Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946)

Great Expectations 1946 8

I didn’t have time to update my blog yesterday and, realistically, my blogging might be a bit hit and miss now as Christmas arrives, but I will try to write new postings as frequently as possible, even if my Dickens in December season ends up stretching into January. Just a few thoughts today on one of the greatest of all Dickens films.

In every adaptation of Great Expectations that I’ve seen (and there have been many, including two in the past year alone, both of which were disappointing, to me anyway), the beginning is one of the best scenes. The sight of the convict looming from behind the tombstone always makes a powerful impression – and its sense of danger  is always there in the background behind everything that follows. However, the most unforgettable version of this opening on screen has to be the first scene of David Lean’s famous film, with young Pip (Anthony Wager) running across the windswept Kent marshes, and enduring his nightmare encounter with Magwitch (Finlay Currie).

Anthony Wager and Finlay Currie as Pip and Magwitch

Anthony Wager and Finlay Currie as Pip and Magwitch

This haunting sequence was filmed by Guy Green using a wide lens to show it all from the perspective of the young boy. But, watching this great film again this week in the BFI’s restored print on Channel 4, it struck me how well Lean succeeds in showing this opening from the viewpoint of both the child and that of the adult looking back (John Mills as narrator). The film fully shows how terrifying Magwitch is to the young boy, keeping all his spine-chilling  threats, which are sometimes watered down in more recent versions.  “Your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted, and ate.” Yet, at the same time, the convict’s own fear and hunger come across strongly, and it is clear how much he has in common with Pip, as two lonely figures who are being chased and pushed through this bleak landscape.

Wager, who was only 13, is excellent in this opening, and also in the scenes at the forge with his bullying sister (Freda Jackson) and her warmhearted husband, Joe (Bernard Miles).  Sadly, Orlick is missing from this version – I’ve been complaining over the past couple of weeks about the absence of this violent character and his class hatred from the latest cinema adaptation, so I was rather surprised to realise that Lean had already cut him out in this version, which also has Mrs Joe dying off-screen from her weak heart. Biddy (Eileen Erskine) does appear (the BBC version last Christmas cut her out), but has been turned into a servant instead of the pupil-teacher whose determination to learn is equal to Pip’s. In general, the forge doesn’t get enough screen time – but it is impossible to fit all of Dickens’ novel into just two hours, and there is enough here to give a vivid impression of the Gargerys’ way of life, with an enjoyable brief turn by Hay Petrie as the self-satisfied Uncle Pumblechook.

Martita Hunt and Jean Simmons as Miss Havisham and Estella

Martita Hunt and Jean Simmons as Miss Havisham and Estella

However, the most memorable part of Pip’s childhood, and of the whole film, is the brilliant evocation of Satis House, the shadowy, cobweb-filled home of Miss Havisham and her ward Estella. Here, as in the marshbound opening, I think the film benefits enormously by being made in black and white, which helps to build the feeling of Gothic fantasy at a remove from reality. You don’t have to worry about the shadowy wedding cake being a health hazard, or even about the fact that Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt) seems to stay the same age while everybody about her grows older, as if she really has stopped like the clocks. Jean Simmons, who was 17 at the time, is uncannily perfect as Estella, seeming a little like Alice in Wonderland  as she matter-of-factly leads Pip through this strange world. And she makes Estella’s comments about the “common labouring boy” cut to the quick.

It’s a pity really that Simmons didn’t play Estella right through – this was only two years before she played Ophelia in Hamlet, and she would surely have been equal to it.  Valerie Hobson seems too different to convince as the same person, and doesn’t give Estella the compelling, other-worldly quality  that Simmons brings to the character. (I like Hobson better as a war wife who becomes an MP in contemporary British drama  The Years Between, also made in 1946, a film I hope to write about here some time.) But Hobson was more of a name at the time, and maybe Lean felt that the age gap between Simmons and John Mills, who was 38, as the adult Pip would have been just too much.

John Mills and Alec Guinness as Pip and Herbert

John Mills and Alec Guinness as Pip and Herbert

Mills does seem much younger than he really was, and his expressive eyes work well as Pip takes everything in and slowly adapts to his new world – with painful class consciousness running through all of it. I especially like the way Mills’ voice modulates slightly as he gets used to being a “gentleman”, but not too much – there is no exaggerated poshness, and yet when Joe finally turns up to visit him in London, the gulf  that has grown between them is suddenly apparent as soon as they speak.

The meal Pip shares with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness) soon after arriving in London has the same potential for embarrassment as the earlier card game with Estella, except that Pocket’s warmth and delicacy get Pip through. Guinness had earlier played Pocket on stage in an adaptation of Great Expectations which he himself directed, and which inspired Lean to make the film.  He clearly had a deep understanding of Herbert’s character and brings him to life beautifully. John Forrest, the boy who plays Herbert as a youngster, looks very like a younger version of Guinness, so it is easy to believe the two are the same.

Other good supporting actors in this film include Francis L Sullivan as overbearing lawyer Mr Jaggers (he had also played Jaggers in a 1934 version of GE which I haven’t managed to see as yet) and Ivor Barnard as Mr Wemmick, managing to make the character quite different in the office and at home even though he has very little screen time. There is only one scene with Wemmick and his Aged P (O.B. Clarence), but it is a great one.

Valerie Hobson and John Mills in the final scene

Valerie Hobson and John Mills in the final scene

The later scenes with both Miss Havisham and Magwitch and the adult Pip wonderfully echo those with the two characters and Pip as a boy. Now he sees them from a different angle, and they both become poignant figures rather than monsters – but the giant shadows in his memories are always there. A wind is blowing as Magwitch turns up on Pip’s doorstep, reminiscent of that wild wind on the marshes at the start. And the great fire scene with Miss Havisham brings out all the passion simmering under the surface. The film’s melodramatic ending takes place at Satis House, where Estella sits in Miss Havisham’s chair and is in danger of turning into her adoptive mother, until Pip tears down the curtains and lets in the light. This is different from either of the endings which Dickens wrote, and goes rather over the top – but to see the house’s contents all crumbling away into dust is a powerful moment, and another of the film’s many haunting scenes.

I do also love the BBC/Tony Marchant mini-series, which was able to include far more of the book, but the David Lean film is one of the greatest adaptations – and well worth returning to time and again. For anyone who wants more background, here is a link to an article about the film at the TCM site. 

Anthony Wager as young Pip

Anthony Wager as young Pip

14 thoughts on “Great Expectations (David Lean, 1946)

  1. This haunting sequence was filmed by Guy Green using a wide lens to show it all from the perspective of the young boy. But, watching this great film again this week in the BFI’s restored print on Channel 4, it struck me how well Lean succeeds in showing this opening from the viewpoint of both the child and that of the adult looking back (John Mills as narrator). The film fully shows how terrifying Magwitch is to the young boy, keeping all his spine-chilling threats, which are sometimes watered down in more recent versions. “Your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted, and ate.”

    One of the most iconic openings in the history of the cinema, Judy, and as expected you do it full justice. Not only do I see this towering atmospheric class the best Dickens adaptation of all-time (Allan on the other hand gives a slight edge to Lean’s 1948 OLIVER TWIST) but Lean’s greatest masterpiece. Guy Green’s cinematography is legendary, and the set design is as rapturous as any ever orchestrated. Mills, Guiness, Hunt, Currie, Sullivan are the most accomplished cast in any Dickens adaptation (well later BBC versions of various Dickens adaptations are arguably as distinguished) and there is a real connection to the written word. Heck Lean himself considers this his greatest film.

    Simply wonderful Judy! Even by your own standards you have outdone yourself!


    • Thank you so much, Sam, for your very kind words. I think I might agree on this being the greatest Dickens film adaptation (without getting into all the great TV versions), though I do also love Edzard’s ‘Little Dorrit’ and the 1935 ‘A Tale of Two Cities’… but I’m never good at making decisions about which film I love best! I do prefer Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ to his ‘Oliver Twist’, but then I tend to go for the later Dickens more and ‘Great Expectations’ is a novel I return to far more often than ‘Oliver Twist’, so it is difficuIt to separate my feelings about the films from those about the novels. Must agree that the cast is superb and the cinematography is wonderful.


  2. Judy, a wonderful post on what for many years I have cited as my favorite adaptation of a classic novel to screen. (When I saw both it and Lean’s “Oliver Twist” within a few weeks of each other a couple of years ago, I was ready to switch my allegiance, so for now I’ll call it a near-tie between the two, with “Great Expectations” perhaps getting the edge because of its denser theme.) I liked all your great insights into the film, but what I most liked was your discussion of how Lean is able to convey events in a way that suggests they’re being remembered by the adult Pip and seen through they eyes of the young Pip at the same time. It’s a re-examination of childhood memories from the revisionist viewpoint of the adult. This is a rare thing to achieve without drawing attention to it, and Lean and his writers do this admirably.

    For me the theme of the novel and the film is how maturity allows us to free ourselves of the illusions and misperceptions of childhood, to find the truth of our past that can liberate us. It’s an approach that I’ve read in more modern novels, both genre and literary works, time and again–someone re-examining events of the past and replacing misinterpretations of events with more truthful ones. This theme of self-liberation from the tyranny of memory is a powerful one, and I can’t think of a novel or movie that does it better than this one. Lean’s film is concentrated, rapturously cinematic, and without reproducing the source in complete detail, vividly and accurately captures its spirit. And, yes, it had to be in black and white; I just can’t imagine this film in color!


    • I’m drawn by your description here of ‘someone re-examining events of the past and replacing misinterpretations of events with more truthful ones’ – this is something that Dickens keeps returning to all through his work, with ‘A Christmas Carol’ as a famous example of course… and it is certainly central to all three novels written in the first person, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Great Expectations’ and (partly first person) ‘Bleak House’. I agree that Lean’s film vividly captures the novel’s spirit without including all the detail. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments here, R.D.

      This is also one of my favourite adaptations of a literary classic – I mentioned in my reply to Sam above that I do have other Dickens favourites too, and away from Dickens I also love Wyler’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Carrie’ which we discussed during your Wyler blogathon earlier this year. Thank you again.


  3. Wonderful article, wonderful film. Thank you.

    One tiny correction, if I may….and it is not surprising that few people know this, but the opening studio-shot scenes in the graveyard were actually photographed by Robert Krasker, and the live exteriors of the marsh were shot by Skeets Kelly. I am second to none in my admiration of Guy Green, and all those fine British cameramen of that golden age, but he was not the cameraman on those sequences.

    Lean had used Krasker on BRIEF ENCOUNTER and so it was a forgone conclusion that he would use him again. Strangely enough, however, Lean disliked the work Krasker was doing on those opening scenes of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, calling the photography “too polite”. So after consulting with his associate, former cameraman Ronald Neame, and getting the opinions of other respected cinematographers, Lean offered the job to Green, who had been a camera operator on several previous Lean films.

    The results, of course, were stupendous. Green shot the rest of the film beautifully, and then went on to surpass his work on this with the next Lean film OLIVER TWIST.

    Krasker was one of the finest cinematographers in the world (THE THIRD MAN, ODD MAN OUT, etc) and I have always thought Lean’s reason for replacing him was a bit bizarre. But I certainly have no complaints about Guy Green’s beautiful work.

    Thanks again for the great post.


    • Thank you so much for the kind comment. I did know that the cinematographer had been changed to Guy Green late on, but didn’t realise that Robert Krasker and Skeets Kelly had actually filmed the opening graveyard/marsh scene before the changeover – thanks very much for that information. Krasker’s work on ‘Brief Encounter’ is magnificent – odd that Lean could consider his opening shots for GE “too polite”, but, as you say, Green did a great job on the rest of the film and of course on ‘Oliver Twist’ too. I got a Lean box set for Christmas, so will be catching up with a lot more of his work over the coming weeks.


  4. I just saw this film today (got the Blu-ray for Christmas) and was blown away by it. Definitely the best adaptation of a Dickens book I have seen, with the possible exception of the 1951 Scrooge with Alistair Sim. I enjoyed your review greatly and will definitely be bookmarking this blog.


    • Jay, thanks very much for the nice comment – I got a box set of Lean films for Christmas so am looking forward to exploring more of his work. I have also reviewed the 1951 Scrooge recently and agree that is a great adaptation too.


  5. I enjoyed reading your intelligent and knowledgeable comments on Lean’s “Great Expectations” and would like to share with you the following extract from an article written by noted critic and author, John Russell Taylor, ……”Great Expectations”, as well as being pictorially superb, manages to capture the essence of the book and hold the Gothick (sic) extravagances and the acute social comment in perfect balance”.

    This film has a valued place in my DVD collection.


    • Thanks for sharing that comment from John Russell Taylor, Rod – it really sums up the way that the film brings together the different elements of the book. Thanks also for the nice comment. This reminds me that I need to watch more of the films in the Lean box set soon!


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