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 ’30s. 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.”
On the 113th anniversary of his birth, we revisit Sir David Lean’s monumental legacy by exploring his influence on the works of other acclaimed filmmakers.
5 famous directors influenced by David Lean:
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.”