David Lean's [1908-1991] career can be artificially divided into four distinct periods: the first encompasses his debut and early efforts to bring three of Noel Coward's stage dramas to the screen--The Happy Breed (1940), Blithe Spirit (1945) and Brief Encounter (1945). The second includes two brilliant adaptations of Dickens's novels, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). The third period included sophisticated social comedies (Hobson's Choice in 1954, and Summertime in 1955). The fourth period, a crowning fulfillment to an impressive portfolio, includes The Bridge on the River Kwai (, Lawrence of Arabia , Doctor Zhivago , and A Passage to India .
Successful epic film concepts require a broad cinematic vision. During the post-War period, the movie industry, under pressure from television, felt compelled to expand its medium both technically and aesthetically, to encompass wider (literally, as with Cinerama@) and more ambitious panoramic productions, in order to compete successfully with the cathode ray tube. Lean was preeminent among film producers and directors who led the charge to make cinema the heroic medium it could be. Beginning as a film editor--working his way all the way up from the ranks as a messenger and newsreel cutter--Lean was ideally equipped to organize a large, complex production crew around a coordinated effort, marshaling resources and setting schedules to consolidate remote location work and sequencing of the scene and cutting processes.
In each of his three great screen epics--River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Zhivago--he combined a persuasive and compelling story line with stunning visual effects to create a new augmented screen language, as impressive in its way, as many of the greatest literary epics (such as War and Peace, Gone With the Wind, or The Grapes of Wrath--each, of course, also made into a movie version as well).
In cinema, each scene must say a thousand words of description, each line of dialogue must carry the weight and function of pages of verbal exchange. The sifting of content and plot down to its effective essence is crucial to efficient and convincing progress in a movie. A movie employs the skills and experience and talents of dozens of key individuals, but without a defining and unified vision it can end up as a mess on the cutting-room floor. Lean's great skill in adapting powerful stories in exotic settings, sweeping through space and time and human lives with style, is unmatched by any of his contemporaries. Gone With the Wind , or Cleopatra  might bear comparison, but it wasn't until the 70's that the movie industry seriously took up his challenge and continued the tradition that Lean had largely created through his own signal efforts.
In each of these three movie masterpieces the action is centered around an impressive male heavy: Alec Guinness, Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif. Important secondary roles are also crucial for the interaction and dialectic of conflict. In River Kwai, William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, and James Donald each represent distinct positions in the film's ironic tension; in Lawrence, a host of stars and character actors (Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Hawkins, Sharif, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains and Arthur Kennedy) swirl around each other like planets in a vast constellation of interests; in Zhivago, Julie Christie, Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson and Geraldine Chaplin are each sharply drawn against the vast tapestry of revolutionary Russia. In each film, the historical complexities aren't really addressed with any degree of completeness or verisimilitude; rather, the potential for dramatic character development is exploited, and historical events are seen at the human level, rather than like lines and colors on a metaphorical map. It would be difficult to imagine Tom Jones , or Patton , or Barry Lyndon , or The Godfather epic [1972-1990], or Searching for Private Ryan , or Brideshead Revisited , without the example of Lean's approach to picaresque subject-matter.
Central to each of Lean's successes is a concentration on the relation between the literal visual landscape and the human struggles which grow out of, or are played out in an actual physical context. In Kwai, the Japanese efforts to expand their empire by forging a railroad through the remote jungle interior of Burma serves as the backdrop of prison-camp life during the construction of a wooden bridge over the River Kwai. In Lawrence, the parching sands and wastes of the Arabian Peninsula provide a gigantic canvas for the dramatization of British, Arab and Turkish interests as they contend for Suez. And in Zhivago, the good doctor's travails cover the whole Russian diorama, from Moscow to Siberia, from the top echelons of pre-Revolutionary Czarist decadence, to the dregs of WWI disintegration and chaos. How such events and expanses are experienced, immediately and pungently, by the central character, forms the crucially important substance of each narrative.
The stories of how each film was made constitute tangled yarns of their own. Years in the making, each required a complicated coordination of key elements (stars, locations and back studio work), and the results were never certain. The risks inherent in such stretched projects are are always first financial: Backers for ambitious projects like this must front vast sums, sometimes years in advance, before any possible return can be expected. Guaranteeing participants--especially well-known actors--an income during the production process, years in advance of release, presents huge barriers. Producers must con everyone, and past accomplishments are no proof of future profits; a track-record is decisive, and this is what Lean brought to the table. With each successful production, his reputation provided a firmer foundation for future opportunities. No one who didn't dream big could ever embark on such outlandish adventures.
Central to any epic movie is a stirring, skillful score, and each of these productions is noteworthy in that respect. Malcolm Arnold did the score for Kwai, and Maurice Jarre (about whom I have written particularly before) won Oscars for both the other two scores. In each, a romantic lyrical set-piece, identified with the central character (the whistled marching tune in Kwai, the desert fantasy of Lawrence, and "Lara's Theme" in Zhivago, unifies and lulls the audience with an exotic undercurrent of emotion, roughly the equivalent to a stylistic "tone" in a novel. Scores as good as this are like visual "symphonies" with separate movements, grandly scaled. But intelligent dialogue and narrative flow must be carefully coordinated to achieve a dramatic action. Which is where the editing process comes in. The cinematographer for both Lawrence and Zhivago was Freddie Young.
Over the last 30 years, I've heard it said over and over in film discussions, that it's no longer possible to make epic films like those from the heydays of the studio system, or those like Lean's great epics. But somehow, they keep getting made. Unfortunately, the costs of technical innovations--which might in some ways make complicated set-up shots, location headaches, or stunt scenes easier or less time-consuming--often end up being greater. I've thought that sci-fi or action movies, particularly, should benefit from these technical advancements; but so far the results have been largely unconvincing. Poor story lines and bad scripting or casting can't be saved by visual fireworks. If you want to make a big historical block-buster, it's still a huge undertaking, with or without the software programming to assist you.
In any case, these movies give us the most vivid examples of the recreation of specific stories, taken or adapted from great books. They're fictions, of course, even when based loosely on real events or actual biographies. T.E. Lawrence wrote his own story, and Pasternak had "lived" much of the outward events described in his novel (which won him the Nobel Prize), and Boulle's wartime jungle romance was true in many respects to the circumstances of the Japanese-British conflict in Burma. In the end, they're more about exciting visual narrative than fact. But the lessons they teach, the motives they lay bear, the forces they engage, are as real as those in the best literature. They're lyrical, visual poetry at its best.
Movies as a popular art form follow a recent trend in the cultural traditions of the West. In the 19th Century, popular picaresque adventure novels, such as the work of Alexandre Dumas, or Walter Scott, furnished formulaic escapist fodder for the masses, who could fantasize vicariously the intrepid exploits and improbable intrigues of heroic characters in exotic locals. There was a strong continuation of this trend throughout the 20th Century, both in fictional and non-fictional genres. Movies provided an even more efficient route to mass markets, hence the hybridization of the adventure narrative, which flowered after World War II. Given its financial demands, the form was largely confined to American, or joint British-American productions (as with Lean's). Unlike the imaginary heroes and heroines of the 19th Century, though, movies permit the glorification of the celluloid actor, creating a whole other dimension of public interest. Making movies is a technical art, but the popular interest in "stars" and publicity and "glitz" is a phenomenon created by the modern media, chiefly movie-making. It's one thing to provide cheap thrills like The Count of Monte Cristo, to feed the public imagination. But imagine how 19th Century audiences might have reacted, had Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin originated as a cinematic muckraker, complete with vivid scenes of slave-quarters and beatings and hangings!
The power of cinema as an art form, or as a vehicle to influence public opinion, is well-documented, as is the history of film as pure entertainment. Lean's ambitious epics stop well short of trying to communicate anything profound about the subjects they engage, though they are filled with opportunistic wit and shrewd observations. We don't learn anything new in his movies about Japanese or Turkish imperialism, or the development of Communism in post-Czarist Russia. What we do get is a personalized version of life in historical contexts, a sense of how the individual is caught in the web of the large movements of history, and there is no better medium to do that. Pure human drama can be effectively staged in static legitimate theater, but the sweep and bustle of the visual permits a canvas as large as the world itself. As time speeds up, and the world gets smaller, movie epics like those of David Lean become de-facto interpretations of popular history, for popular consumption. They give us the illusion that we can at least imagine what history means, even when, or if, it is far too complex to permit this in reality.