Lean, accompanied by screenwriter David Bolt, offers his argument against improvised filmmaking and for story in film.
By Barbara Alexandra Szerlip
The 1970 Film Festival welcomed renowned British director David Lean to San Francisco for the first West Coast screening of his newly restored Oliver Twist. Originally released in 1949, the movie had been viciously cut when first debuted, the result of criticism by a small group of New York–based censors who declared Alec Guinness’s portrayal of Fagin to be anti-Semetic. The result was a compromised film lacking in subtlety.
The Festival’s audience was treated to what David Thomson would describe, years later, as a cinematic experience “ravishing still: magnificent in its period recreation, its rank city and its evil.” It was, he continued “greedily edited and beautifully designed … shot in sooty shadow and imperiled light, with great performances.”
Lean had made only four films during the previous 15 years, but those included The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1966), earning 25 Academy Awards and numerous critical awards and festival honors.
Screenwriter Robert Bolt accompanied Lean to the Festival and the two shared the podium for a Q&A session preceding a screening of Lean’s 1945 film, Blithe Spirit. Bolt (author of A Man for All Seasons) was the scribe behind Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and the soon-to-be-released Ryan’s Daughter (which starred Bolt’s wife, Sarah Miles). According to local reviewer Stanley Eichelbaum, the questions offered by the audience (“Why are there so many trains in your films?”) were “sophomoric” and “hardly up to the intelligence level of both men.”
Asked why he made big, commercial films, Lean responded, “That’s what we can do far better than television. I hate the small box, which is only suitable for small films.” Added Bolt, “I think human life merits the grand treatment.”
In response to a belligerent question regarding improvised filmmaking (this was the late 1960s), Lean explained, “I don’t know any great art that can possibly be improvised—be it a Beethoven symphony, a Graham Sutherland painting or a Hepplewhite chair.” Such an approach “is no more than an excuse for a lack of content.” Added Bolt, “When Picasso doodles while talking on the phone, it’s still a doodle and not a Picasso. Anarchic films are never professional, and improvisation creates nothing but sweat-making artificiality.”
“Bullshit,” shouted the young man who had asked the question, but the majority of the audience showed their appreciation to the two Brits onstage with a long burst of applause.
Along with the screenings of Oliver Twist and Blithe Spirit, Festival audiences were treated to a five-hour sampling from the Lean’s polished oeuvre that included In Which We Serve (a WWII melodrama), Brief Encounter (1946), Great Expectations (1946), Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Zhivago.
“My attitude toward making a picture is based on advice Noel Coward gave me long ago,” Lean observed in an interview during his San Francisco visit. “It is to please yourself. And if you show over a period of time that you don’t please others, then you’re in the wrong business.”
“I know this, “ he continued. “Ten percent of the audience likes a poor horror film. Ten percent likes an intellectual idea. I won’t do the first and I can’t do the second. I want the middle, and that’s what I go for. I tell the story.” In a similar interview, Bolt mentioned that he liked to create period pieces “because of the distance between me and the characters. Even Shakespeare never wrote of contemporary London.”
Both men were in the midst of a transcontinental tour to promote their latest, soon-to-be-released collaboration, Ryan’s Daughter, about a 20-year-old girl who is approaching adulthood in an isolated coastal village just after the 1916 Irish uprising against British rule. The story was about the greed of young love and the havoc it can cause and how one adjusts aspirations to reality without abandoning those aspirations entirely. To capture Lean’s vision on film, the crew waited out the Irish weather for several months for the requisite beach storm scene, then chained the cameras to the rocks in order to shoot in the freezing winds.
“After Zhivago,” Lean explained, “I didn’t want to do an epic, nor did I want a little gem. That can wait until I’m old. I wanted to do a love story that would have emotional size.” Added Bolt, “David wanted to do Flaubert’s Madame Bovary but we disagreed over the novelist’s inability to make allowances for the youth of the woman.” The film took shape during a lengthy correspondence between the two men over a period of a year, then took another year to shoot.
The 62-year-old Lean—who bequeathed to the cinema-viewing public such memorable images as Miss Havisham’s rat-gnawed wedding cake, Fagin biting into a greasy sausage, a flustered Katharine Hepburn on the Piazza San Marco, and Zhivago’s death while running after a tram where he spots his long-lost love—lived long enough to create one last “gem.” A Passage to India was released in 1984, seven years before his death.