David Lean
Birth Date:
March 25, 1908
Birth Place:
Croydon, Surrey, England, UK
Famous for:
Director of 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962)
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The Bridge on the River Kwai


“Film is a dramatized reality and it is the director's job to make it appear real. An audience should not be conscious of technique.” David Lean

British film director, writer and producer Sir David Lean CBE was widely recognized for directing the great epics “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). He won Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards for the films, not to mention many other awards and nominations. A former tea boy for the Gaumont-British studio, Lean first gained notice in the cinematic industry as a film editor thanks to his work for directors such as Anthony Asquith, Paul Czinner and Michael Powell, before stepping behind the camera as the co-director of Noel Coward's “In Which We Serve” (1942). His solo directorial effort, “This Happy Breed,” followed in 1944. From then on, Lean made a name for himself with popular adaptations such as “Brief Encounter” (1945, netted two Oscar nominations), “Great Expectations” (1946, earned two Oscar nominations), “Oliver Twist” (1948), “Hobson's Choice” (1954), “Summertime” (1955, received an Oscar nomination), “Doctor Zhivago” (1965, earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award) and the drama “The Sound Barrier” (1952). After the disappointing “Ryan's Daughter” (1970), Lean did not direct another film for 14 years until “A Passage to India” (1984), which he also scripted and edited. He picked up three Academy Award nominations and two Golden Globe nominations for his work on the film. It marked Lean's last film before he became ill and eventually passed away from throat cancer in 1991.

Lean was named the ninth greatest film director of all time in the British Film Institute Sight & Sound “Directors Top Directors” poll in 2002. Four of his films charted in the top eleven of British Film Institute's “Top 100 British Films.” Lean received DGA Honorary Life Member Award's Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1973 Directors Guild of America Awards and the Academy Fellowship from the BAFTA Awards in 1974. In 1990, he was honored with the Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute.

Lean was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1973 and was knighted eleven years later in 1984

Tea Boy

Childhood and Family:

David Lean was born on March 25, 1908, in Croydon, Surrey, England, to Quakers Francis William le Blount Lean, who was a senior partner of the accounting firm Viney, Price and Goodyear in London, and Helena Annie Lean. Along with his younger brother, Edward Tangye Lean (born in 1911), David was raised in a strict spiritual household where the kids were not allowed to go to the theater. When he was 12 years old, he was given a camera by his uncle and soon developed a love for photography. Lean was educated at the Quaker founded Leighton Park School in Reading.

David landed a job in a cinema studio in 1927. Starting off with odd jobs such as tea boy, clapper boy and messenger, David moved on to become a newsreel editor in the early 1930s and by the end of the decade, his editing career had been fully established. He made the leap to film directing in the early 1940s.

David had six marriages in his lifetime. On June 28, 1930, he married first wife Isabel Lean, but they later divorced in 1936. The marriage produced a son named Peter Lean. David next tied the knot with actress Kay Walsh (born in 1911, died in 2005) on November 23, 1940, but they divorced after nine years in 1949. On May 21, 1949, he married Ann Todd (born in 1909, died in 1993), also an actress, but they later separated in 1957. After being married to fourth wife Leila Matkar from July 4, 1960, to 1978, David exchanged wedding vows with Sandra Hotz (born in India) on October 28, 1981. He cast his wife in his movie “A Passage to India” (1984) before the couple divorced in 1984. David married his sixth wife, Sandra Cooke, on December 15, 1990, just four months before his death.

David passed away at age 83 from throat cancer on April 16, 1991.

Lawrence of Arabia


After a short stint in his father's accounting firm, 19 year old David Lean began his career with the Gaumont-British studio. First serving as a tea boy, he moved on to become a number board holder, messenger and camera assistant before graduating to newsreel editor. His early credits included “The Night Porter” (1930), “These Charming People” (1931),”The Ghost Camera” (1933), “Money for Speed” (1933), “Tiger Bay” (1934) and “Dangerous Ground” (1934). By the mid 1930s, Lean had made the jump to feature film editing, Making his debut with Paul Czinner's “Escape Me Never” (1935), he went on to work for Czinner in “As You Like It” (1936) and “Dreaming Lips” (1937) as well as for other directors.

In 1942, Lean had his first taste behind the camera as a director when Noel Coward gave him the opportunity to co-direct the film “In Which We Serve.” The film received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. Lean shared a Silver Condor for Best Foreign Film (Mejor Película Extranjera) at the 1944 Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards for his work on the film. Thanks to Coward's encouragement, Lean joined forced with cinematographer Ronald Neame and producer Anthony Havelock-Allan to form the production company Cineguild.

Under the banner of his new firm, Lean made his solo directorial debut with “This Happy Breed” (1944), based on Coward's 1939 play of the same name. He followed it up by directing the feature film adaptations “Blithe Spirit” and “Brief Encounter” (both 1945). A ghost story based on Coward's 1941 play of the same name, “Blithe Spirit” won an Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects, while the tender drama “Brief Encounter,” based on Coward's 1936 one act play “Still Life,” became a success in the U.K. and United States. The film brought Lean the Grand Prize of the Festival at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay, which he shared with partners Anthony Havelock-Allan and Ronald Neame.

In 1946, Lean directed “Great Expectations,” which was adapted from the Charles Dickens novel of the same name. He also co-wrote the script with Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame, Cecil McGivern, and Kay Walsh. Starring John Mills, Finlay Currie, Martita Hunt, and Alec Guinness, the drama earned good reviews and collected five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay. Lured by the success, he adapted another Dickens' book, “Oliver Twist” in 1948, with John Howard Davies starring as the title character. Scripted by Lean and Stanley Haynes and produced by Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, the film was a huge hit with the critics, but did not gain recognition at the Academy Awards. Lean was nominated for a Golden Lion at the 1948 Venice Film Festival for his work on “Oliver Twist.”

Lean next co-wrote the script and directed “The Passionate Friends” (1949), a romance film based on H.G. Wells' 1913 novel “The Passionate Friends: A Novel.” The film starred his then-wife Ann Todd. He again cast Todd for “Madeleine” (1950), Lean's last film for Cineguild. Both films failed to attract audiences.

In 1952, after a two year absence, Lean made a triumphant comeback with “The Sound Barrier” (1952), which he directed and produced. Written by Terence Rattigan and starring Ralph Richardson and Ann Todd, the aviation drama was a big commercial success in England and won significant recognition at the Academy Awards and BAFTA Awards. Lean was handed a 1952 National Board Review in the category of Best Director. In 1954, Lean directed Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie and John Mills in “Hobson's Choice,” which he also produced and co-wrote the script based on Harold Brighouse's play of the same name. The film won a BAFTA for Best British Film, not to mention BAFTA nominations for Best British Actor, Best British Actress, Best Film from any Source, and Best British Screenplay for Lean and his writing partners Norman Spencer and Wynyard Browne. Lean enjoyed further success with the Katharine Hepburn 1955 vehicle “Summertime,” which he directed and co-wrote the screenplay with H. E. Bates. An adaptation of Arthur Laurents' play “The Time of the Cuckoo,” the romantic drama was well received by critics and brought Lean the Best Director nomination and Hepburn the Best Actress nomination at the 1956 Academy Awards. Lean also picked up a New York Film Critics Circle for Best Director.

Following a string of Oscar nominations, Lean eventually took home his first statue for directing “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), which was adapted from Pierre Boulle's novel of the same title. Produced by Sam Spiegel, scripted by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson and starring William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and Sessue Hayakawa, the British WW II film was a worldwide victory and a success at the 1958 Academy Awards. In addition to Best Director, it amassed Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role (Alec Guinnes), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Music, Scoring, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing, as well as a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Lean also nabbed a Golden Globe Award, a Directors Guild of America Award, a National Board of Review Award and a New York Film Critics Circle Award.

Surrey was professionally quiet for several years after his Oscar win but when he resurfaced in 1962, he scored a massive hit with the epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” which marked his subsequent collaboration with the Austrian producer Sam Spiegel. Based on the life of T. E. Lawrence, the film starred Peter O'Toole and was nominated for ten Oscars. It won seven, including Best Director (for Lean) and Best Picture (for Spiegel) and many other awards and nominations.

Following an unaccredited stint in “George Stevens Presents The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), Lean scored another hit with “Doctor Zhivago” (also 1965), which was produced by Carlo Ponti. The epic, loosely based on the celebrated novel of the same name by Boris Pasternak, received extensive acceptance at the Oscars and Golden Globes, where Lean netted a nomination for Best Director at the first gala and a Best Motion Picture Director honor at the latter. He also earned a David for Best Foreign Director at the 1967 David di Donatello Awards, a BAFTA nomination for Best Film from any Source, and a Golden Palm nomination at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival.

Five years later, Lean directed “Ryan's Daughter” (1970), which was loosely based on the novel “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert. Produced by long time partner Anthony Havelock-Allan, the drama was a disappointment but won Oscars for Best Actor in Supporting Role and Best Cinematography. Lean was handed an Evening Standard British Film for Best Film, a BAFTA nomination for Best Direction, and a DGA nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures.

In 1979, Lean ventured to television when he directed the short “Lost and Found: The Story of Cook's Anchor,” written by Robert Bolt. He returned to the director's chair when he directed Judy Davis, Victor Banerjee, Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox and Alec Guinness for “A Passage to India” (1984), his first feature film in 14 years. For the movie, Lean based his script on E.M. Forster's 1924 novel of the same name. The film received rave reviews from film critics, performed well at the box office and was nominated for 11 Oscars, where it won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Peggy Ashcroft) and Best Music, Original Score (Maurice Jarre). For his effort, Lean earned Academy Awards nominations for Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Film Editing, Golden Globe nominations for Best Director - Motion Picture and Best Screenplay - Motion Picture, among other nominations.

After “A Passage to India,” Lean began work on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's novel “Nostromo.” However, the production was stopped when he became ill with throat cancer. Lean died from the disease on April 16, 1991, in London, England.

“My distinguishing talent is the ability to put people under the microscope, perhaps to go one or two layers farther down than some other directors.” David Lean


  • American Film Institute: Life Achievement Award, 1990

  • Kansas City Film Critics Circle (KCFCC): Best Director, “A Passage to India,” 1985

  • National Board of Review (NBR): Best Director, “A Passage to India,” 1984

  • New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC): Best Director, “A Passage to India,” 1984

  • Evening Standard British Film: Best Film, “Ryan's Daughter,” 1974

  • BAFTA: Academy Fellowship, 1974

  • Directors Guild of America (DGA): DGA Honorary Life Member Award, Lifetime Achievement Award, 1973

  • Laurel: 2nd place, Golden Laurel, Best Director, 1971

  • David di Donatello: David, Best Foreign Director (Migliore Regia Straniero), “Doctor Zhivago,” 1967

  • Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture Director, “Doctor Zhivago,” 1966

  • Laurel: Golden Laurel, Director, 1966

  • Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists: Silver Ribbon, Best Director - Foreign Film (Regista del Miglior Film Straniero), “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1964

  • Kinema Junpo: Best Foreign Language Film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1964

  • Oscar: Best Director, “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1963

  • Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture Director, “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1963

  • Directors Guild of America: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1963

  • Laurel: 3rd place, Golden Laurel, Top Director, 1963

  • National Board of Review (NBR): Best Director, “Lawrence of Arabia,” 1962

  • Oscar: Best Director, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1958

  • Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture Director, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1958

  • Directors Guild of America (DGA): Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1958

  • National Board of Review (NBR): Best Director, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1957

  • New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC ): Best Director, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” 1957

  • New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC): Best Director, “Summertime,” 1955

  • Berlin International Film Festival: Golden Berlin Bear, “Hobson's Choice,” 1954

  • National Board of Review (NBR): Best Director, “The Sound Barrier,” 1952

  • Cannes Film Festival: Grand Prize of the Festival, “Brief Encounter,” 1946

  • Argentinean Film Critics Association: Silver Condor, Best Foreign Film (Mejor Película Extranjera), “In Which We Serve,” 1944

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