Restoring the value of five epics: A review of The Epic Films of David Lean

The Epic Films of David Lean by Dr. Constantine Santas

As the book title suggests, The Epic Films of David Lean is a detailed study of the five epic films of David Lean, one of cinema’s most accomplished directors. Lean won Academy Awards for classic films such as Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. But his career as filmmaker of the epic form took a major leap when he directed The Bridge on the River Kwai, which became an international hit and won seven Oscars. The epic filmmaking phase continued with Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, and A Passage to India. Despite the accolades and awards, these epic films had “mixed critical attention” (p. xiv) and they were viewed as “Hollywood-financed spectacles” (p. xviii).  Constantine Santas takes a closer look at these cinematic works to prove that they are as worthy of attention as Lean’s earliest works.

Santas focuses on the epic films after his realization that the epics refined Lean’s directorial career. They expanded Lean’s horizons by using compelling narratives, broader themes, complex characters, a range of landscapes, cultural differences, and filming techniques. The epics were more complex endeavors because of their greater length, expense, and effort. But they brought Lean the adulation of international audiences and the reputation of “novelist of the screen” (p. x). Lean used the epics not only to entertain large audiences, but also to connect divergent cultures.  Despite of their success, the epics received adverse criticism, and critics favored Lean’s earlier films. Santas hopes to restore the value of these five epics by reexamining in detail their structure, themes, characters, literary sources, history and politics, relation to earlier works, and critical responses.

Several factors influenced Santas’s decision to focus on Lean’s epic films. It was the repeated viewings of the epics, the years of teaching film and literature, and the reading of papers in conferences and colloquiums that sparked his interest in the epic film form. When he began teaching film at Flagler College, Santas used syllabi instead of textbooks. The increase of the syllabi material, and his students’ comments from papers and course quizzes led to the writing of his first book, Responding to Film (2002). His first essays on Lean were in this book. Then followed a second book, The Epic in Film (2007) which elaborated on epic and heroic characters in film. After more viewings of Lean’s epics, Santas was convinced that these films were no ordinary epics, but rather magnificent cinematic works that grew better over time. His viewing of A Passage to India sparked a deeper interest in Lean’s works and, eventually, led to The Epic Films of David Lean.

Santas has achieved his goal to restore the esteem of the undervalued epics by employing analytical approach and extensive research. For each epic, he provides general background information on production including details on the crew and cast; connection of the epic with the literary work it was adopted from; historical and political aspects; structural patterns and themes; plot synopsis; and characterization. Overall, Santas has accomplished a well-researched, engaging, and convincing work that will attract cinema students, fans of David Lean, and scholars.

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