Best Political Films of David Lean

David Lean is one of the most highly regarded British filmmakers in world cinema. Though having only 19 entries in a directing filmography that spans over four decades, a handful of his works really shine; they are often included in credible lists of the “best films of all time.” Interestingly, many of these masterpieces feature political and war themes.

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)

Based on the work of French writer Pierre Boulle, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a fictional account that borrows from an actual event in history. Its story is set during the construction of the Burma Railway during the early 1940s. It features the story of World War II British POWs who were ordered to build a bridge to accommodate the Burma-Siam railway.

An audio-visual opus, this film becomes even more exemplary not only for its technical brilliance but also for its powerful storytelling and impeccable acting performances. During its release, it bagged seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, and Director. It was also selected for preservation in the U.S. Library of Congress National Film Registry.

“Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)

“Lawrence of Arabia” is an epic masterpiece about an unlikely man who leads the Arab revolt against the Turks during World War I. This film is based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, a heroic but tragic military figure in the Arabian attacks of Aqaba and Damascus during the war. Initially the British military’s oddball and lame-looking young soldier, he blazes his way toward a glorious feat. As the leader of the Arab army, he shockingly shakes the power of the Ottoman Empire.

“Lawrence of Arabia” swept the Oscars in 1963, netting the awards for Best Picture and Director. Star Peter O’Toole, in his onscreen debut, received a Best Actor nomination. Receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination, Omar Sharif launched his Hollywood career through this film as well.

“Doctor Zhivago” (1965)

Based on the Boris Pasternak novel of the same title, “Doctor Zhivago” features the story of a married Russian doctor and poet who is in love with a political activist’s wife. The story covers the years spanning World War I, the Russian Revolution, and Russian Civil War. Crafted as an epic love story within the backdrop of a tumultuous time, it offers a hauntingly beautiful story that successfully combines its historical setting with a compelling fictional love triangle.

For decades “Doctor Zhivago” has remained a popular film, ranking one of the highest-grossing pictures of all time in the United States. At the same time, it won the Oscars for Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Musical Score, and Adapted Screenplay. It also received a number of nominations, including Best Picture and Director.

“A Passage to India” (1984)

“A Passage to India” was Lean’s comeback work and, at the same time, his final cinematic offering after a 14-year hiatus in making feature films. This historical drama is based on the 1924 E.M. Forster novel of the same title and the 1960 Santha Rama Rau play inspired by the novel. Set in colonial India, it tells the story of a white female tourist who accuses a young Indian doctor of rape.

This film explores the varying facets of cultural mistrust and false accusations. It won the awards for Best Original Score and Supporting Actress, which made Peggy Ashcroft, then 77 years old, the oldest actress to win the award. It also received 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Director.

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