Jungle Fever: A David Lean Joint

I just gave a lecture on Lawrence of Arabia, and it is David Lean’s centenary. That’s my excuse for reprinting this article, published in Film Comment (editor: Richard T. Jameson) Sep/Oct 1991. Just one caveat from today: the political stuff in Lawrence is much stronger than I give Lean credit for in this piece.

by Robert Horton

The Bridge on the River Kwai happened to be playing in 70 mm. at a Seattle theater the week David Lean died. Not just any Seattle theater, either, but the one that sits a few blocks from my apartment. Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia says that “nothing is written,” but this coincidence suggested a minor cosmic imperative, and anyway it had been a decade since I’d seen the movie (and then only on TV), so it seemed right and fitting to march in time over to the Guild 45th and pay some respects.


David Lean

I remembered Kwai as an engrossing boy’s adventure, dandy and long, with an air of respectability hanging over it. But, in the way that movies can change on you, there was more than that going on at this most recent viewing. A sense of mortality overrode any official-classic feel, lending eerie-shivery shadings to that bird of prey that opens and closes the movie, to the eternity-glimpsing glance into the sky that Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) takes before he turns and walks away from a tense early encounter, and to the musings of Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) as he stares into the water from the bridge he has so meticulously built for the enemy and realizes that he is “nearer to the end than the beginning” of his life.

But the shot that haunts me from Kwai is one I’d never noticed before. It’s the night before the finale, and Shears (William Holden) and his fellow bridge-blowers have reached the river and packed their explosives onto a raft. In longshot we see the raft begin its drift downriver toward the bridge: it is night (or day-for-night), the men are blacked-up and the raft is camouflaged; from this distance they are part of the jungle, almost. The camera follows their drift by moving laterally along the riverbank, trees flicking by and huge rocks obscuring the view. The shot goes on for almost a minute, longer than it needs to to convey any simple plot point. Lean seems under the sway of the shot, of the technical feat of tracking the camera over that long a stretch of jungle but also with the undirectable flow of the river itself, which very gradually quickens as the shot moves on. Over the sounds of the river and the jungle, Lean lays on the faraway music of a cabaret act, coming from the Army theatricals at the POW camp. (Lean liked that counterpoint: Lawrence singing “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” to the vast echoes of noncivilization, the chipper swing music that plays to an empty room as tragic news is delivered offscreen in This Happy Breed, the husband realizing his wife’s infidelity as a musical comedy chatters away in The Passionate Friends.)

It’s just a single shot. But I think it may be the moment when Lean gives himself over to the jungle. Going native: That is the threat in so many of Lean’s films, a threat he views with such contradictory impulses: fascination and yearning, and some kind of fear. In a 1985 interview in Film Comment, Lean said that he invented the scene in A Passage to India with Miss Quested (Judy Davis) amongst the erotic carvings and lust-crazed monkeys to suggest her Subcontinental sexual awakening: “India can do this, you know….it happens to people when they go down to the Mediterranean…and behave as they wouldn’t normally. It’s that sort of thing. And so the idea is that it’s a sort of walk into old places, old mountains with that old ancient animal climbing up them.”

Going down to meet that old ancient animal: It’s in the marital infidelities, consummated or not, in Brief Encounter and The Passionate Friends and Ryan’s Daughter. It’s in Katharine Hepburn’s swoon to Venice in Summertime (though the original title, Summer Madness, more closely suggests the going-native phenomenon). It’s Lawrence of Arabia and A Passage to India and Zhivago’s delirious trek through the snow to serve a romantic/poetic obsession (Lean loves the corny icicles in Zhivago’s beard — the landscape becoming the character, or vice versa). Lean’s case of jungle fever seemed to intensify as he went along, not just with the expansion of his budgets and running times, but even with the use of color and location shooting — in which case, Summertime, rather than Kwai, may be the first film of the second half of his career.

The ballooning of Lean’s movies coincided with the rise of auteurist criticism, and Lean’s critical profile suffered from the timing. At the moment when critics were rightly and gloriously discovering the virtues of eloquent professionalism and crisp personal expression within the studio-imposed structure of Hollywood moviemaking, Lean was indulging himself with longwinded epics that managed to be both firmly in the tired old Tradition of Quality and somehow fundamentally murky (“Pointlessly obscure,” Andrew Sarris called them; Truffaut, who had tagged Brief Encounter “the least sensual and most sentimental film ever wept over,” found Kwai “one of those collective enterprises that end by being anonymous”). And so the line was that Lean’s spiffy early period, from In Which We Serve (codirected with Noel Coward) in 1942 to Summertime in 1955, was admirable enough within the limits of Lean’s “meticulous craftsman” identity. But the lumbering later marathons were out.

Which is intriguing, because Hitchcock was getting the opposite treatment. Auteurism said that Hitch’s much-respected English period was just peachy, but that the newer American films, with their luxurious perversity and experimentation and obsessiveness, were the greater accomplishment. Well, they were, and it’s easy to see how this against-the-establishment-grain argument was more exciting to make than any sympathetic treatment of Lean: Hitchcock needed championing, Lean was busy winning Oscars. But in some ways the two directors are parallel cases. Lean’s early films are smart and trim, in line with his fame as a sensible film cutter; the collaborations with Coward are honorable, the Dickens adaptations evocative (although it seems curious in retrospect that this lean Lean should have tackled the clutter of Dickens; what would the later Lean have wrought from Bleak House — an eight-hour film?). But I would suggest it’s when Lean goes south to meet the ancient animal that he comes into his own; that even while the epics grew ungainly and gigantic in ways that Hitchcock would never have allowed, Lean was finding the means for the most moving personal expressions anywhere in his work.

Lean actually made a Hitchcock movie, sort of. The Passionate Friends is a foray into Master territory, a series of brief encounters between two lovers (played by Ann Todd — then Mrs. Lean — and Trevor Howard) whose desire must be patted down over the years as they keep running into each other, because she married money and prestige (in the impeccable form of Claude Rains). Lean stages some exquisite Hitchcock scenes, including a great suspense set-piece in which we wait for Rains to reveal to the lovers that he has discovered their affair, as they squirm under the pressure of maintaining the civilized facade of an evening’s nightcap. Lean likes the tension, the tremble behind the stiff upper lip that also keeps Brief Encounter quivering so superbly. At the same time, all that English self-denial is so very…English. Even the title suggests the war between behavioral states: “passionate” turns the heat on, “friends” chastely closes the door. The jungle looms before these lovers but they stay across the river, holding fast to decorum lest they begin swinging from the trees.

In The Passionate Friends, Todd and Howard decide to remain platonic, and find themselves riding an aerial tram that rises into the mountains; they pass into a cloud, where everything appears whited-out and they look like ghosts to each other. As an alternative to passion, it isn’t exactly alluring. In Brief Encounter, Celia Johnson flirts with the idea of doing a Garbo under the wheels of a train, but returns to her armchair and her crossword-puzzle husband and Rachmaninoff on the gramophone. It’s all right to play Rachmaninoff, but difficult to live him.

Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter

Is Lean on the side of civilization in these films? He seems to be. The heart of Brief Encounter and The Passionate Friends beats with detached bittersweet irony, as in the way we realize that those two people discovered almost casually at a table at the Milford refreshment room at the opening of Brief Encounter were in fact living through the final moments of a love story. Lean’s scrupulous camera sense, including such expressionistic maneuvers as the tilt in to Celia Johnson’s face after she hears Trevor Howard’s last train going away, are appropriate and calculated. Howard’s doctor might be directing the films, calm and fluent in the Latin terms for the exotic diseases he will study in Africa (jungle fevers?) as Lean is expert in his technical skills. The films stay fine and staid and controlled; the bleats of passion that escape now and then are within Lean’s check.

By the time Lean reaches Summertime, he appears more willing to allow himself to be seduced, like his heroine. This is not the refreshment room at Milford station; this is Venice, and Technicolor. Hepburn admits to a midlife fantasy when she gives a third-person description of her impulse: “In the back of her mind was something she was looking for…a wonderful mystical/magical miracle…I guess to find out what she’d been missing all her life.” The when-in-Venice business may be a schematic idea for a movie, and travelogue overwhelms at times, though Lean does make a point of showing garbage dropping into the romantic canal. The shots of Hepburn staring into space seem true and lonely, and there’s something about that rich red goblet she finds in Rossano Brazzi’s antique store that rings deep and mysterious.

Summertime ends with the train carrying Hepburn back to her world, circumscribing her fling into a safe vacation. Lean’s next film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, begins with the jungle and immediately a train, rolling up to the end of the tracks to set the story in motion. Trains slice through Lean’s work with the regularity of a romantic obsession, though he never gets as moony about them as Ryan’s daughter is about her romance novels. Lean even uses a trainlike sound at moments where a couple of films turn: when Rosie Ryan (Sarah Miles) is introduced to sexual gratification in the Irish jungle in Ryan’s Daughter, and when Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) hears the voice of the eternal in the strange echo of the caves in A Passage to India. Both effects sound like an onrushing locomotive; that’s Lean’s soul-stirring noise.

In fact, the catalogue of Lean’s favorite pictures and pet sounds is remarkably consistent. Trains, curtains moving with breeze, leaves skidding through the street, the moon reflected in the water (Charles Laughton tries to capture it during his drunken hopscotch through street puddles in Hobson’s Choice; the crocodiles thrash in the moonlit Ganges in that thrilling moment in A Passage to India). In Brief Encounter, when the doctor must say his final goodbye to his beloved as that prattling biddy sits between them, he gently, feelingly grasps her shoulder from behind. Twenty-five years later, in Ryan’s Daughter, Lean elects almost precisely the same shot: Charles Shaughnessy (Robert MItchum) brings his hand to rest on Rosie’s shoulder as they begin their ill-starred engagement.

The repetition of that gesture across time is uncannily moving. It’s less the work of a cool technician than a physical memory. If Lean’s later films are more unruly and imperfect, perhaps it’s because the novels and Robert Bolt scripts that absorb the director are just so much canvas; Lean becomes less the storyteller and more the abstract dabbler. Lean was accused of abandoning his talents as a miniaturist, but he remained one, in many ways.

Consider the political nature of the epics, or lack of same. Ryan’s Daughter has something to do with the Irish Troubles as they simmered during the First World War. Bolt may have had some idea where he stood on this when he wrote the thing; Lean hasn’t the foggiest. Nor does he appear interested. What does interest Lean, despite the topheavy requirements of a superproduction, are the tiny elements of atmosphere, such as the sound of the wind perpetually straining against the windows of Shaughnessy’s schoolhouse, like a mischievous banshee trying to break into his protected world. That’s beautiful. The movie is a collection of such nuances, meanwhile going dead in long patches of landscape and miscasting and the basic feeling that Lean doesn’t know what it’s about. This is all but admitted at the end, when the priest and the fool walk away from this mess and the priest blesses the proceedings by muttering, “I don’t know. I don’t know at all.” That these two are played by Trevor Howard and John Mills, two central actors of Lean’s early period, makes the sense of late-life disillusionment and doubt all the keener.

lawrenceofarabia2There’s some central emptiness in the epics, some missing key. What was Nicholson doing at the end of Kwai — intentionally or accidentally blowing up the bridge? We’re pretty sure Lawrence was buggered at the hands of the Bey (Jose Ferrer), but how does that send him into his radical changes that drive the final section of Lawrence? What happened in the Marabar caves between Miss Quested and Dr. Aziz (Victor Bannerjee)?

Doctor Zhivago has something missing too. This is a love story set against the Russian Revolution. But the Revolution is so much muddled bother, and the love story, for all the running time of the movie, has a curious ellipsis — the six-month period when Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) are working side by side at the country hospital. We don’t see any of it. We see the arrival and the parting, but why and how they have fallen in love in the interim isn’t evident, except that they are a couple of scrumptious creatures. Their passion, which dictates the movement of the personal stories in the rest of the movie, must be taken on faith. It’s a hole into which the rest of the film falls, despite the many beauties along the way: the awesome dead impersonality of the Soviet-built dam in the framing scenes, and Lean’s exacting visualization of key interiors (one of his sharpest talents, easily overlooked amid the location-shooting fuss): Komarovsky’s place, Lara’s apartment, the house in the country — the inside covered in those cascades of ice, frozen at a moment in time like Miss Havisham’s home in Great Expectations.

Lean found a way to make this central emptiness the actual subject of one movie, and that may be why Lawrence of Arabia is his masterpiece. The bravura moments are sometimes visual riddles themselves, such as the ship cruising through the desert, and the trail of smoke that becomes a black mirage and then a man. Much is made of the enigma of Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), as in the funeral at the beginning when the interviewees cannot define the man. Lean has found his Citizen Kane, his own way of saying that all of the photography and editing in the world cannot reveal the answer of someone’s existence. That’s a conclusion to be resigned to. That’s why Lean takes the time to have his characters look up into the sky and see the stars or the moon, and allow them a shudder at the transience of being human. Both Col. Nicholson and Miss Havisham end their lives by asking, “What have I done?”

Footsteps in the sand…Lean takes the image a big literalmindedly, as it appears in the epics (footsteps in the snow, in the case of Doctor Zhivago). Was it the technician or the poet in Lean that was so painstaking about having his actors tread upon virgin, unblemished sand? To show them walking in tracks is to break the movie illusion, to acknowledge that there was a previous take, that his people are not magically the very first across this landscape. At the end of the Kwai, when Nicholson follows the detonator wire to the shore, the line comes ripping up out from where it lay buried in the smooth sand — how did Lean do that? dam the entire river? reshoot the whole thing time after rigorous time? Nicholson wants to leave a bridge behind him; the doctor in Brief Encounter tells his beloved that she cannot die, for then he would not be remembered; Lawrence wants…to be the only Lawrence who ever lived. Lean made movies so big they could not be ignored, or forgotten.

I think Lean had quite a crush on Lawrence. Lawrence really went native, and Lean, enthralled, follows him there, to a degree that the director never dared before or after. It was the only time that Lean, as it were, went to Aqaba without being sure he could make it across the sands. He was a saner campaigner than Lawrence. All those huge vistas and crystalline deserts — they are clean, as Lawrence says — have a point: to conjure up the intoxication that Lawrence fell under. Perhaps this is what it felt like for the little Quaker boy that Lean was to encounter movies, to get just as drunk on the cinema as Lawrence did on the great nothing of the desert. But Lean only rarely allowed himself to get really smashed. Mostly he drew back into his sobersides self. He made clean movies. Thus he seemed intrigued but not necessarily outraged that, as he was nearer to the end than the beginning of his life, there seemed to be no meaning or center to it all, or to his movies. Maybe the trick to that, as Lawrence says of enduring the sear of the match burning your fingers, was in not minding.

One Response

  1. Absolutely lovely! This is one of the best essays I’ve read on Lean. I’ve found myself on the defense a lot lately when trying to champion his later films and you’ve managed to sum up a lot of what I admire about his work.

    This is the first time I’ve visited your site thanks to a link at the Greenncine Daily blog but I look forward to perusing your blog archives.

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