English filmmaker Sir David Lean is widely regarded as one of the most influential directors of all time, responsible for timeless masterpieces like Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai among several others. Throughout his illustrious career, Lean received several accolades including two Academy Awards in the Best Director category as well as the AFI Lifetime Award.
In a 2002 Sight & Sound poll, Lean was voted among the top 10 directors to have ever worked with the cinematic medium by other filmmakers. Lean was known for his translation of pictorialism to cinema as well as his pioneering editing techniques, developing the latter while starting his career as a film editor in the 1930s. These qualities were appreciated by newer generations of filmmakers who studied his films religiously. They incorporated such elements in their own works and took them to new heights.
In an interview, Lean recalled: “I remember when I first went to the movies, they hit me right in the eyeball. I’ll never forget seeing Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It had a wonderful sweep to it. And I saw it again only a few years ago, here in Los Angeles at FILMEX. A new print and a 40-piece orchestra. Absolutely stunning, I thought. And I also like stars. It became a sort of thing to laugh at Valentino, Errol Flynn. God’s sake, they were both terrific. Go and see Dawn Patrol, go and see Robin Hood – Fairbanks and Flynn. Wonderful! Wonderful people to watch!”
He added, “I nearly always write the shooting script and imagine seeing it as a finished film on screen. I think that this might be good in a long shot, that in a close-up, that in a panning shot. And I try to write down the pictures that I see on an imaginary screen. I’m a picture chap, I like pictures, and when I go to the movies I go to see pictures. I think dialogue is nearly always secondary in a movie. It’s awfully hard when you look back over the really great movies that you see in your life to remember a line of dialogue. You will not forget pictures.”
Here, we revisit Sir David Lean’s monumental legacy by exploring his influence on the works of other acclaimed filmmakers.
10 directors influenced by David Lean:
Several generations of filmmakers have learnt the art of the epic from David Lean and George Lucas might just be one of his greatest disciples. While Lucas has openly spoken about the influence of masters such as John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, it is evident that his visual style and sensibilities have been deeply influenced by Lean’s works.
Lucas claimed that Lawrence of Arabia was one of his favourite films ever made. A true masterpiece, Lean’s sense of scale as well as his method of capturing landscapes remained embedded in Lucas’ mind. Even though he missed the film’s premiere, he did get the opportunity to listen to a lecture on Doctor Zhivago by Lean himself at USC.
Hong Kong filmmaking legend John Woo’s contributions to action cinema will be celebrated by many for years to come. Over the course of his career, Woo has been influenced by the likes of Kurosawa and Jean-Pierre Melville but the impact of Lean’s work on his cinematic sensibilities can hardly be ignored.
While describing the greatness of Lawrence of Arabia and the visionary behind the film, Woo said: “It has a great humanity. And also visually it was so stunning. Also the editing was so brilliant, the montage. David Lean, he not only had a great mind, he also had a great heart.”
Christopher Nolan is another perfect example of modern filmmaking on epic scales, especially works such as Interstellar and Inception among many others. Following in the footsteps of pioneers such as Lean and Stanley Kubrick, Nolan has proven that he is a master of the cinematic spectacle.
In fact, Nolan was hugely inspired by Doctor Zhivago while making The Dark Knight Rises. He explained: “The very definition of historical epic, in which the tangled emotions of its characters are set in stark relief against the grandest of revolutionary backgrounds.”
Joe Wright has developed a strong reputation for being adept at conducting literary adaptations and forming a specific visual language for period pieces. While he is known for his take on works like Pride and Prejudice, it was Lean’s Doctor Zhivago that played a huge part in his directorial journey.
Although Wright was moved by Lean’s cinema, he never took one of the most famous quotes by the director seriously. He later revealed: “I always resented the David Lean quote when he said directing is 99 per cent casting. I like to think that I have more control than that but unfortunately, I think he was right, the old bugger.”
Many fans of The Lord of the Rings trilogy have already noted that the films embrace the epic genre in the same way that Lean’s vision of cinema did. For Peter Jackson, Lean was a crucial influence because of his ability to create epics that never strayed away from the human condition and the characters within the frame.
When asked about his intentions and personal vision, Jackson responded: “I love David Lean’s films. I did want to make an epic film, and David Lean is synonymous with the epic film. I wanted to make a film that felt huge without losing sight of the characters.”
In his masterpieces like Barry Lyndon and 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick showed an eye for composition and unique aestheticism that borrowed from Lean’s vision and transcended it at the same time. While Lean’s works had undertones of romantic sensibilities, Kubrick curated his images to represent the terrifying indifference of the universe.
While paying tribute to his formative influences as a filmmaker, Kubrick said: “There are very few directors, about whom you’d say you automatically have to see everything they do. I’d put Fellini, Bergman and David Lean at the head of my first list, and Truffaut at the head of the next level.”
This is perhaps one of the most obvious entries on this list. Throughout his career, Spielberg has paid homage to Lean’s works and has cited them as primary influences for his own experiments. The scope of Lean’s epic vision can also be observed in Spielberg’s films like Schindler’s List and Empire of the Sun, full of grand narratives and complete character studies.
“Lawrence of Arabia was the film that set me on my journey,” Spielberg said. “I look at that picture as a major miracle…it just uplifted me. It was little things that provoked me to wanna know more about how movies are made. Lean was able to tell such small stories, intimate portraits and he’d make you just as sensitive and close to the life that T.E. Lawrence was living and surviving.”
Making a film about such an important historical figure like Malcolm X is always a challenge, especially because his legacy has been distorted and complicated by critics of his brutal honesty. However, Spike Lee managed to do justice to Malcolm X’s trials and tribulations with his 1992 film adaptation which has now become the definitive Malcolm X biopic. In order to go through with such an enormous task, Lee and his team extensively studied David Lean’s treatment of the epic genre.
“If you look at Malcolm X, Ernest Dickerson — my NYU classmate and the great cinematographer — and I, we were looking at the great epics of David Lean: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia. That trilogy. David Lean was the master of the epic film, and that’s what Ernest Dickerson, Denzel, and I wanted to do with Malcolm X, we wanted to make an epic film,” Lee said.
Fans and critics have always praised Martin Scorsese for his ability to unsettle the viewer through the power of images. For Scorsese, Lean was one of the filmmakers who showed him how effective images could be. Scorsese even admitted that while working on projects, Lean’s work is always on the back of his mind: “His images stay with me forever.”
While speaking about Lawrence of Arabia, Scorsese said: “It was the first film to play around with this very difficult character, very complex. A character that reminded me in an interesting way of the film version of Joseph Conrad’s Outcast of the Islands by Carol Reed. Trevor Howard’s character was just a screw-up. He was just so self-destructive.”
Sergio Leone’s impact on westerns can never be overstated, especially the Dollars Trilogy which changed the genre forever. Although scholars have primarily drawn parallels between his work and John Ford’s, Lean’s influence can also be seen in the films of Sergio Leone. From epic investigations of unforgiving landscapes to intimate explorations of the human condition, Leone’s vision continued the tradition of David Lean.
In an interview, Leone explained: “I had never thought of making a western even as I was making it. I think that my films are westerns only in their exterior aspects. Within them are some of my truths, which happily, I see, belong to lots of parts of the world. Not just America.
“My discussion is one that has gone all the way from Fistful of Dollars through Once Upon a Time in America. But if you look closely at all these films, you find in them the same meanings, the same humour, the same point of view, and, also, the same pains.”