David Lean: Lessons in Manhood from an Epic Trilogy 

The best movie trilogy of all time isn’t really a trilogy. Its three constituent films that don’t share the same characters, setting, or plotline, but they do feature flawed manhood set against an epic backdrop. I’m speaking of 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, and 1965’s Doctor Zhivagoall directed by David Lean. With his vision and majesty, Lean has a lot to say to our current crop of men—whose idea of vision and majesty sadly seems to be confined to the size of the screens of their smart phones.

The films of David Lean are unabashedly erudite. Despite being an avowedly visual filmmaker, Lean sought out screenwriters who not only knew how to squeeze out excellent phrases, but were also able to present complicated, nuanced political and personal struggles in a dramatic, entertaining way.

Before reading any further, you really ought to go out and see the three aforementioned films first. But the problem is is that their epicness simply isn’t well-served on anything less than the big screen, and rare is the theater that shows them. I myself was lucky enough to see Lawrence of Arabia here in New York last summer at the BAM Harvey Theater, and it will remain one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences of my life. Sat in the front row.

So, despite your probably not having viewed this trilogy in its proper habitat, here are  a few überuseful lessons in manhood that can be gleaned from The BridgeLawrence, and Zhivago:

Think—and Try to Live—Epically

Contrary to popular opinion, real life is more like an epic movie than some mumblecore dramedy. The grandest statement ever about the awesomeness of existence was of course uttered by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who said:

What a piece of worke is a man! how Noble in Reason! how infinite in faculty! in forme and mouing how expresse and admirable! in Action, how like an Angel! in apprehension, how like a God! the beauty of the world, the Parragon of Animals; and yet to me, what is this Quintessence of Dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seeme to say so.

David Lean managed to inject all of the above into the medium of cinema: the awe-inspiring desert landscapes, the lush jungles, the frozen steppes, peopled by men vying for power and love and sometimes just bare existence. And sanity.

When you look at your own life, try to see the grandiosity, the beauty, the terror, in it. It’s an enlivening, dizzying perspective.

Relish Your Environment

Lean shot the majority of his films on location, and the natural beauty of these locations shines through. The desert (Lawrence of Arabia), the jungle (The Bridge on the River Kwai), the frozen North (Doctor Zhivago) are like unbilled lead actors in the films. Shooting on location—especially in ruggedly beautiful Nature—lends a physicality and visceralness and poeticism to Lean’s films that most movies unfortunately lack.

For environment—and the environment—matters. Remember: you are a physical being in the physical world. Drink in all the details around you—whether it’s frost melting on a window (Doctor Zhivago) or the shadow you cast on the sand (Lawrence of Arabia)Atheist or Believer or somewhere in between, these are the only miracles we really need.

Embrace the Intellectual

The films of David Lean are unabashedly erudite. Despite being an avowedly visual filmmaker, Lean sought out screenwriters who not only knew how to squeeze out excellent phrases, but were also able to present complicated, nuanced political and personal struggles in a dramatic, entertaining way.

Lawrence of Arabia in particular is intellectually hefty: one thinks of Lawrence’s delicate dance around the interests of the Bedouin and the British while at the same time trying to offset his burgeoning sado-masochism with his deep-set liberal humanism. The mystery and inconsistency of his personality is as fascinating as that of Hamlet’s.

Here are a couple pieces of dialogue to serve as evidence (the first from Zhivago and the second from Lawrence), which display a playfulness with ideas and words very rarely exhibited in today’s movies—or in today’s men, who often mistake snark for wit:

Zhivago: It seems you’ve burnt the wrong village.

PashaThey always say that, and what does it matter? A village betrays us, a village is burned. The point’s made.

ZhivagoYour point—their village.

Officer (trying to hold on to a lit match as it burns down): Ooh! It damn well hurts!

Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.

OfficerWhat’s the trick then?

Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

Flawed Heroism Is the Only Heroism There Is

The closest Hollywood has come to making Lean-style epics was with Braveheart in 1995 and Gladiator in 2000. Unfortunately, both films depicted two-dimensional he-men, the absolute opposite of what Lean offers up.

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, we have Colonel Nicholson. Nicholson is headstrong, cold, quixotic, yet he’s also admirable in his work ethic and staunch love of order. In Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence lies to others and to himself and admits to enjoying killing people, yet there’s a core of charisma and compassion to him that transcends all ills.

And, in Doctor Zhivago, we have the character of the same name blatantly carrying on an adulterous affair, and yet we cheer him on. My parents, a stoutly traditional, thoroughly monogamous couple, tacitly gave Zhivagoand, by connection, cheating—its sanction when we watched this film together when I was a boy. Offering no comment on Zhivago’s poetical infidelity, they implicitly gave it their stamp of approval.

Criticize Your Country

Two of the three films (Bridge and Lawrence) are a meditation on Britishness. Lean was born in Surrey, England, you see, and being hatched at the very height of and witnessing the crumbling of the British Empire must have left its mark on him.

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean delivers a denunciation of the “jolly good” attitude of his countrymen through the mouth of the American officer Shears:

You make me sick with your heroics! There’s a stench of death about you… with you it’s just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman… how to die by the rules—when the only important thing is how to live like a human being.

And in Lawrence of Arabia, we have this humorous exchange between the title character and his Arab guide:

Tafas (talking of Britain)Is that a desert country?

LawrenceNo. A fat country. Fat people.

TafasYou are not fat?

Lawrence: No. I’m different.

Hesitancy to criticize one’s own culture and/or country betrays a telling insecurity—and also an intellectual and ethical dishonesty. Lean, obviously, felt no such insecurity.

Shun Extremes

In Lawrence of Arabia, it’s clear that Lawrence’s crack-up is brought on by his megalomania. Likewise, in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Colonel Nicholson’s overweening pride in the work of his own hands almost turns him into a traitor. In Doctor Zhivago, we see the earnest vengefulness of the Bolshevik Revolution persecuting the very humanity it purportedly serves. Conviction and passion can be creative and constructive—until they reach a point when they become destructive.

As Prince Faisal—the future first ruler of Iraq (played, by the way, by Alec Guinness)—states in Lawrence: “With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.

Lean in, yes—just don’t lean in too far.

  • May 19, 2016
  • Jon Eckblad
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