Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Passage To India

An outtake from David Lean's ravishing and masterful "A Passage To India".


  1. David Lean obviously was passionate about "A Passage to India," the last and finest novel that author E.M. Forster permitted to be published during his lifetime. Apparently Lean persevered for more than a decade to acquire the rights, first from Forster himself, who died in 1970, the year "Ryan's Daughter" was released; and then from Forster's estate. The author had refused to sell because he did not believe film to be a bone-fide art form; the estate naturally supported this view. Finally, 14 years after "Ryan's Daughter" and after Lean had managed to secure complete control of his new film, Lean's last, "A Passage to India" was finished. But I talk too much.

    Time to rent some Mozart.

  2. If you rent the film, make sure you rent a letter-boxed version. I have seen a cropped version on television, and it reduces much of the richness and texture of the film.

    I do not want to spoil the film for you, but you will notice how spare is the dialogue (except in such necessary places as the courtroom scene). Lean uses very little dialogue throughout the film to tell a very complex story—and what little dialogue there is is very short and to the point. You may find the full screenplay online, and it is fascinating reading.

    Lean packs six hours of information into a three-hour film. One of the ways he accomplishes this is through imaginative use of sound. For instance, he will move from one scene to the next, while continuing the dialogue from the previous scene—and he will do the reverse. This technique effectively gives the viewer two scenes at once, yet the storytelling remains exceptionally lucid at all times. Lean provides the very minimum of visual and aural information to tell a somewhat protracted story.

    If you watch the film, you may notice that whenever a character asks a question, the question is never answered by another character. The answer is always provided by the next visual cue.

    Judy Davis gave the performance of her career in the film, although she and Lean apparently did not get on (Davis has said many times that she hated the entire experience). It is very much Davis’s film, and not Peggy Ashcroft’s, although conventional wisdom says the opposite—and Ashcroft, too, gives what is probably her finest film performance.

    Lean knew how to get complicated performances out of actors. Throughout filming, Ashcroft kept insisting that Lean tell her whether the character of Mrs. Moore, the Ashcroft character, was a grounded person or a mystic.

    Lean never answered the question.

  3. I can stream, free-of-charge, the entire film from; but that version, it seems, is not letter-box(ed). I decided to just order the DVD. I read five negative user reviews on amazon, all of them amusing: all written by mouth-frothing, bone-headed illiterates. (By the way, no pun intended in the typo of last entry: read please "bona-fide.")

    I'm confident I made the right decision.

  4. Thanks to you, I have just waded through 82 user reviews on Amazon, most of which were supremely idiotic.

    I have not read most of the original professional reviews for “A Passage To India”, as no doubt few of them are available outside research libraries. The original reviews must have been positive, however, because “A Passage To India” won the 1984 Best Film award from The National Board Of Review, the most prestigious and most significant of all critic awards in the U.S.

    “A Passage To India” was favored to sweep the Oscars, but it lost out to “Amadeus”, probably because another movie about India, the much-inferior “Gandhi”, had won a multitude of Academy Awards a year or two earlier.

    I HAVE read Pauline Kael’s review. Kael disliked Lean, but she was respectful toward the film (yet distant). In any case, “A Passage To India” would not have been a Kael-type film, since Kael was inoculated at birth against anything British.

    The New York Times reviewer largely missed the boat, although he was correct about the Maurice Jarre score sounding like recycled music from “Ryan’s Daughter”. At least the “Passage To India” score is Jarre’s least intrusive film score. Music is used very, very sparingly in the film.

  5. After ordering the DVD last night my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to watch the amazon stream version of the movie in order to get a first impression, which I hoped might also ameliorate feelings of guilt over having missed the boat over the past 25 years. (The miss hadn’t been ALL my fault: I was living abroad in 1984.) I am grateful that I did this. I know now that I will be happy to own a tangible copy of the film; I look forward to being able to appreciate it much more in the wide-screen format. I thank you for recommending it.

    I’m only sorry that I was responsible (again) for causing you to waste your time – this time by wading through the slush of “user reviews”.

    I began to watch the film at about 10:00 P.M. last night. I planned to stop it after an hour or so before going to bed and then to continue on Sunday afternoon. I was sleepy and thought I would not be able to make it all the way on this first occasion. Had the movie been “Doctor Zhivago” or even “Kwai”, my plan would have worked. Once I began, however, I was hooked until the closing credits at 12:45 A.M. –about the time you had finished (apparently) your survey of those 82 comments.



    I must say right from the beginning that the running time of “A Passage to India” (APTI) flies by like lightning; the film seems to be much shorter than its epic length of 2 hours and 45 minutes – the most immediate sign, I believe, that a film has been extremely well-cut. You describe the film as “Mozart,” an inspired comparison, I think. In Milos Foreman’s “Amadeus,” released the same year as APTI, Salieri describes his first impression of Mozart’s music: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment.” My first impression of APTI evokes this analogous, musical critique. Like any work by Mozart there is not a single extraneous note or rest. In this respect, APTI is also similar to Bizet’s “Carmen,” about which Richard Strauss (whose favorite composer was Mozart) exclaimed, “What marvelous economy.”

    Though born in the Victorian age, Forster didn’t write typical “Victorian architectonic” novels with many loose, unresolved plot lines – “baggy monsters,” as critic John Gardner once called them. By way of (L)ean editing APTI expertly reflects Forster’s “glassy” novella style of fiction writing. In purely literary terms of comparison, therefore, the structure and rhythm of APTI is more homologous with Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” than with Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” There is not a single frame, it seems, that is unnecessary or misplaced in the narrative. Finally, Lean “telescopes” the timeline nicely (especially well at the end) without drawing attention to his editorial technique, a bravura accomplishment in itself.

    The Director’s cast also seems flawless. But I confess that I didn’t think so at the very beginning. I was surprised honestly to see Sir Alec Guinness playing the role of Professor Godbole and not that of headmaster Fielding. I asked myself, why would Lean cast an Englishman to play a native? Then I remembered that this oddity was a bone of contention among some of the negative reviews I had read the same night. My question had been prompted though by my memory that Lean had not always cast his male leads so flawlessly, while he seemed always to get his female actresses “right on”. One of the reasons I was disappointed in “Dr. Zhivago,” for instance, was the choice of Omar Sharif, who, in my opinion was terribly miscast: this actor was like a completely different character from Pasternak’s novel. Julie Christie, on the other hand, was born to play Laura; that story is buoyed on Christie’s shoulders, I think.

    By the end of APTI, I had finally “gotten” it. No Tomfoolery here: Guinness was perfect as the Professor, for reasons I’ll mention later.


  7. One of E.M. Forster’s talents as a literary giant was his way of employing the device of symbolism. Though Lean ignored many of the Author’s symbols like the wasp and the green bird, I was delighted to see how the Director employed his own symbolic devices, most of them superior to Forster’s. Indeed, the film is replete with resplendent, visual symbols: the uneven – “unjustified” – railroad ties covering the tressel; the clasping hands of Aziz and Adela on the upward climb at Marabar, contrasted with Adela’s runaway hat, a slave of the natural law of gravity, a brilliant parallel to the natural claustrophobia which “enslaves” Mrs. Moore. Lean illustrates the natural “fear” of eastern “mystery” among westerners by showing Dr. Aziz hanging fearlessly from the side of a train over a gorge while Adela withdraws, paralyzed with acrophobia.



    Marabar itself is heavily symbolic: the smoothly cut caves look like tombs; Lean has emphasized this connection with the West’s deadly fear of “mystery” by removing the Maurya façade arches found at Barabar, the real location which inspired Marabar in the novel; these “tomb-caves” mirror the line of Indian grave sites which Adela passes nervously on her bicycle. Lean uses complex imagery in stunning ways to underline the divide between the dualism of Western thinking and the “oneness” teaching of the East, the chief metaphor of which being that “echo” effect in the caves. Think also of the Temple in Act I (moved from Act III in the novel), which can be viewed as a “fertility temple.” That structure is covered in vines (history) and disparate relief sculptures freely depicting human intimacy (carnal “oneness”) about which Edwardian society was modest to conjure; think of the monkeys on that Temple, they being obvious symbols of the Indian “low-life” population; – those frightful beasts as zealously averse to Adel’s presence at the Temple as the Indian Independence Movement was averse to the British Raj.

    But the Director doesn’t stop there. Later, he juxtaposes the imagery of the Temple scene with a riot of natives dressed as monkeys, those attempting to impede Adela’s testimony in court. Here Lean contrasts these “monkeys” to the full-standing, “oneness” of a single sculpture of Queen Victoria, the antithesis of the Temple’s artwork.
    But the “human monkeys” scene runs even deeper in significance. These monkeys, as opposed to those at the Temple, are, after all, HUMAN; and in the view of many in power, only those members of the Raj “club” are REAL human beings.

    Lean then has created a perfect metaphor of the “oneness” of East (monkey) and West (human) which is hoped for, in futility, by Mr. Fielding. But the character which BEST symbolizes this hope is the everywhere indifferent Professor Godbole, a role for which the Director has brilliantly cast an Englishman, Alec Guinness; here at last then is an individual who embodies – literally – the ideal of East and West living in total harmony.



    Forster, doubting hope of true, inevitable unity, was, after all, a westerner himself, trained by his native culture to compartmentalize against each other the objects in his world view. Forster knew there would always be an area of uncertainty; thus, despite the novella approach to the storytelling there is one unresolved plot element: Forster and David Lean both never reveal what exactly happens to Adela in the cave. In the western mind knowledge MUST exist only in relation to what James Joyce called “incertitude of the void”, which is symbolized in the book and film by the nescient matter within the darkness of the Marabar caves. The same idea is found in the “circle of nothing” at the very center of one of Dutch graphic artist E.M. Escher’s most celebrated works, “Print Gallery,” which similarly tries to convey the “oneness of all”.

    Forster knew all too well that there was no possible ideal unity even among the “muddle” of Indians, who were made up of opposing religions, not to mention 29 major mother tongues. David Lean's illustrations of Forster’s own fears is beautifully realized in the opposing “doppelganger” images of the courtroom fan operator, seated on the floor, his head in the lowest position; and the Indian deputy Magistrate, whose head is raised highest in the room.

    Finally, about Maurice Jarre’s score: Thankfully it is heard at minimum. That said, there is something of the East-West hopeful merger in his contributions, as well. The Composer employs a Western symphony orchestra, integrating the sounds of an ondes Martinon into the textures. Though the ondes Martinon is also a European instrument, Lean uses its alien sound to evoke the fear among in the West of the “mystery” of the East. One can hardly hear the otherwise useless score and not think of Jarre’s fellow countryman Olivier Messiaen; particularly the “Turangalila” Symphony, in which Messiaen tried himself to fuse esthetics from East and West. The first time I remember hearing the ondes on the soundtrack was at the Temple

    I will have to live with the movie for a while after the DVD arrives before I decide to include it on my list of top five. Is APTI a great work of art or is it a great work of high craft? So far it seems to be a superb candidate for the former, in which case, this film would seem to be an exception to Andrew’s father’s thesis. In any case, my list must change.

    Any list is useless if it is also immutable.

    Now I have talked way too much.


  10. In a way, I am sort of sorry that your first exposure to the film was through streaming. That does not strike me as an ideal first encounter with “Passage To India”. I have no idea how much of the movie registered, or how clear was the image and sound, and how much of each frame was shown (and how much was omitted).

    You are indeed correct in noting the economy of the film. Simultaneously, the film moves very, very quickly, and very, very leisurely. I can think of no other film of which this quality is true.

    I think the film is Lean’s masterpiece. It is the one film that unquestionably identifies Lean as one of the great masters of the medium. If Lean had not lived to complete “Passage To India”, his reputation ultimately would be relegated to second-tier status. With “Passage To India” in his portfolio, Lean will always be recognized as one of the greatest directors that ever lived. The film is Lean’s “Orphans Of The Storm”.

    I like “Kwai”, but that film needed to be reedited and shortened. “Arabia” has always bored me—watching that film is like watching blocks of marble being moved into place. “Zhivago” is a sweeping mess.

    But “Passage” is perfection. It is Lean’s most personal film, a film he had thought long and hard about for decades, and the film in which all his considerable skills came together.

  11. I hope you truly did enjoy the film. I genuinely believe it is the greatest film of the sound era.

    Even the tiniest details of the film are perfect. Remember the snippet of song in the scene at the club, the song from the West End musical the locals have remounted? It is perfect: catchy, evocative of the era, mindless and yet memorable. One cannot get the song out of one’s mind after a single hearing of only a few bars. The music was, I believe, composed specifically for the film.

    Nonetheless, the perfection of detail never interferes with or overwhelms the film’s great arc and sweep.