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  • Writer's pictureBrian Watt

David Lean's Vast Landscapes and Critical Details

David Lean made great films. He made poignant love stories, comedies, family dramas, and, later in his career, epics with casts of thousands in panoramic settings several miles wide. He featured enormous and detailed sets depicting cities like Moscow in the winter for Doctor Zhivago, the Jordanian port of Aqaba off the Red Sea on the Mediterranean in southern Spain for Lawrence of Arabia, and a complete Irish coastal village for Ryan’s Daughter. If anything, Lean demonstrated to generations of filmmakers who came after what could be done with the help of a dedicated film crew on location and with real people cast as extras — to create films on a grand scale that are now rendered, sometimes not very believably, on the computer.

He understood the language of film because he started in the industry doing a variety of odd jobs and eventually was able to demonstrate his talent as an editor. He quickly developed the skills to show how best to transition from one scene to the next, often matching a stunning visual with a subtle or sometimes startling sound effect.

Lean was a perfectionist and master craftsman who was obsessed with imagery, sound, editing, and, to a great extent, the rhythm and musicality of spoken lines. Here is Lean directing Victor Banerjee in A Passage To India.

Like Hitchcock and perhaps a few other directors, he had the rare gift of being able to imagine what a scene might look like, or the visuals he could conjure up, upon reading initial drafts of a script. He also pushed his crew to improve or rework sets and settings until he was satisfied with what the camera would record.

Those who worked for him have related that he could be temperamental, petulant, a taskmaster, and dictatorial. At the same time, he would heap praise on his cast and crew and once gave his prop master, Eddie Fowlie, his own Rolls-Royce because Fowlie had admired it and tried to buy it from him. Fowlie had created many of the scenic as well as pyrotechnic effects in Lean’s films including derailing or destroying trains in Lawrence or in the earlier The Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as creating Doctor Zhivago‘s Russian winter battle sequences in the oppressive heat of summer in Spain using crushed marble from a local quarry to simulate snow.

Many actors conveyed that Lean was detached and almost indifferent to the actors who performed for him while on set and made it a rule not to socialize or commiserate with them during the making of the film. He often chose seasoned and accomplished actors that didn’t require too much direction, but that didn’t necessarily mean that he wouldn’t retake a scene numerous times until he was completely satisfied with what he saw and heard. It was a rarity when actors strayed from the written script, but Lean might stray a bit on occasion if a more startling visual came to mind in the midst of shooting.

The late Sidney Pollack referred to Lawrence of Arabia as an “intimidating” work given what Lean was confronted with on various locations, the sheer scope and size of the story, and what he was able to achieve.

Even Ryan’s Daughter, initially dismissed by the late New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael with other critics in her circle (she had also panned Lawrence and Zhivago), is an expertly written, acted, and crafted film that stands head and shoulders over films at the time of its release and hundreds of films since. (For what it’s worth, critics Siskel and Ebert also panned Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner when it came out.)

Lean, of course, has inspired numerous other filmmakers, like Steven Spielberg, who revisit his films before working on their own projects. Here’s Spielberg discussing Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

When the film of Lawrence of Arabia was restored back in the mid-1980s, I was lucky enough to see it when it was shown at the Plitt theaters in Century City in Los Angeles. Fortunately, I was actually late to the theater that evening. I say “fortunately” because the only remaining seats were very close to the screen, which resulted in the projected image taking up my complete visual field of view. The film essentially enveloped me and, because the film had been meticulously restored, I was able to appreciate fine and precise details like the colorful brocade work and tassles on the camels’ saddles, bridles, and reins and the details in many of the interior sets that may have been less crisp had I been sitting at the back. The rich color of the costumes, the Arab tribal flags, the map that Lawrence delicately paints in one of the earlier scenes in Cairo, the golden sand dunes were all amazing, especially since I had only seen murkier, muddier pan-and-scan versions of the film previously on television. This is when television sets were CRT tubes and for the most part only 25” diagonally with rounded corners.

Lean was also occasionally open for improvisation as when he directed Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. After Lawrence has successfully led a band of Bedouins across the Nefu Desert as part of Lawrence’s plan to surprise attack the Turks at the port of Aqaba, Sharif Ali (played by Omar Sharif) rewards Lawrence with an Arab chieftain’s white robes and curved dagger. Lean instructed O’Toole to improvise a bit as he admired his new outfit. While the camera rolled, O’Toole pulled out the dagger from its sheath, held it up to see his reflection and adjusted his keffiyah (Arab headdress). O’Toole relates later in a documentary about the making of the film that he could hear Lean say off camera as he held the dagger up and looked at his reflection, “Clever boy.”

But what further illustrates Lean’s instinct for visual storytelling is that he builds on that improvisation later in the production when the film crew relocated to Morocco to shoot the scene where Lawrence and his Arab army takes revenge on a contingent of Turkish soldiers that have recently decimated a village by raping the women and slaughtering all of its inhabitants. In what’s referred to now as the “no prisoners” scene, Lawrence and his army ruthlessly slaughter the frightened and fleeing Turks and Lawrence finds himself consumed by his own blood lust.

Lean reprises the improvised moment with the knife as O’Toole once again stares at his reflection as the shock and horror of what he’s just done sinks in. With this signature moment devoid of dialogue, Lean shows Lawrence as no longer the naïve idealist bent on his quest to reshape his romantic notion of what the Middle East could be. Now he is someone who has been scarred and bloodstained by war and confronts a darker dimension of his own psyche that seemingly enjoys killing.

There are numerous examples of Lean’s masterful strokes of filmmaking with Lawrence and other films:

  • the oft-cited prolonged entrance of Sharif Ali (Omar Sharif) from a mirage;

  • the match-to-rising desert sun transition (see clip above)

  • the overhead spark on the Moscow streetcar that coincides with the touching bodies of Zhivago (Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) conveying that the two characters are now linked and are destined to cross paths again;

  • the panoramic shot of the snow-capped Urals and a small funeral procession for Zhivago’s mother in the lower portion of the frame (needless to say it’s the height of folly to attempt to watch a David Lean epic on a smartphone)

  • and then a few seconds after, a shot inside the coffin of Zhivago’s mother (from what we assume is young Zhivago’s imagining of what must be happening) as the sound of dirt clods can be heard landing on top of the coffin as she is buried. Note the use of sound – the wind, the rhythmic pounding of the hammers sealing the coffin, the wailing of the women, the surge, and then the quick dissipation of Maurice Jarre’s music score.

  • the front of Strelnikov’s red locomotive in Zhivago as it takes up about two-thirds of the entire movie screen as it races through the snow-laden steppes of Russia that seems to evoke the force and drive of the Bolshevik Revolution as it pushes through the Russian landscape. Again, seeing the image on a theater screen is still more impactful than the same scene shown on even a UHD 60” or 80” television

This is to name only a few.

After the successes of The Bridge on the River Kwai and especially after Lawrence, Lean was no longer content to make films on studio soundstages and backlots. He had done that earlier in his career. Now, he wanted to astound and enthrall audiences, not merely amuse them. If that meant transporting an entire film company from one remote location on the planet to another, then so be it. If it meant constructing entire Irish villages or portions of Moscow, then that’s what had to be done and producers like Sam Spiegel and studios obliged.

After Ryan’s Daughter it became more difficult. Lean was smart enough to realize, especially after getting help on the script for Lawrence, that collaborating with gifted writer Robert Bolt was a requirement to continue making epic films that weren’t just visual spectacles but had impactful and thoughtful dialogue.

The two collaborated on a two-part version about the mutiny on the HMAV (His Majesty’s Armed Vessel) Bounty from Bolt’s screenplay. The first film would depict the events around the mutiny itself and the sequel would concentrate on Captain Bligh’s return to the Pacific in his failed effort to hunt down Fletcher Christian and the other mutineers. Lean eventually lost control of the script and the film, and producer Dino di Laurentiis turned over the project to director Roger Donaldson (No Way Out, Cocktail, The World’s Fastest Indian, The Bank Job) for a single film, The Bounty. It was released in 1984 and featured Anthony Hopkins as Bligh and Mel Gibson as Christian. Bolt’s scripts were pared down for the Donaldson version and he is credited for the screenplay of the film.

Lean had also always wanted to make a film of Gandhi’s life (which later was made by Richard Attenborough). Anecdotally, shortly after The Bridge on the River Kwai was released, my parents dined with David Lean, his Indian mistress, and an Indian Naval officer and his wife when my father was stationed in New Delhi as the assistant naval attaché to the American embassy. Lean was a friend of the Indian Naval officer.

At the dinner, according to my parents, Lean enthusiastically discussed his plans he had to make his picture of Gandhi, which was why he was in India at the time exploring locations. My mother’s other takeaway from the dinner was that Lean’s mistress was rather homely. (That was my mom. Never one to mince words.)

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