David Lean would’ve celebrated his 112th birthday on March 25, 2020. The Oscar-winning director became famous for a series of visual striking, technically ambitious epics, but how many of those titles remain classics? In honor of his birthday, let’s take a look back at all 16 of his films, ranked worst to best.
Born in 1908, Lean cut his teeth as a film editor, cutting a number of prominent movies including “49th Parallel” (1941) and “One of Our Aircraft Is Missing” (1942) for his contemporary, Michael Powell. He transitioned into directing, working alongside acclaimed playwright Noel Coward with “In Which We Serve” (1942). The WWII Naval epic was a joint venture for the two, with Coward (who also wrote and starred) handling the acting scenes and Lean tackling the action sequences.
He earned his first Oscar nominations for writing and directing “Brief Encounter” (1945), a big screen version of Coward’s play about two strangers (Trevor Howard and Best Actress nominee Celia Johnson) who fall in love after a chance meeting on a train. He competed again for writing and directing the Charles Dickens adaptation “Great Expectations” (1946) and for helming the Katharine Hepburn romantic drama “Summertime” (1955). (“Brief Encounter” and “Great Expectations” contended at the 1946 and 1947 Oscars respectively, since they didn’t open in the U.S. until the year after their British premiere.)
Lean turned towards epic filmmaking with “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), a WWII drama about a British Colonel (Alec Guinness) in a Japanese P.O.W. camp assisting his captors in the construction of a railway bridge. The film swept the Oscars, bringing Lean his first victory for Best Director and earning six additional prizes, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Guinness.
Five years passed before his next feature hit screens: the massive, gargantuan epic “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), which centers on British officer T.E. Lawrence‘s (Peter O’Toole in his screen debut) efforts to unite the Arabs in their fight against the Turks during WWI. Shot in the desert for two years on 70mm, the film came to define the Lean style of meticulously crafted event pictures. Once again, Lean won the Oscar for directing, and “Lawrence” also took Best Picture plus five more trophies.
Lean competed again for directing another saga, the five-time Oscar-winning Russian romance “Doctor Zhivago” (1965). His next film, “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970), was a critical and financial failure (albeit an Academy Award-winning one that brought him a DGA bid). The reception hurt him so much that he took a 14 year break from filmmaking before returning with the E.M. Forster adaptation “A Passage to India” (1984), which brought him Oscar bids for writing, directing, and film editing. It was his final feature. (During the intervening years between features, he attempted to mount a two-part version of “Mutiny on the Bounty.”)
In addition to his Oscar wins, Lean received the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award and the BAFTA Fellowship in 1974, as well as the AFI Lifetime Achievement prize in 1990. He was knighted in 1984.
Tour our photo gallery of Lean’s 16 films, including a few for which he should’ve won Oscars.
16. MADELEINE (1950)
Written by Stanley Haynes and Nicholas Phipps. Starring Ann Todd, Ivan Desny, Norman Wooland.
One of the director’s rare misfires (and reportedly his least favorite film), “Madeleine” doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from any other story about a respectable woman put on trial for murdering her lover. Lean’s then-wife Ann Todd gives a fine performance as the title character, an aristocratic Scotswoman accused of killing a debonaire Frenchman (Ivan Desny). Despite a typically lush production, there’s something rather cold and aloof about the whole thing, which is odd considering its steamy source material.
15. THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS (1949)
Screenplay by Eric Ambler, Stanley Haynes, and David Lean, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. Starring Ann Todd, Claude Rains, Trevor Howard.
This adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel is respectable enough, albeit rather forgettable. Ann Todd (the director’s then-wife) stars as a woman who just can’t give up the man she loves (Trevor Howard) despite being married to an uptight banker (Claude Rains). Nine years after their last meeting, they run into each other while vacationing in the Swiss Alps, and decide to have one last fling. While Todd and Howard are fine as the former lovers, Rains is the real standout as the jilted husband.
14. RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970)
Written by Robert Bolt. Starring Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, Christopher Jones, John Mills, Leo McKern, Sarah Miles.
The nadir of Lean’s epics, “Ryan’s Daughter” contains scenes of brilliance surrounded by scenes that miss the mark spectacularly. Like “Doctor Zhivago,” this is a romantic drama played out against the backdrop of history, this time the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland. Yet the love triangle at the center between an Irish schoolteacher (Robert Mitchum), his wife (Sarah Miles), and a British officer (Christopher Jones) feels rather lightweight, and nearly buckles under the weight of the film’s gigantic scope. Yet there’s so much that works within its three-and-a-half hour runtime that it’s hard to dismiss outright. John Mills won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for playing the village idiot, as did cinematographer Freddie Young. Lean competed at the DGA and BAFTA, but was snubbed at the Academy.
13. THE SOUND BARRIER (1952)
Written by Terence Rattigan. Starring Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd, Nigel Patrick, John Justin, Denholm Elliott.
The best of the three films Lean made with his former wife, Ann Todd, this rousing historical adventure details the efforts of British aerospace engineers to break the sound barrier. Ralph Richardson is the wealthy owner of an aircraft company who hires his son-in-law (Nigel Patrick), a successful wartime fighter pilot, to test these new jets, causing a rift with his daughter (Todd). The documentary-style aerodynamic sequences are thrilling, as is the human drama on the ground. An Oscar winner for its sound and a nominee for Terence Rattigan’s screenplay. Also released as “Breaking the Sound Barrier.”
12. BLITHE SPIRIT (1945)
Screenplay by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame, based on the play by Noel Coward. Starring Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford, Hugh Wakefield, Joyce Carey, Jacqueline Clarke.
Lean teamed up with playwright Noel Coward for four feature films, three of which were adapted from some of his best-known stage hits. “Blithe Spirit” casts Rex Harrison as a writer who invites a medium (Margaret Rutherford, a real hoot) to conduct a seance in his living room, hoping to spark inspiration for his new book. Instead, he gets the spirit of his dead wife (Kay Hammond), who complicates things with his living one (Constance Cummings). A hidden gem that breaks free of its stage roots thanks to some stunning, Oscar-winning special effects.
11. THIS HAPPY BREED (1944)
Screenplay by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and Ronald Neame, based on the play by Noel Coward. Starring Robert Newton, Celia Johnson, Stanley Holloway, John Mills, Kay Walsh.
Adapted from Noel Coward’s epic stage play, “This Happy Breed” examines two decades in the life of an ordinary British family in the years between World War I and World War II. Robert Newton and Celia Johnson are at the center as Frank and Ethel Gibbons, the parents to three children whose lives are affected by tragedy and triumph. Lean creates several strikingly lush images with the help of cinematographer Ronald Neame (who also co-wrote the script), and the able cast — including John Mills, Kay Walsh, and Stanley Holloway — are both endearing and heartbreaking in their portrayals.
10. OLIVER TWIST (1948)
Screenplay by David Lean and Stanley Haynes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Starring Alec Guinness, Robert Newton, Kay Walsh, John Howard Davies, Anthony Newley.
In both “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist,” Lean managed to pare Charles Dickens’ massive novels down to their essences without sacrificing any of their nuances. All due respect to the musical “Oliver!” (1968), this is the best adaptation of the oft-told story of a little orphan boy (John Howard Davies) who falls in with a group of young thieves. The film drew considerable controversy for Alec Guinness’s portrayal of the pickpocket Fagin, whose extensive makeup (based on original illustrations in the novel by George Cruickshank) was considered by many to be anti-Semitic. Questionable acting aside, this is a handsome production, thanks to moody black-and-white cinematography by Guy Green and noirish set design by John Bryan that gives the whole thing a brooding sense of dread.
9. IN WHICH WE SERVE (1942)
Directed by Noel Coward and David Lean. Written by Noel Coward. Starring Noel Coward, John Mills, Bernard Miles, Celia Johnson, narrated by Leslie Howard.
“In Which We Serve” marked the directorial career of both Lean, then a prominent film editor, and Noel Coward, a celebrated playwright. Coward, who also wrote the screenplay, handled the acting scenes, and commissioned Lean to shoot the action sequences. The results are a powerfully affecting war drama about the crew of a British Navy destroyer in World War II (including Coward himself as the captain), told through flashbacks from the survivors of the torpedoed ship. The film earned Oscar nominations in Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, while Coward was given a special achievement certificate for his efforts. Lean, meanwhile, proved his abilities at handling a complicated production while not sacrificing story, kicking off a long and successful filmmaking career.
8. HOBSON’S CHOICE (1954)
Screenplay by David Lean, Norman Spencer, and Wynyard Browne, based on the play by Harold Brighouse. Starring Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie, John Mills, Daphne Anderson, Prunella Scales.
Lean wasn’t exactly known for his sense of humor, which makes a movie like “Hobson’s Choice” so surprisingly refreshing. Based on Harold Brighouse’s long-running play, the film stars Charles Laughton as the blustering, bombastic Henry Hobson, a boot maker who reigns supreme over his three daughters. When his eldest child, the spinster Maggie (Brenda De Banzie), falls in love with his assistant (John Mills), he refuses to pay her dowry, so they set up a rival boot shop of their own. A heartwarming comedic gem featuring a typically hammy, scenery-chewing performance from Laughton. The BAFTAs rewarded it with their Best British Film prize and four other nominations, including Best Screenplay for Lean, Norman Spencer, and Wynyard Browne, plus acting bids for Mills and Banzie.
7. SUMMERTIME (1955)
Screenplay by H.E. Bates and David Lean, based on the play by Arthur Laurents. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi, Darren McGavin, Isa Miranda.
“Summertime” kicked off Lean’s cinematic trips abroad after more than a decade of directing in his native England, pointing the way towards his more epic, exotic features. It’s narrative is deceptively simple: a lonely American school secretary (Katharine Hepburn) falls in love with a handsome Italian man (Rossano Brazzi) while vacationing in Vienna, only to have her heart broken when she discovers he’s married. Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography captures the locale in all its visual splendor, while Hepburn gives a performance that is devastating in its restraint. Both Lean and his star earned Oscar nominations, losing to Delbert Mann (“Marty”) and Anna Magnani (“The Rose Tattoo”), respectively.
6. A PASSAGE TO INDIA (1984)
Screenplay by David Lean, based on the novel by E.M. Forster. Starring Peggy Ashcroft, Judy Davis, James Fox, Alec Guinness, Nigel Havers, Victor Banerjee, Roshan Seth.
Lean was so devastated by the failure of “Ryan’s Daughter” that he took a 14 year hiatus from filmmaking, during which an ambitious, two-part adaptation of “Mutiny on the Bounty” was also scrapped. He emerged triumphant with his final cinematic outing, “A Passage to India.” Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, it explores racism, imperialism, and sexuality in the story of an Englishwoman (Judy Davis) who accuses an Indian doctor (Victor Banerjee) of attempted rape while on vacation. As expected, the landscapes of India are shot with majesty and elegance. The Academy showered the film with 11 nominations including Best Picture, plus directing, writing, and editing nominations for Lean. Peggy Ashcroft won Best Supporting Actress for playing Davis’ companion, Mrs. Moore, while Maurice Jarre triumphed for his score.
5. BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)
Screenplay by Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, and Ronald Neame, based on the play ‘Still Life’ by Noel Coward. Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg, Margaret Barton.
The last of Lean’s Noel Coward adaptations (and also the best), “Brief Encounter” tells the simple yet powerful story of a married woman (Best Actress nominee Celia Johnson) who falls in love with a stranger (Trevor Howard) after a chance meeting on a train. Their mutual attraction blossoms into a full-on love affair that could upend her entire life, but sensibility stands in the way of happiness. Robert Krasker’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography casts the romance in shadows and fog, pointing towards the eventual heartbreak at the end. The film was an international success, bringing Lean to the attentions of American audiences and earning him his first Oscar nominations in writing and directing.
4. GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)
Screenplay by David Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Cecil McGivern, Ronald Neame, and Kay Walsh, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. Starring John Mills, Anthony Wager, Jean Simmons, Valerie Hobson, Alec Guinness, Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie.
“Great Expectations” casts a spell on us thanks to its haunting imagery and operatic emotions. Though heavily edited, it retains all the drama and nuance of Charles Dickens’ novel about Pip, from his days as a poor orphan (Tony Wager) living with a blacksmith to his refinement into a gentleman (John Mills) thanks to a mysterious benefactor. Through it all he loves the cold and uncaring Estella (played by Jean Simmons as a teen and Valerie Hobson as an adult), who has been raised by the eccentric spinster Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) to be a heartbreaker. The film is a marvel of art direction and cinematography (both of which it won Oscars for), particularly in the creation of Miss Haveshim’s decrepit mansion, which feels right out of a horror movie. Lean earned nominations for writing and directing the Best Picture nominee.
3. DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965)
Screenplay by Robert Bolt, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak. Starring Geraldine Page, Julie Christie, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness, Siobhan McKenna, Ralph Richardson, Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger, Rita Tushingham.
Lean followed up the Oscar-winning successes of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Lawrence of Arabia” with “Doctor Zhivago,” an epic romance set against the Russian Revolution that critics felt paled in comparison to his earlier triumphs. And yes, this story of a married physician and poet (Omar Sharif) who falls in love with a political activist’s wife (Julie Christie) is at times soapy and credulity-straining. Yet its scope and majesty far outweighs its narrative weaknesses, and the director’s meticulous attention to detail makes for a stunningly beautiful production. Rod Steiger is outstanding as a ruthless businessman, as are Supporting Actor nominee Tom Courtenay as a deranged revolutionary and Geraldine Chaplin as Zhivago’s devoted wife. The film won five Oscars out of 10 nominations, competing for Best Picture and earning Lean another bid as Best Director.
2. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)
Screenplay by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle. Starring William Holden, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald.
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” was Lean’s first foray into epic filmmaking, and although the scale was bigger, his focus on character and theme remain as tightly focused as it was in his smaller features. Alec Guinness stars as a British Colonel newly arrived to a WWII Japanese P.O.W. camp who, after butting heads with the camp’s commander (Sessue Hayakawa), agrees to help build a railway bridge for his captors. Meanwhile, the Allies try to destroy it. Both Guinness and Hayakawa are driven by obsession and honor, their mission representing either a triumph or a failure for their respective countries. The film’s grande finale, with the bridge exploding and toppling with a train atop, remains stunning in its technical prowess. “Kwai” won seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Guinness).
1. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
Screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, based on ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ by T. E. Lawrence. Starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Omar Sharif.
As good an example of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” as you could get, “Lawrence of Arabia” represents some bold act of madness on the part of Lean, which is appropriate given the character at its center. A 216-minute epic about T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole in his screen debut), the English officer who united the Arab tribes in their fight against the Turks during World War I, the film continues to inspire and enchant moviegoers with its spellbinding imagery and epic scope. O’Toole is equally mesmerizing as a man obsessed with his own greatness and perpetually at odds with the world around him. It’s a perfect match for Lean’s own perfectionism: the director shot for two years in the desert, fixating over every 70mm frame, creating a work that towers above mainstream filmmaking. “Lawrence” swept the Oscars, winning seven prizes including Best Picture and Best Director.