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Sir David Lean (1908-1991)

28 May 2008
David Lean being presented with an Award by Princess Anne at the Film and Television Awards in the Royal Albert Hall on 6 March 1974. Sir Sidney Samuelson looks on.BAFTA Archive

A master of visual storytelling and one of the early champions of the Academy in the 1940s, David Lean retains a special place in the history of British Film.

From a love-struck couple in a Lancashire station cafe to a tiny figure shimmering on a desert horizon, the films of Sir David Lean have provided cinema with some of its most memorable moments. Although he directed only 16 feature films in a 40 year career, Lean remains one of Britain’s most revered and inspirational film-makers.

Born on 25 March 1908 in Croydon, Surrey, David Lean started his career in film in the late 1920s as a clapper boy before editing around twenty-five films including The Night Porter (1930), Pygmalion (1938) and Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) and One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942).

His first film in the director’s chair saw him work in partnership with Noel Coward on In Which We serve (1942) and he worked with Coward twice more before going solo in 1945 with Brief Encounter.

It wasn’t until 1957 that Lean moved towards a more 'epic' style of film-making, producing and directing The Bridge On the River Kwai which won him enormous commercial and critical success. Over the next ten years or so he produced or directed three more big-budget epics including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970).

Lean’s final film, A Passage to India, was completed in 1984 and won him a host of BAFTA nominations. He was knighted the same year but died seven years later of pneumonia on 16 April 1991 whilst preparing to film his adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo.

A Founding Father

As well as creating films with sweeping historical narratives, Sir David also had a huge impact on the history of the Academy. He was among the eminent film industry members who established the British Film Academy on 16 April 1947 and became Chairman soon afterwards, guiding the BFA in its early years.

Recognising his unique contribution to the film industry the Academy made Lean a Fellow of the Academy in 1974 and a year later he donated the royalties from Dr Zhivago and The Bridge on the River Kwai to the Society of Film and Television Arts (later to become BAFTA).

This year sees centenary anniversary celebrations of Lean’s birth, which is fitting, as his legacy is still part of the Academy’s ongoing work and focus on excellence. It was telling that in our 60th anniversary year, BAFTA Members voted Lawrence of Arabia their favourite film of all time.