The Epics Of David Lean

Author: Constantine Santa

David Lean’s career can be split into two halves: the classic artistic and critical successes he made between 1942 – 1955 and the five epics he made over a 27 year period. This book focuses on these later epic films. These were: The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and A Passage to India (1984). A final chapter also has a look at a final film which Lean was working on and never realised, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Nostromo’. These films faced less in the way of critical plaudits, but much in the way of Oscars, awards and box-office returns. Santas’s book covers each of these films in a neat chapter as well as in the introduction where he studies the epic qualities of Lean’s films and some final chapters and appendixes covering his filmography, epic projects that failed to materialise and DVD and video reviews going into the quality of the said DVDs and extras which are included on the discs.


With this book the author only really scratches the surface on looking at what makes a film an epic; what are the epic qualities of a film: is it to do with length, is it location shooting, a big cast, a big budget or is it widescreen vistas? He fails to mention earlier epics and their influences in any detail in setting his stall out or comparing Lean with these; he only mentions in passing the likes of D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille, Gone with the Wind, The Robe (made in 1953 this was the first film in Cinemascope) and thereby not setting out the precedents to Lean’s classics. He does, however, go into the artistic struggles of the director but this book is more about the literary roots of Lean’s films as much as about there epic qualities or even Lean himself. The author goes into as much detail with the writing style of Lean’s long term collaborator and screenwriter, Robert Bolt as much as Lean himself. Santas, himself an English professor in Florida delves deep into the literary sources of the films. It was my conclusion that he used the epic films of Lean to isolate some key later works. He could just have easily continued this with looking at the literary sources of his early films: adaptations of Noel Coward plays and short stories for his early films, his two Charles Dickens adaptations and an adaptation of a lesser known H.G. Wells story. Therefore, maybe it is just the title that is a little misleading and not the book itself. Santas explores the literary origins such as the basis of The Bridge on the River Kwai which was originally a novel by a French author, Pierre Boulle who had experienced similar sufferings in the war in the East, a biography on T.E. Lawrence, adaptations from novels by Boris Pasternak and E.M. Forster for Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India retrospectively and a loose adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ transferred from a provincial French village to a coastal Irish town set during the early days of the troubles for Ryan’s Daughter.


The author opens his book on how the seeds of an idea and the influences of this book came with his experiences of watching Lean’s films for the first time on their initial release before going into some of the epic style of Lean’s films and covering briefly his earlier classics. He then breaks each of the epics down into individual chapters. On many occasions throughout the book Santas references and quotes from the laserdisc and DVD releases and the extras included on these. In some ways I wish other authors of monographs or genres would do something similar. Of course these can become outdated quickly, but it does help those in search of the films determine which are the better editions or versions to own and even quotes from the commentary and extras on some of the discs. There is an appendix at the back which not only gives a filmography of his early films but also reviews DVDs of all of Lean’s films. However, unless otherwise stated these are Region 1 DVD reviews.


Chris Hick

Share this!