David Lean’s ‘Nostromo’: The Old Man and the Untold Tale of the Seaboard


By Tim Pelan

David Lean, two-time Oscar-winning director of Lawrence Of Arabia and The Bridge On the River Kwai, had something of a renaissance in the 1980s after a spell in the wilderness (see the then critical drubbing received by Ryan’s Daughter), with both his adaptation of E.M Forster’s A Passage To India, and the restoration of his masterwork, Lawrence. Adrian Turner, the author of ‘The making of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia,’ theorised that Lean, editing the 35 minutes or so of cuts back into Lawrence’s truncated form, wanted the money and prestige raised from its restoration to film another epic, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, and in doing so, cast himself as hero and Spiegel as villain (he always believed the producer cheated him out of royalties and harried him on filming, forcing him to abandon his beloved desert vistas for the cheaper locations of Almeria in Spain). “I didn’t know that Sam had been nibbling at it,” Lean told biographer and fellow filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, himself responsible for perhaps the greatest film-restoration ever, that of Abel Gance’s silent polyvision epic, Napoleon. “I’d no idea that stuff was cut (after the premiere), they didn’t tell me. I helped on cutting six minutes out of the beginning, that I was responsible for, but I didn’t realize they’d cut another twenty minutes or more out of the body of the picture, and without telling me.” At the Cannes Film Festival in 1988, during a BAFTA gala birthday tribute in his honour, he again took the opportunity to have a go at producers who he believed had stiffed him—Dino De Laurentiis, on his unmade two-part adaptation of the Bounty mutiny, and Spiegel again: “I think it’s time that all of us moviemakers band together to get rid of these crooks, every producer who has hands in our pockets.”

Those words would perhaps come back to haunt him as he attempted to adapt Conrad’s Nostromo—actually suggested as his next project by a gathering of Cambridge film students Lean was invited to give a talk to in 1985. He wrote detailed notes on reading it, but at first found it a bit of a slog. The 1904 novel is set in the South American town and country of Sulaco and Costaguana. Charles Gould, of English descent, owns a silver mine, using his wealth to prop up the government he believes brings stability to the corrupt region. Nostromo, a powerful Italian and useful tool of the rich, is entrusted with removing the silver from the mines and hiding it from the revolutionaries. He is accompanied by Decoud, a young journalist. Transporting the load by ship they scuttle her in a storm on a small island in the bay. Nostromo makes it back to shore, to seeming fame and adulation, riding at the head of an army to save the town. Decoud, meanwhile, goes mad in his isolation and wades out to sea, weighed down by silver ingots. Nostromo grows to feel resentful and unappreciated by the upper classes he helped cling to power, and seeks to slowly retrieve the silver he told them had been lost at sea, gradually succumbing to paranoia and greed. Having previously given his beneficence to Steven Spielberg on Empire of the Sun (he was invited to read the script, thought it was terrible, but deigned to say anything negative) he asked the younger director and superfan to produce Nostromo for him at Warner Brothers. Little did he imagine the student would dare to make suggestions to the master…

At this time, Lean and his regular screenwriting collaborator Robert Bolt were not on speaking terms, so Maggie Unsworth, who again worked with Lean on A Passage to India, suggested Christopher Hampton. Hampton had a theater background, and had actually already pitched Nostromo as an idea to the BBC. Lean’s “method” of collaboration, according to Hampton, was this—to think of every movie, depending on its length, as six to ten segments, each strung together with a very strong rope. “And because he was an ex-editor, I suppose, he always said, ‘The most important thing in any film is the last image of one scene and how it sits next to the first image of the next scene,’” Hampton recalled. (Lean took this to heart trimming Lawrence, recalling a remark of Hitchcock’s on British films back then: “Every scene seems to start a minute before it should start and ends a minute after it should end.”)

With each new draft of the script, Lean would employ storyboard artists to paint those juxtaposed images off the page to envision how they looked together. Occasionally, he’d even ask an artist to draw a third image of a combined dissolve, to see if that was a better fit. He was determined to shoot on 65mm film, by John Alcott, who had collaborated memorably many times with Stanley Kubrick. Lean hit upon the idea of lighting a night-time seaborne scene by the silver cargo. “Phosphorescence was my idea, because I’d found some nineteenth-century travel book about South America which described how extraordinary in certain seas around South America the phosphorescence was and how the rain would create more phosphorescence as it struck the water. So it was all going to appear to be lit by the stars and the silver.” He was especially fond of a major sequence where the silver is transported from the mountain to the harbor, planning it to the last detail–actor’s placements, where to cut, whether to dissolve, again drawing up detailed storyboards. A love scene between Nostromo and one of his acquaintance’s daughters would be illuminated by the sweep of a lighthouse beam, each revolve revealing a different stage of love-making.

Lean was full of such fantastic ideas but could be maddeningly contrary, ditching whole sequences. Hampton would come to dread the words “Well, let’s go back and have another look at scene one.” Lean once said, “I shall probably be eighty before I start making this film.” With their endless re-dos, casting suggestions and location scouting, Hampton was feeling the same.

Finally, the first draft was turned over to Spielberg, and Lean flew to America to meet with him and discuss it at his home. The senior director was not best pleased, even with constructive suggestions and praise: “Only in your hands do I believe this will make a riveting motion picture.” Spielberg asked for more character time for Gould, the mine owner, who “sort of drifts out of the picture, only reemerging with strength on page 78… I was also confused as to what Sotillo (a former military man, now rebel) wants in the story. Now that I know Sotillo wants the silver as well, shouldn’t we try to make this clear much earlier?” On he went in his notes, in a humble “If I may?” manner. Lean flew home in a rage. “Who does he think he is?” Hampton replied, “He thinks he’s the producer, and he is.”

When Spielberg sensed the disquiet brewing he withdrew, rather than fall out with his idol. Nostromo was now founding on rocky shores. Hampton next bumped into Robert Bolt at an Evening Standard awards dinner, and engineered a rapprochement between him and Lean, Hampton gratefully withdrawing, to work on the screen adaptation of his stage play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He’d worked on Nostromo for a whole year, August 1986 to August 1987. He would employ the “Lean Method” in his Dangerous Liaisons screenplay, going on to win an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

Bolt read the first draft, and remarked how closely it hewed to the novel. “Nevertheless, I would take a much freer line with it, make it more about Nostromo.” He also saw it as a metaphor for capitalism. “I don’t know that Lean thinks that, but it is. I wanted to begin with the quotation from Simon Bolivar that’s used by Gould’s father, when he says, America is ungovernable and those who have tried to govern her ‘plow the sea.’” “And there’s a line of Conrad’s that I kept coming back to: ‘There was something inherent in the necessities of successful action which carried with it the moral degradation of the idea.’ So that what you have to do in order to do what must be done somehow ruins the whole thing. It’s a globally pessimistic Conradian observation, but it seems to have such a resonance in so many areas of the world and in so many parts of 20th-century history.”

With that, they were back in the trenches together, writing a new draft. But whilst Bolt, who had suffered a stroke years before was energized, Lean began a steady decline in his own health, from shingles that developed to a steroid-induced myopathy, leaving him frail and swollen, to his eventual cancer. His health woes brought on a gloomy fascination with death that curiously stimulated thoughts on the script. He told Bolt, “I have been thinking quite a lot about death recently. The other evening a great flight of geese passed by my window in the half dark. I did not even see them. It was the swoosh of their wings, beautiful but doom-laden, which arrested me… At the end of the film I would like to try bringing in the sound of the goose wings just before Nostromo dies in the Paio. At the Lighthouse Linda steps out into the darkness, calls “Gian Battista—Gian Battista.” The sound of the geese passes overhead and disappears. Nostromo’s body is carried into the Cathedral. A triumph in death which he never experienced in life.”

With Spielberg out of the picture, Serge Silberman, who helped produce Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, took on the producer mantle. At first they seemed well suited, until Silberman got him alone and discussed casting. He was not one for backing down on his own ideas, and according to Lean, demanded massive insurance in the event of his death. The budget rocketed from $30m to more than $46m. He even had to submit to a list of names he would be agreeable to completing it should he keel over. Names suggested were Robert Altman, John Boorman, Peter Yates, Arthur Penn and Lean’s final choice, Guy Hamilton. Silberman at one point threatened to abandon Nostromo altogether. On 23 January 1990 he wrote to Lean: “Today I am not so shocked but just depressed, emotionally exhausted and very much saddened by the fact that your and my efforts have been all in vain. I have lost all desire and enthusiasm to make the film.”

After his honouring with the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award on 8 March 1990, Lean and Bolt parted ways, Lean tackling the script now on his own, working through crippling pain and radiation treatment. He told John Boorman of a dream he had. “It was so real, so sharply focused, almost a vision.” In the dream, he awoke, and sensed a dread thing in the basement. There was a burglar. He stood there with an insolent grin on his face and David said, “I know who you are.” “Who am I?” the man asked. “You are cancer,” said David, “and I’m going to beat you.”

Sadly, Lean passed away on 16 April 1991 at the age of 83. After the funeral at Putney Vale Crematorium, a memorial service was held on 3 October 1991 at St Paul’s Cathedral, scene of T.E Lawrence’s own honoring, as featured in Lean’s film. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played and the great and the good of the film world had crossed paths (or swords!) with Lean gathered to pay tribute. John Mills read the opening to Great Expectations, and Maurice Jarre conducted a medley of themes from Lean’s films. Omar Shariff read a passage from Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, whilst Peter O’Toole read John Donne’s Death Be Not Proud. Finally, the band of the Blues and Royals played Kwai’s “Colonel Bogey” on the steps of the Cathedral. As to whether a great flight of birds swooped unseen overhead, their mournful beating wings the only sign of their passage, there is no record…

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


Here’s your unique opportunity to read an unproduced screenplay of Nostromo by Robert Bolt & David Lean [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only).

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A two page autographed letter to David Lean discussing plans for Nostromo signed by Marlon Brando. Courtesy of Bonhams.


Nostromo storyboards courtesy of BFI Southbank. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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