Ten Reasons Why You Should Watch Some David Lean Films

Everyone likes lists, so here’s a list. This is regarding a director who until this week I’ve not been especially familiar with. Now I am! ..to an extent; I haven’t yet delved into his early films, so I’ll be sticking to discussing the most well known stuff – Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and A Passage To India.

Here’s ten reasons why I think you should increase your knowledge of David Lean’s cinema:

10. Camels

A severely under-rated yet extremely majestic creature, the camel appears at first glance to be rather similar to a horse, but upon closer inspection one realises that the camel in fact is far more interesting than the horse. It for starters has two gigantic humps, which probably contain a lot of a liquid and fat (I can’t be bothered wikipedia-ing the facts) which I’m assuming allows them to last a very long time on not a heck of a lot in the extremely harsh climate of the middle eastern desert. The cinematographer and film crew working under the direction of David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) manage to get some utterly compelling shots of camels doing their what they do best. We see them walking, drinking, eating, running and sleeping. Occasionally if you look at the background you can see an extra or two trying to get a camel to sit down. Showing the detail of Lean’s filmmaking, the background action is just as interesting as the central narrative. So if you ever happen across Lawrence of Arabia, make sure you pay close attention to the camels. They were for me the selling point of the film.

9. Gorgeous Super Panivision 70mm Cinematography

Although I watched Lawrence of Arabia on a cruddy 700mb download featuring artifacts and blocky visuals galore, it was originally shot in awesome 70mm film stock giving added scope to the desert locations, making them appear extra huge and awe-inspiring. If there is one film I wish to see a restored copy up on the big screen, it is this one. The endless, barren, scorching, unrelenting deserts crossed by Lawrence during his conquests of old Arabia during WWI appear just as foreboding as they probably are in real life. Shot in Morocco, Jordan and Spain, these desert sequences are some of the most spectacular visuals ever put onto celluloid. Better yet, this is 1962, so the film is free from any CGI to interfere with the gorgeous visual feast that is mother nature. Bask and bow down to the never ending orange infinity that is the desert…


8. Bridges

Well maybe just one bridge in particular but it’s a pretty cool bridge. It’s a Bridge on the River Kwai from the film of the same name, released 1957. Built by British POW soldiers under the jurisdiction of Japanese captors during WWII, the Brits show the Japs up by taking over command of the bridge building and exert far superior engineering skill. Which is kind of funny given that the Japanese are now days far superior to most countries when it comes to engineering. Artistic licence perhaps?  Anyhow, here’s a picture of the bridge, the first being pre-British involvement, the second post and near completion. I managed to see Bridge on the River Kwai on the big screen this monday courtesy of re-releases screened at Event cinemas around Auckland, which is a big mainstream cinema franchise, the last place you’d expect to see releases of classic films such as this one. The film is a true adventure, a glorious piece of cinema history from the heydays of technicolour epics. I suggest after you finish Lawrence of Arabia, follow it up with this one.

7. Politics

Lawrence of Arabia is all about helping Arab tribes defeat the Turks during WWI and then the complexities of what happens after they find success. The Arabs want independence, yet as soon as they gain it find themselves in political turmoil. The British step in to fix the situation, yet it is implied it was always the British imperative to control Arabia. Seems an awful lot like the current political climate, where the major powers of the world battle in the Middle East, supposedly to liberate those peoples from tyrants and end terrorism and all that political rhetoric, yet their motivations are more probably about controlling resources. The film observes the Western fetishism of the Middle East, and predicts a future where Western empires move further towards controlling the continent.  It adds an extra layer to the films plot, making it not just the tale of one extraordinary man but also the politics surrounding the consequences of the actions of an extraordinary man.

6. The Madness of War

The Bridge Over River Kwai contains a particularly gripping narrative about the madness of the military and of war. We already know war is shit and the film helps to reinforce this widely accepted point. The climax in particular (which I won’t spoil) is a nail bitingly gripping example of why war is the most confusing, pointless, bullshit human endeavour. Any filmmaker that doesn’t glorify the horrific aspects of war is alright with me. Sure, its 1957 and in the 50+ years since then and now, the anti-war theme in films has been done to death, there is something refreshing about an anti-war narrative that relied on clever scriptwriting and magnificent performances to convey its meaning. There is no slow motion exploding bodies here, just pure, perfect, cinematic storytelling. Which brings me to my next point.

5. Good Stories and Epic Adventures

The traditional Hollywood three-act structure is in effect in David Lean’s historical epics, and boy is it employed beautifully. Characters are set-up in the first act, developed intricately and led towards a confrontation. The first act of Lawrence of Arabia sees T.A. Lawrence grow from being an adventurous, reckless and intelligent young person, if slightly aimless, into an experienced, strong and respected leader capable of uniting disparate and slightly barbaric Arab tribes. In the second act we view Lawrence’s increasing confrontation against the Turkish enemy, against the Arab tribes that he wishes to unite and against himself, as he is torn between his new found role as an almost-prophet figure of the Arab people and of his Anglo-Saxon heritage. This all heads towards the climax and resolution, finally ridding Arabia from the control of the Turkish. Of course, there are multiple ways to interpret the structure of the film, as it is a 3 hour plus film, the entire first half before the intermission can be view to contain its own three act structure. Complex films are good however and the film certainly delivers an adventure regardless of how you interpret it.


3. Elephants (and landscapes)

Another fantastic animal appears during a pivotal scene in the last film made by David Lean in 1984, A Passage To India. A large intelligent animal common in Africa and parts of Asia, the elephant, when not treated terribly often allows humans to ride upon its back, rather than crushing them to death. The very charming Dr. Aziz in Passage To India takes it upon himself to organise a fantastic day out for a few wealthy English ladies, treating them to a trip to see some famous and spiritually important caves. He pulls out all the stops, including hiring a large decorated elephant complete with a chair fixed upon its back to take them up the hill towards the caves. The magnificent animal has no problem with this, but does demand some celery stalks and a big bath to cool down once reaching the top of the hill. Although the trip to the caves would not go as smoothly as planned and would instigate much of the drama of the rest of the film, before this drama unfolds the trip is really rather lovely, made much so due to the presence of the elephant. David Lean sneaks in some great shots of the Indian landscape in a similar style to the deserts of Lawrence. At the end of the film, set in Northern India near the Himalayas, Lean includes several truly breathtaking shots of mountains, clouds and snow. I’m telling you, this guy shoots nature like nobody else!



3. Fantastic characters and performances

David Lean captured some great performances. Character development is central to why the narratives are so gripping and conveying these characters are brilliant actors such as Peter O’Toole, Omar Sheriff and Alec Guiness. Just like any good auteur director, many of the actors reappear through-out his filmmography. Omar Sheriff plays Lawrence’s Arabian comrade Sherif Ali as well as the lead in Doctor Zhivago. Alec Guiness plays Lt. Colonel Nicholson in Bridge as well as Prince Faisel in Lawrence and Professor Godbole in A Passage to India. I really grew attached to the actors portrayal of these characters; they would stay with me for days afterwards. I found Anthony Guiness’ performances particularly memorable and felt very sympathetic to his Colonel in Bridge, who takes his traditional British loyalty to misguided new levels as the eccentric and honourable scholar Godbole in Passage. A Passage to India also featured several other great characters, Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore and Victor Banerjee as Dr. Aziz. Mrs. Moore is the true hero of A Passage to India, a symbol of a new Britain free from imperial prejudices. Dr. Aziz is a charming and sweet man loyal to the British, yet eventually broken by their prejudices and the stupidity of one woman. The emotion, tension and drama that the actors bring out of the narratives, with the help of Lean’s superb direction is really something special.




2. Classic Cinema At Its Best

Most of all, the films are just bloody classic, so If you have an interest in good cinema from a time when scripts and performances mattered most and jerk-off technical wankery aimed at 13 year old male audiences certainly didn’t, then you owe it to yourself to view these films. You probably already have, which in that case means me attempting to persuade you is in vain. We need more great cinematic story-tellers like David Lean and less filmmakers only concerned with showing off technical developments. Not saying that there are no films made today with equivalently magnificent story-telling, there are of course plenty of great stories being told in the arthouse, the mainstream and from filmmakers from many different nations. David Lean’s epics were however in their time the big blockbusters, the money-makers, something that these kinds of films rarely are in today’s market saturated with comic book adaptations and bloated action franchises aimed at teenage males. I guess part of my appreciation of these films comes from a nostalgia for a time before the summer action blockbuster came to dominate cinema screens. The past may always seem greater than the present thanks to our friend hindsight, but if nothing else, these films provide me with a great reason to get excited again about cinema, everyone of them containing their own magnificent adventure. But don’t just listen to me, find out for yourself.

1. If for nothing else, watch ’em for the animals

But regardless of rambling about the current state of cinema and the nostalgia for a golden era of cinematic storytelling, if there is one reason you should watch a David Lean film, its for the animals. And if you choose not to see the camels in Lawrence of Arabia or the elephants in A Passage To India, even Bridge on the River Kwai has some pretty awesome shots of birds, bats and other animals. Which makes David Lean kind of comparable to Terrance Malick, if you liked his films, Tree Of Life, Thin Red Line, Days Of Heaven etc. The above picture is not from a David Lean film but it pretty much sums up everything I enjoy about the interesting and goofy animal that is the camel.

So there you go. I’ve skipped over David Lean’s other great historical epic, Doctor Zhivago as I haven’t seen it for five or six years and seeing as I’m currently amping off the enjoyment of Lawrence, Bridge and India, I saw it fit to focus on both of those. But Doctor Zhivago, from what I remember was pretty awesome as well.

Go torrent some David Lean today, and experience classic cinema at its finest.


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