Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Far Out / Alamy / Wikimedia)


Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to David Lean


“Film is a dramatised reality and it is the director’s job to make it appear real…an audience should not be conscious of technique.” – David Lean

Lauded by directors such as Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick, David Lean is a somewhat British filmmaker that is rarely recognised for his contributions to modern cinema. A filmmaker, screenwriter and acclaimed editor, Lean was truly a multifaceted talent, dominating national cinema throughout the mid to late 20th century. 

A lover of pictorial photography and innovative techniques of editing, Lean pioneered a new visual style of filmmaking that brought a romantic glow to his cinematic screen epics. As well as being nominated for Best Director seven times, winning twice, Lean is often voted among the best directors of all time in polls from the likes of Sight & Sound and the American Film Institute. 

Having worked with the likes of Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, William Holden and Richard Attenborough, Lean has built an impressive filmography consisting of 16 films and over 20 editing projects. With a career spanning over half a century, from 1984 to 1930, lets take a look back at the stunning career of David Lean through six of his most definitive films. 

David Lean’s six definitive films:

In Which We Serve (1942)

As a lover of cinema, David Lean’s career started at the very lowest rung of the industry ladder, visiting Gaumont Studios where his enthusiasm was met with opportunity, working his way up from being a tea boy, to a clapper boy to eventually become a third assistant director. Moving on to work as an editor on newsreels, beginning with 1934s Freedom on the Seas, it wasn’t until In Which We Serve in 1942 that Lean’s directorial filmography would begin. 

Collaborating with Noël Coward, who also writes and stars in the film, In Which We Serve follows the British naval destroyer H.M.S. Torrin as its history is deconstructed by the survivors of the decimated ship. Showing little of the iconic visuals that made a name of the filmmaker, the 1942 film remained a significant stepping stone for David Lean. 

Brief Encounter (1945)

Based on the one-act play Still Life, the 1945 film Brief Encounter became one of Lean’s greatest ever pictures, with the film following a woman who meets a mysterious stranger who tempts her to cheat on her husband. Starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, the film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, with the director picking up his very first Academy Award nomination for Best Director. 

Regarded as one of the best British films of all time, the story of Brief Encounter has since gone down as a staple of British culture. 

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Marked by several successes as well as a number of financial disappointments, Lean’s cinematic endeavours between 1945 and 1957 included two adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels, Great Expectations in 1946 and Oliver Twist in 1948. Whilst both successful, Lean would not achieve proper international acclaim until The Bridge on the River Kwai, a WWII story based on a novel by Pierre Boulle following the story of British and American soldiers trying to survive in a Japanese POW camp.

Starring the likes of William Holden and Alec Guinness, the film became the highest-grossing movie of 1957 in the USA and won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Guinness.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Having primed his future career making somewhat middling feats of cinema in the 1940s and 1950s, The Bridge on the River Kwai sparked a staggering unconnected trilogy of war films for Lean that would come to define his legacy as a filmmaker. The second film in this collection would become his most iconic, with the epic Lawrence of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, an English officer who led Arab tribes against the Turks in WWI.

Recognised as one of the greatest films of all time, many directors and actors mark Lean’s 1962 film as their all-time favourite, with the Academy awarding the staggering film Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and more.

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

The filmmaker’s particularly incredible run of form finished in 1965 with Doctor Zhivago, a romance based in the midst of WWI that followed a Russian physician and poet who falls in love with a political activist’s wife and struggles through the war and the October Revolution. Based on the novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, Lean’s film is seen as one of the greatest literary adaptations, well translating the mood and sentiment of the iconic book.

Winning five Oscars including Best Adapted Screenplay, Lean missed out on his third Best Director win, though achieved untold success as a result of the film, with the director now considered one of the best of the 20th century.  

A Passage to India (1984)

Releasing Ryan’s Daughter in 1970 to a somewhat favourable reception, Lean took a significant break from filmmaking, unhappy with how the film turned out, travelling the world for inspiration for a new project. This came 14 years later in the form of A Passage to India, Lean’s final film that stands among the very best of his career. Telling the story of the cultural mistrust between an Englishwoman, an educator and an Indian doctor in British colonial India. 

Directing the film as well as editing the project, Lean’s final film harked back to the quality of his previous war trilogy, showing off vibrant characters and gorgeous cinematography.