Celebrate Brilliant British Director David Lean’s Birthday With 10 of His Best Films

When it comes to filmmakers whose work has stood the test of time, brilliant British director David Lean has never gone out of favor. Whether it be his masterpiece epics and his painful love stories to his fantastical comedies, Lean is known best for his incredible storytelling and his work with actors to deliver some of the most fascinating performances on screen. From Lawrence of Arabia and Brief Encounter to Blithe Spirit and Dr. Zhivago, the vastly varied nature of his work always carried his unique approach and won audiences over. So as today marks the famed artist’s birthday, why not celebrate by watching 10 films that encompass his genius. Peruse our list and see where you can enjoy them right now. 

Available on Netflix


“After a chance meeting on a train platform, a married doctor (Trevor Howard) and a suburban housewife (Celia Johnson) enter into a muted but passionate, ultimately doomed, love affair. With its evocatively fog-enshrouded setting, swooning Rachmaninoff score, and pair of remarkable performances (Johnson was nominated for an Oscar for her role), David Lean’s film of Noël Coward’s play Still Life deftly explores the thrill, pain, and tenderness of an illicit romance, and has influenced many a cinematic brief encounter since its release.” (x)

Available on Hulu +


An American spinster’s dream of romance finally becomes a bittersweet reality when she meets a handsome—but married—Italian man while vacationing in Venice. Katharine Hepburn’s sensitive portrayal of the lonely heroine and Jack Hildyard’s glorious Technicolor photography make Summertime an endearing and visually enchanting film.” (x)

Available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video


“Blithe Spirit, David Lean’s delightful film version of Noël Coward’s theater sensation (onstage, it broke London box-office records before hitting Broadway), stars Rex Harrison as a novelist who cheekily invites a medium (Margaret Rutherford) to his house to conduct a séance, hoping the experience will inspire a book he’s working on. Things go decidedly not as planned when she summons the spirit of his dead first wife (Kay Hammond), a severe inconvenience for his current one (Constance Cummings). Employing Oscar-winning special effects to spruce up Coward’s theatrical farce, Blithe Spirit is a sprightly supernatural comedy with winning performances.” (x)

Available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video


One of the great translations of literature into film, David Lean’s Great Expectations brings Charles Dickens’s masterpiece to robust on-screen life. Pip, Magwitch, Miss Havisham, and Estella populate Lean’s magnificent miniature, beautifully photographed by Guy Green and designed by John Bryan.” (x)

Available on Netflix and iTunes

Available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video

Available on iTunes and Amazon

Available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video


“Successful, however, beyond question is the physical production of this film—the brilliant visual realization. As in Lawrence of Arabia, Mr. Lean has joined with Fred A. Young, his photographer, to create a superlative mise-en-scène. His pictorial stuff is tremendous, whether it be a snow-filled Moscow street or a burnished room full of Christmas celebrators or a great expanse of windy steppe or a train in the snow or a country cottage frosted with shimmering ice.

And he has got very good performances from Rod Steiger and Tom Courtenay—the former as the bourgeois opportunist who first seduces and later plagues Lara, and the latter as the thin-lipped revolutionary who is strangely and briefly loved by her. Geraldine Chaplin is shiny but vapid as Dr. Zhivago’s band-box wife and Ralph.” (x)

Available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video


“Lean places these characters in one of the most beautiful canvases he has ever drawn (and this is the man who directed “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia”). He doesn’t see the India of travel posters and lurid postcards, but the India of a Victorian watercolorist like Edward Lear, who placed enigmatic little human figures here and there in spectacular landscapes that never seemed to be quite finished. Lean makes India look like an amazing, beautiful place that an Englishman can never quite put his finger on — which is, of course, the lesson Miss Quested learns in the caves.

David Lean is a meticulous craftsman, famous for going to any lengths to make every shot look just the way he thinks it should. His actors here are encouraged to give sound, thoughtful, unflashy performances (Guinness strains at the bit), and his screenplay is a model of clarity: By the end of this movie we know these people so well, and understand them so thoroughly, that only the most reckless among us would want to go back and have a closer look at those caves.” (x)

Available on Hulu +

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