100 Most Important Film Directors of All Time #95. David Lean

The studio system in Hollywood was collapsing by the mid-1950s. Big studios, like MGM and Warner Brothers were retreating  from film making, turning instead more and more to the distribition side of the business. Independent companies would produce the film, getting financing from the major studios with the promise of distribution in hand. The old way of making lavish films was dying out in the late 1950s early 1960s. Small was becoming the preferred method of filmmaking. However, British born film director David Lean spent this time doing his best to keep the epic alive. Without Lean’ films, the blockbuster films that we know today might not exist.


Like fellow Brit Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean started at the bottom and worked his way up the movie making film chain. Working as an editor for news reels would give Lean valuable first hand experience at constructing a film. Eventually, Lean would get his chance to edit a proper motion picture, working with such noted filmmakers as the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Tony Sloman would note in a 1999 essay:

   “As the varied likes of David Lean, Robert Wise, Terence Fisher and Dorothy Arzner have proved, the cutting rooms are easily the finest grounding for film direction.”

David Lean’s first film would be made in conjunction with noted writer and personality   Noel Coward. It  wouldn’t be until 1957 that Lean would hit his  stride with his first of his epic trilogy The Bridge on the River Kwai. The film would be the beginning showcase for the Lean sweeping panorama shots. It was a big story and the cinematography would have to be able to give it enough room to be told.

Bridge Over the River Kwai
Still by Horizon Pictures

Hollywood took note of Lean’s attempts at epic filmmaking. Bridge was both a masterpiece in look and the way it told a story. Lean would win his first of two best director awards with Bridge. The film would cash in on seven of its eight nominations. The wins would also reaffirm what moviegoers already made clear, the epic wasn’t quite dead yet.

Bridge Over the  River Kwai
Still by Horizon Pictures

Extensive location scouting helped to wedge a whole five years between the release of Bridge and the arrival of his next film Lawrence of Arabia. The film would become the calling card of  Lean’s directorial career. Based on the autobiography of TE Lawrence, the film would star the iconic Peter O’Toole in his first starring as TE Lawrence. O’Toole encompassed the role of Larwrence.  A battle would ensue between O’Toole and Lean’s wide sweeping panaramas by Lean’s camera of the desert for the audience’s attention and would help to insure its place in film history as an important  and necessary work of art.

Lawrence of Arabia
Photo by Columbia Pictures                 

Dr. Zhivago would be the last entry in David Lean’s trilogy of epics. Based on the 20th century Russian novelist Boris Pasternak’s 1957 book of the same title. It told the story of two Russians whose forbidden love clashed with the 1917 Russian Revolution. Lean already had a treatment ready when he went looking for a producer.

Dr. Zhivago
Photo by MGM

His search would unearth Italian mega-producer Carlo Ponti. The husband of actress Sophia Loren, Ponti was on the lookout for English language films for his wife to help bolster her standing in the film industry. Ponti would be a good fit for Lean because both wanted to make big blockbuster films. Lean had proved it still possible in the belt tightening days of the 1960s.

Dr. Zhivago would hit the mark, both style was and at the box ofhave  rfice. However, it’s three hour running time turned off most film critics but it did little to hurt the earning power of the film, making $111.7 Million dollars on an $11 Million dollar budget. According to Wikipedia the film would be nominated for ten Academy Awards and won only half of them.


David Lean was a true film constructionist. Without the aid of CG, Lean and his crew would have to create the visuals hands on. We get three films that have beautiful,  lush visuals. Lean’s work laid a blue print of how to shoot a blockbuster film and make it a work of art in the process. These endeavors are what make David Lean an important director.