David Lean died too young and too soon. Those are strange words to write of a man to whom death came at the age of 83 after a rich life and a glorious career, but they are true words all the same. Unlike his contemporary and countryman Graham Greene, whose death earlier this month at 87 came more than a decade after the publication of his last genuinely consequential novel, Lean still had important work to do; but now his adaptation of Joseph Conrad's great novel "Nostromo" cannot be filmed, and that is a terrible loss.
Obituary reports from London tell us that Lean died after a long illness. It can't have been all that long, because when I saw him there two years ago he had the energy, and to all outward appearances the health, of a man two decades his junior. This was in January of 1989. Lean was dutifully talking up the impending release of "Lawrence of Arabia" in its restored version, but his heart was across the channel in Spain, where he hoped soon to begin production of "Nostromo."
Like all of Lean's major films, from "The Bridge on the River Kwai" to "Lawrence of Arabia" to "A Passage to India," "Nostromo" had been lurching toward the screen in a series of melodramatic fits and starts. Lean had to raise a lot of money for his films, and backers were reluctant because they knew he spent a lot. But in the early winter of 1989 the money seemed to be in place, the screenplay by Lean and his collaborator, Robert Bolt, was more or less finished, the Spanish locations had been set, and casting was about to begin; soon Lean would be back at the business he did better than anyone ever has, the transformation of literature into film.
On the mantelpiece of his study stood what appeared to be a photograph but was in fact a montage, if not a mirage: a combination of several pictures into a scene of breathtaking beauty and majesty. It was an enlargement from the storyboard for "Nostromo," a series of mock-ups of the film's sets. It showed a great mountain rearing up behind a bright sea, with a tiny town at that place on the shore where sea and mountain met. It was the town of Sulaco, "tops of walls, a great cupola, gleams of white miradors in a vast grove of orange trees." That is how Conrad wrote it, and how Lean meant to film it.
It was my extraordinary good fortune to meet Lean at this exact moment. All the obstacles seemed to have been swept aside and he was free now to begin filming, which -- with the possible exception of film editing -- he loved above all else. The room crackled with the excitement he could scarcely contain as he showed off the storyboards, described the difficulties he and Bolt had faced in paring Conrad's populous, complicated novel down to a film that would not run more than 2 hours and 45 minutes, mused aloud about casting choices for the film's many inviting roles.
He was a man obsessed, as he freely, even happily, admitted. David Lean working on a film was a man with time and interest for nothing else in life, which goes a long way toward explaining how he managed to work through five wives and, at the end, a live-in attachment to a striking -- and much younger -- woman who made a brief appearance during our interview. Although at first encounter he did not seem to be a passionate man -- he was tall, almost as lean as his name, and bore himself with British reserve -- he had a passion for movies that had swept him away as a boy and dominated the rest of his life.
He made them as well as anyone else, maybe better. That of course is personal opinion masquerading as declarative statement, and it's opinion not widely shared in the tight little circles of haute film criticism. With a mixture of malice and bitterness, he talked about being bearded at the Algonquin Hotel in 1970 by "the New York Critics Circle, or whatever it's called, with Pauline Kael and that lot." He was subjected to "two hours of real grilling," the brunt of which was that the man who decades earlier had made "Brief Encounter" had now, with "Ryan's Daughter," entirely sold out.
He told the tale with a laugh, but there couldn't be much doubt that he wasn't all that amused -- a suspicion that was subsequently confirmed when I learned he had been telling the story for years. It clearly angered Lean that although he made epic films of surpassing power, beauty and technical skill, he was dismissed by the intelligentsia as old-fashioned, mechanical, unimaginative and -- worst of all -- "popular." How, the critics persisted in asking, could the man who made "Ryan's Daughter" and "Doctor Zhivago" be taken seriously? The question clearly gnawed at Lean, who seized every opportunity to defend himself, to me and to anyone else who asked.
He was a proud man. So far as the two films just mentioned are concerned, pride clouded self-understanding. "Doctor Zhivago" is over-earnest and clumsy, and much of its self-consciously epic scenery betrays the heavy hand of Hollywood; as for "Ryan's Daughter," its scenery is all too breathtakingly real but its people are all too embarrassingly cardboard. Toss in "Summertime," a lumbering attempt at romantic confection, and it had just as well be admitted: David Lean made more than one disappointing film, if never a downright bad one.
But every great artist occasionally does inferior work; the risk of failure is always there when you explore new territory, take brave risks. By contrast with his triumphs, Lean's failures are so small as to be irrelevant. If "Ryan's Daughter" is somehow part of the price we had to pay in order to be granted "Brief Encounter" and "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist" and "Kwai" and "Lawrence" and "A Passage to India," then what we should do is stop complaining and pay up gladly.
Lean's masterpieces -- the word is chosen with care -- rank with the best, and the most varied, work ever shown on the screen. He had a reputation for big, but he could do small: "Brief Encounter" is a near-perfect miniature. He had a reputation for solemnity, but he could do comedy: "Hobson's Choice" is a riot. He had a reputation for being better with cameras than with actors, but put these in your pipe and smoke it: Alec Guinness in "Oliver Twist" and "Kwai" and "Lawrence," Francis L. Sullivan in "Great Expectations," Charles Laughton in "Hobson's Choice," Celia Johnson in "Brief Encounter," Peggy Ashcroft and Victor Banerjee in "Passage," Peter O'Toole and Anthony Quinn and Jack Hawkins and Jose Ferrer and Claude Rains and, well, just about everyone else in "Lawrence."
For some reason Lean was better at adaptations than originals, although in his hands adaptations usually turned into originals. He had a rare gift for taking other people's material and making it his own without in the process corrupting it. Yes, there were complaints about his alteration of E.M. Forster's final twist in "Passage," but beside the extraordinary fidelity of the rest of the film it is a trivial departure. In "Lawrence" he managed to distill into a coherent whole not merely the numbingly exhaustive "Seven Pillars of Wisdom," T.E. Lawrence's own memoir, but the entire literature devoted to Lawrence and the Arab campaign.
He had a gift for storytelling that the best of novelists would, or should, envy. The plot of Boris Pasternak's vastly overrated "Doctor Zhivago" is awkward and confused; Lean not merely made sense of it, he made it move. He made everything move. Critics being such as too often they are, they held this against him. He was a "mere" storyteller, they charged, as though there were anything "mere" about keeping an audience screwed to its seats for hours on end.
What the critics failed to understand is that Lean didn't sacrifice an ounce of art while he made his films accessible and inviting to popular taste. He believed that people were intelligent enough to follow a serious story and to make sense of its deeper implications, and he gave them full measure without an ounce of condescension. The critics thought that because his films had story and characters and -- heaven forfend -- spectacle, they were the cinematic equivalent of novels by James Michener or Jeffrey Archer; but in fact they were the equivalent of books by the very authors whose work he adapted, among them -- put these in your pipe and smoke it -- Dickens and Forster and Conrad.
But what he did with Conrad we shall never see. What would Lean's "Nostromo" have been? We can only guess. He had pruned down the plot, as for cinematic purposes was necessary, and he had meticulous plans for what clearly would have been a dramatic setting, but you can have all of that you want and you aren't even close to having a finished movie. Still, on the evidence of his other films we are safe in making what seems to be reasonably intelligent conjecture.
To begin with, there would have been a delicate, unobtrusive balance between the intimate and the spectacular: What do you remember best about "The Bridge on the River Kwai," the massive bridge rising in the jungle or the private agony of Sessue Hayakawa's Japanese commandant? There would have been scenes of such loveliness and originality as quite literally to take away the breath: Remember -- for my money it is the greatest scene in the entire history of film -- the speck on the horizon that slowly crosses the shimmering desert heat and becomes a man called Sherif Ali Ibn el Kharish?
There would have been aching tenderness: Remember Celia Johnson saying farewell to Trevor Howard? There would also have been bursts of unexpected comedy: Remember Victor Banerjee's agonized preparations for the picnic with his English friends? There would have been irony: Remember the final scenes in "Lawrence," with the Arabs bitterly arguing after the victory they had briefly united to win? There would have been clashes between mutually uncomprehending cultures: Remember the British and Indians in "Passage," looking at each other across an abyss of misunderstanding?
Of course you remember. Anyone who has gone to the movies in the last half-century remembers, because David Lean was the author of some of the most vivid images the screen has known. He loved pictures and he understood words, a statement that can be made of almost no one now at work in Hollywood and of precious few anywhere else. Out of this he created films that managed to have both cinematic and literary validity, another statement that can be made of almost no one else.
What sort of man was he? Don't ask me. I spent four hours with him, for three of which the tape recorder was running; the final hour of chitchat was granted, I suspect, as a small favor in return for the publicity my interview would afford his films. I don't think he caught my name, and he may not even have known that of the publication I represented; he was doing his job, and I mine, and nothing else was transacted.
Still, he was polite and lively and good fun. He ordered up tea for the interview and, at its conclusion, a quick draught of good Scotch. He had plenty of opinions and wasn't reluctant to fire them off -- he loved Billy Wilder, didn't like "Gone With the Wind" or "Gandhi," thought John Huston was gifted but lazy -- but, just as I'd been warned, clammed up when personal questions were raised. He dressed casually, had an enviable shock of white hair, moved with the intimidating grace of a big old bear; probably it was more fun to interview him than to work with him.
He lived in a big apartment in a converted warehouse on the Thames far off in the East End, an area still in the precarious early stages of gentrification. The furniture was comfortable but the walls, the general air of the place, were cold; it felt as if its owner was in transit, as indeed in his heart he probably was. There were some nice pieces of exotic folk art and a lot of books scattered around, including, to my surprise and pleasure, "The New Confessions," the most recent novel by William Boyd.
Had he read it? Not yet, he said, but he knew it was based on the life of the legendary filmmaker Abel Gance, and he was eager to see what Boyd had made of the story. I wondered if he knew Boyd's earlier novel, "An Ice-Cream War." No, he didn't. Presumptuously, I said, "Well, Sir David, you could make an excellent film version of it." Since then I've had the same thought many times, indeed managed to convert it into a fond hope. I thought David Lean could live forever, could make all the movies I wanted him to. But we millions who loved his work will just have to make do with the ones he had time for. No doubt, we can manage somehow.