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Lord Puttnam on David Lean

27 May 2008
Lord Puttnam CBE receiving his Academy Fellowship in 2006.BAFTA

Speaking at the opening ceremony of The David Lean Room at 195 Piccadilly in 1999, the Academy’s then Vice-President, Lord Puttnam, paid tribute to the master film maker.

“I feel privileged to have known David - unquestionably one of the giants of modern British cinema.

I talked with him for awhile about our working together on Out of Africa. I couldn’t see it as a movie – he was proved right!

Later, when I became chairman of Columbia, we set about restoring Lawrence of Arabia to its original, pristine glory – a project which I know filled David with joy, and which I regard as one of the most important things I set in train during my short time at the studio.

David was a director completely enraptured by beauty.

Whether it be Pip roaming the marshes of the Thames Estuary in Great Expectations or Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia wandering the desert sands, his films continually conjure up a romanticism that stands in stark contrast to the then dominant British tradition of fairly dour realism.

David was a director completely enraptured by beauty…

At the height of his powers, in Lawrence or even earlier in Bridge over the River Kwai, David displayed a command of cinematic scale and spectacle which has rarely been surpassed. Little wonder that Steven Spielberg, who shares David’s taste for creating images on a large canvas, should regularly cite him as a major influence. He was truly, as an American critic once put it: “a poet of the far horizon.”

While he was preparing to make Doctor Zhivago, David was greatly struck by a quote from Tolstoy: “The more a man devotes himself to beauty, the further he moves away from goodness.” Despite his taste for the big subject, to his eternal credit, David never succumbed to the kind of comfortable mediocrity offered by the mainstream Hollywood machine.

For, as anyone who ever had the slightest contact with him can attest, David was, most certainly, his own man. That was his armour, the root of his creative strength. In an era of diminished, even impoverished cinematic ambition, his sense of purpose is sorely missed.

At a time when mainstream cinema has become increasingly dominated by technological wizardry, his career was a testament to the fact that cinema, at its best, is fundamentally driven by those with vision, courage and genuine belief in creativity, rather than those who are merely commercially well-informed and technically competent.

“I think we’re only at the beginning of making movies,” David once said. I believe he could be right. But only if we lift our spirits and ambitions to the level of what’s ‘possible’, rather than settling for what’s merely practical. Only if we’re prepared to invest in the future instead of obsessively squeezing every last scent out of the product and feeding it straight to the bottom line.

We should be using these new found revenues, from the exploitation of new media – DVD and so on – to reinvest in the future, in nurturing and developing talent for that future. But will we – the jury remains out!

I’m delighted that BAFTA has named this room after David. It is an entirely fitting tribute, helping to ensure that David’s name and achievements live on, hopefully to inspire a new generation of filmmakers.”