"I feel rather hot if someone calls me an artist," director David Lean once commented about himself. "I'm not an author and am not really creative." And he added, in one of the curiously old-fashioned British phrases he sometimes used: "The artist is surely the human being with the hatches off."
"Hatches" translates as "brakes," and Lean was a human being who kept the brakes firmly on--except in his sexual life, which was remarkably voracious (six wives overlapping with an abundance of lovers) and often remarkably cold-blooded: "If you want to make a good movie, get yourself a new, wonderful woman," he once said, "and that movie will be 50, if not 70, percent better." When the thrill of a new, wonderful woman wore off, Lean was swift and ruthless in getting rid of her: "You see, you must cut. Anything that's finished is finished. Once you've made the decision, you've got to cut people out of your life."
He cut his third wife, Ann Todd, out of his life with a letter announcing that marriage didn't suit him and he wanted to live alone. She was appearing on the stage at the time and he sneaked into their house while she was at the theater; with the help of a friend, he packed up his belongings. It comes as no surprise to learn in Kevin Brownlow's "David Lean: A Biography" that his relationships with women made him an anxious and conflicted man, torn between a volcanic sexual drive and a prudish Quaker upbringing that he never entirely shook off. "My own terribly selfish nature," as he called it, also led to acute attacks of guilt--particularly when his fourth wife had a nervous breakdown and Lean found himself "very nearly untouched" by it.
But it does come as a surprise that Lean put so little of himself into his films. You wouldn't expect to find much of him in "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist," brilliantly crafted period pieces lacking the exuberance of Dickens, or in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Doctor Zhivago," elaborate "prestige pictures" or "Oscar machines" as they used to be called. But the famous (and again brilliantly crafted) "Brief Encounter" is an ode to repression, love unconsummated in deference to middle-class respectability.
The one exception, and not coincidentally Lean's finest movie, is "Lawrence of Arabia." It has precisely what Lean wanted it to have, "the uniqueness of a strange atmosphere." The source of this atmosphere is partly his stunning visual response to the desert as a place where "you look into infinity [and] feel terribly small and also in a strange way, quite big," and partly his fascination with a mirror-image. Lawrence, like Lean, was "in flight all his life," an enigma to himself as well as to others, and "Lawrence of Arabia" is a work of art by a man who was embarrassed to think of himself as an artist.
The fact that my admiration for Lean is less than Brownlow's only increases my admiration for his biography. Sympathetic yet unsparing, it reveals an exceptionally complex man, charming and chilling, cruel and vulnerable, aloof and needy. Brownlow originally conceived the book as a series of interviews, like Francois Truffaut's with Alfred Hitchcock, and began it in 1990. A year later, Lean died of throat cancer. By then he had told "everything he wanted to tell me," Brownlow explains, but not "everything he could have told me."
To close the gap, he decided to replicate the approach of his classic work on the silent cinema, "The Parade's Gone By," a history based on interviews with directors, writers, actors and technicians. The research for "David Lean" (more than 200 interviews with colleagues, wives, lovers, family, friends and enemies) is enormously thorough, the book itself handsomely produced and richly illustrated. Reading the book is an act of total immersion; you emerge saturated with all you could possibly want to know about the director's personal and professional life.
Lean, for example, was terrified of mice. He was attracted to his fourth wife, Leila Maktar, because he found Indian women "so passive!" whereas "cerebral women like Ann [Todd] tie you up in knots." His sixth wife noted "how much he needed love" and how "he denied it to himself." Lean had "no time and no mind for politics," according to his second wife, Kay Walsh, and Julie Christie saw him as "a human being who couldn't quite sort things out." He thought that "The Bridge on the River Kwai," Pierre Boulle's novel, "went too far" with jokes against the British and decided to "take the excesses out." And when Alec Guinness tried to give the character of Col. Nicholson an ironic edge, Lean didn't like it. "One has to take into account David's lack of humor," Guinness commented, and the comedies "Blithe Spirit" and "Hobson's Choice" bear him out. But Lean prepared these films, as well as his best work, with fanatical care and precision.
One of the most revealing insights comes from Walsh, who noted that for Lean, "films were a substitute for real life." Lean unwittingly confirmed it when he admitted that for a love scene in "Doctor Zhivago," he copied "absolutely direct" a love scene from King Vidor's "The Big Parade." This helps to explain why, among Lean's British contemporaries, Michael Powell appears by far the most original talent. In movies as different as "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," "Black Narcissus," "I Know Where I'm Going" and even "The Red Shoes," you recognize the same personal view of the world--quirky, lyrical, deviously erotic. Powell never wanted to "take the excesses out" even when it might have been a good idea. If only Lean had taken the brakes off more often, he'd have made more movies that were dangerous and exciting, like "Lawrence" or the best scenes in his Dickens adaptations, instead of too many that were scrupulous, guarded and immaculate conceptions.