Sat, Nov 27, 2021

The Postcolonial Inheritance of Forster and Lean


  • 08/15/2021 - by Dean A. Hoffman

In a memorable juncture of E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End (1910), his heroine Margaret Schlegel, having accepted a marriage proposal from the aging widower Henry Wilcox, expresses a terse and challenging exhortation to the reconciliation of human passion and abstemiousness: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”  Such sentiments in Forster’s characterizations would be rediscovered by a new generation of readers thanks to the commercial and critical success of Merchant-Ivory’s cinematic treatment of the novel in 1991, a year which also witnessed the death of another eminent English storyteller, filmmaker David Lean, whose 1984 realization of Forster’s last completed novel A Passage to India in what would become his own final film suggestively bookends a major segment of a watershed century for the two influential English narrative artists. For in this work, the expression “only connect” constitutes a recognizable correlative for the novel’s complex dynamic between British imperialism and indigenous Indian culture, and for the primal tension between xenophobia and erotic attraction between East and West.

Occidental Studies Institute

While this tale of the ill-fated Indian sojourn of British subjects Adela Quested, Mrs. Moore, and Ronny Heaslop would in today’s filmmaking climate have undoubtedly been heavily rewritten and politicized (a transsexual Prof. Godbole, anyone?), Lean focuses like his source author upon the more intimate compass between key characters as representatives of the larger identities and intractable forces that influence their interactions and moral choices.

Yet such a factor unavoidably recalls the critical oversimplification of Lean’s work that has traditionally emphasized vast scale of presentation, wherein awesome scenic vistas serve as settings for stories of forbidden love told against the background of war, a reductive view that could tenably be applied to such works as Dr. Zhivago (1965) and the critically maligned Ryan’s Daughter (1970).  Yet even these works, along with the decidedly nonromantic Bridge On the River Kwai (1957), revealed Lean’s affinity with the postcolonial reflex in the overarching contexts of the class conflicts within the Russian Revolution, of Britain’s 1917 military presence in Ireland, and of the construction for imperialist Japan of the Burma-Siam railway by Western prisoners of war, respectively.

Like Forster, who succumbed in 1970, Lean would come of age in a period which witnessed the British Empire suffering the ravages of two world wars and a decline into a disparate commonwealth, and his empathy with such aging colonialist figures as fatuous British Army officers and officious civil servants would result in nuanced and convincing onscreen portrayals by veteran British actors like Alec Guinness and Anthony Quayle as well as such versatile latter-day performers as James Fox and Nigel Havers.  And as he demonstrated so powerfully in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), with its ostensible non sequitur of an effete and impertinent English lieutenant’s identification with the Arab cause against the Ottoman Empire and its astonishing international ramifications, Lean was perceptive regarding the multiple ironies resulting from geopolitical conflicts that arose throughout his own lifetime as a subject of a redoubtable empire that was decentralizing into a second-tier world power, one that has become increasingly represented by its second- and third-generation non-native offspring.

In a scene from Passage with clearly symbolic overtones, Adela gazes at length upon a ruined erotic statuary that becomes overrun by wild monkeys who frighten her into fleeing the scene.  Similarly, the unearthly echo of the Marabar caves severely unsettles Mrs. Moore, herself so empathetic toward the Indians, and presumably disorients Adela into an erotic hallucination that results in her accusation of sexual assault against Aziz.

Ultimately, both segments may be tenably viewed as effectual counterparts to the disturbing and surreal image of a Congo native observed by Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) as he transports the doomed Kurtz down river from the Inner Station – an almost primeval icon of an unknown world that threatens to overwhelm the rational, rapacious Westerner.  And like the deranged Kurtz’s final exclamation as witness of his own capacity for loss of humanity through exploitation of the natural world and his fellow human beings, Adela’s temporary charge against Aziz appears as an involuntary, defensive reaction to the unforeseen arousal of apprehension toward her environment’s primitivism and sensual power.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Lean’s next effort, left uncompleted at his death, was a projected dramatization of Conrad’s Nostromo (1904), yet another tale of the destabilization of a southern hemisphere nation through Western exploitation of its native resources.  But it is also worth viewing this unrealized project as an enduring admonishment to many of his aspiring American successors in the New Hollywood of the 1960’s and 1970’s, the younger directors whose shared absence of a vanishing imperialist heritage combined with abundant production resources has leant an unavoidably sophomoric tinge to some of their most single-minded efforts.

Steven Spielberg, himself the instigator of the special-effect blockbuster genre which served to redefine the film industry for the indefinite future, was reportedly removed as producer of the project owing to a disagreement with the director over the script – the very same fundamental  element of filmmaking that proved to be the Achilles Heel of the second generation would-be auteurs whose pictorial obsessions undermined their attempts to dramatize in any coherent or compelling fashion the clash between civilization and barbarity on an ambitious scale, such as Friedkin (Sorcerer, 1977), Coppola (Apocalypse Now, 1979), Hopper (The Last Movie, 1971) and Cimino (Heaven’s Gate, 1980).  Nostromo’s rumored but unrealized completion by seasoned British director John Boorman, himself a veteran of such thematics through works like Deliverance (1972) and The Emerald Forest (1985), is unsurprising in retrospect.

A key image in A Passage to India is a held close-up of Aziz and Adela’s clasped hands as he helps her ascend to the Marabar caves – the symmetrical presence of dark male and fair female – a moment that is redolent of possibility for engagement between two races and cultures, yet also with the attendant variable of choice between honesty and betrayal, whether between individuals or the broader entities which they embody.

Accordingly, after the disastrous fallout from Aziz’s trial and the rapprochement between him and the English official Fielding, Lean ends his treatment ambiguously: Adela’s stone-faced reading of Aziz’s self-effacing letter and her equivocal half-smile as she closes the curtains on the English rain suggest that the director, unlike his source author, is leaving any resolution of his narrative up to the viewer as a lingering challenge to make that very connection that confronted many of Forster’s characters.

On this thirtieth anniversary of Lean’s passing, a propitious time for reflection upon matters of race, creed and color, we can see that he has left to posterity an enigma: Kipling’s “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet,” oft-quoted out of context as a pessimistic dismissal of the possibility of cultural common ground, is subtly questioned here in a lamentably near-forgotten work that compels the contemporary viewer to consider, beyond the familiar trappings of materialism and moral pretension, the neglected values of genuine curiosity, deference, truthful witness, and goodwill in a climate of ethnocentrism.


Dean A. Hoffman.
Director Occidental Studies Institute.