if you've never seen them. I'd rank Lawrence of Arabia as one of those must-see-before-you-die experiences. It's just that good. In 1970, Lean released Ryan's Daughter, another large budget, epic, war-era film to very mixed, and sometimes nasty reviews. It managed two Oscar wins, but wasn't nominated for Best Picture. It's understandable that after making three of the greatest films of all time back-to-back, that meeting the lofty expectations you've created in the public at large would be difficult to meet. Lean had a reputation as a consummate perfectionist and it's rumored that these unfavorable reviews wounded him deeply. He didn't direct another film until 1984's A Passage to India, which was nominated for Best Picture but would lose to another brilliant film from that year, Amadeus. It would be Lean's last film, dying of throat cancer in 1991 at the age of 83 while in pre-production on a new film.