David Lean directed Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence of Arabia is one of my very favourite movies. Ergo, David Lean is awesome.
Or rather, David Lean would be awesome if he'd only ever made that one movie. But he made plenty of other ones over the course of a long, varied career, which Cinematheque Ontario is celebrating with its Encounter David Lean series, beginning with a screening of Doctor Zhivago at 7 pm tonight (Friday).
This is the same Lean retrospective mounted by the British Film Institute earlier this summer to mark Lean's centenary - a fitting tribute for one of the most British of directors.
The BFI divided the series into two sections: Discover David Lean brought his earlier work back to the screen in lovely new prints, and threw in films on which Lean had toiled as an editor or an uncredited co-director while Rediscover David Lean explored his later epics, from The Bridge on the River Kwai to Ryan's Daughter.
Cinematheque is focusing exclusively on Lean's directorial credits, which streamlines the package somewhat. The 1965 behemoth Zhivago - Lean's most popular film, largely to its sappy romanticism and much-ballyhooed production values - is followed tomorrow at 8:45 pm by This Happy Breed, a 1944 adaptation of the Noël Coward play that's better known as a Coward work than a Lean film. Coward and Lean shared directorial credit for the wartime drama In Which We Serve, screening Sunday at 1 pm.
From there, we move through Lean's "smaller" films: Blithe Spirit (October 31, 9 pm), screening most appropriately on Halloween; Brief Encounter (November 2, 5:30 pm); the little-seen thriller Madeleine (November 7, 8:45 pm); the marvellous Dickens compressions Great Expectations (November 3, 7 pm) and Oliver Twist (November 9, 3 pm); Hobson's Choice (November 10, 8:45 pm); The Passionate Friends (November 15, 4 pm); The Sound Barrier (November 16, 6 pm). Brief Encounter and the Dickens films are available in fine Criterion DVDs, but it's going to be a while before any of the others makes it to disc, so see them while you can.
And finally, we come to the epics. Lean's last widescreen film, Ryan's Daughter (November 22, 2 pm) may not work very well - at one point, the director seems to literally lose sight of the intimate love story he's supposed to be telling within an epic wide shot - but it's got some fine moments.
A Passage to India (November 23, 5 pm) similarly veers toward the travelogue, with Lean wanting to deliver a larger picture than the material requires, but it's grounded by fine work from Judy Davis and Dame Peggy Ashcroft.
Summertime (November 25, 8:45 pm), a mirror image of Brief Encounter that finds Katharine Hepburn considering a romantic dalliance with Rossano Brazzi while vacationing in Venice, finds Lean making the most of his first real location shoot; the surroundings are suddenly as real as the characters moving within them. It's a key moment in Lean's evolution as a filmmaker.
Which brings us to Lawrence of Arabia (November 29, 2 pm), which stands as Lean's greatest accomplishment. I've watched it every couple of years since discovering Robert A. Harris' glorious restoration in 1989 - on VHS, on laserdisc, on DVD, and three or four times at the Cinesphere. And yes, there's a space on my shelf for the Blu-ray disc.
The four-hour running time never feels a moment too long. Lawrence is pure cinematic bliss - a stirring, thrilling war movie that also works as a terribly intimate portrait of a confused man clarified - and then destroyed - by the discovery of his own lusts. Peter O'Toole's vivid performance as the perpetually cloaked Lawrence made him an instant star; as his most faithful and most perceptive allies, respectively, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn became overnight sensations. The film also boasts one of Alec Guinness' greatest supporting turns as Lawrence's mentor and puppet master, Prince Faisal.
Some people prefer The Bridge on the River Kwai (December 6, 2 pm), and I suppose I can see that. It's an equally ambiguous story of wartime morality, with a more conventional adversarial relationship between Alec Guinness' POW and Sessue Hayakawa's commandant, and William Holden providing a strong heroic turn as the witness to their madness. Lawrence ultimately is a story about a man fighting himself; the closest thing the movie has to an opponent is the desert, and not just in a metaphorical sense.
And about that "most British" thing? I stand behind it: Lean was one of the few filmmakers who fully understood the clashing impulses of propriety and passion that define his countrymen. Think of O'Toole struggling to maintain his poise in the officers' club at the end of Lawrence's first half, or Guinness' moment of ultimate understanding in Kwai, or the entirety of Celia Johnson's heartbreaking performance in Brief Encounter. Now think of what's brought those characters to those points - how fully they've lived and breathed on the screen in front of us. How intimately we know them, even if we don't understand them, and never can.