David Lean’s Directorial Style

Posted on 25th September 2003 by Ryan Somma in Mediaphilism

Two aspects of David Lean’s directorial style are most striking. Using the technique of letting scenes “introduce” one another, Lean maintains congruity across different scene locations and characters. Lean also uses visual metaphors and the symbolic actions of his characters to give his storytelling depth.

“There are two men in there, one half-mad, the other unscrupulous,” the general’s advisor says, and we cut to General Allenby talking to Lawrence, promising him wealth and glory. Our perception of the General’s promises is corrupted. We listen to him with a wariness and insight Lawrence does not have.

Audu abu Tayi leans back with a mighty yawn, stretching his arms wide as if just waking up; although, he has actually concluded a late-night discussion with Ali. We then cut to a British officer pulling back the curtain to reveal daylight. One unrelated scene introduces the other with an implication of morning.

On a symbolic level, Lawrence’s white robes match his innocence as it becomes sullied with reality. Before things begin to go badly, Lawrence tells the reporter he likes the desert because “it’s clean” while lounging on the running board of a pristine British vehicle, a full foot above the ground. This later contrasts with the reality of the Turkish hospital ward, where the wounded clutch at Lawrence’s soiled robes and he collapses into the dirt in despair.

Lawrence’s physical appearance also matches his internal state when he returns to Cairo after being tortured in the Turkish prison. We see Lawrence humbly composed, chatting with British officers and fidgeting uncomfortably with his uniform. When the commander argues with him about going back to the desert, Lawrence has an emotional outburst. We see him from the back, where his wounds are open and bleeding through his uniform as his emotions explode.

This symbolism is also apparent when Lawrence experiences a sort of messiah complex. While wandering through the Turkish town Deraa, Lawrence, in the midst of tempting fate, steers off the dry path to purposefully walk across a puddle, ‘walking on water’. This puddle image makes a second appearance after Lawrence is broken in the Turkish prison and is thrown, face-first into it to wallow in the mud. This series also emphasizes David Lean’s knack for irony.

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