I was sickeningly awful

December 1984: During the run-up to the release of A Passage to India, one of its supporting cast, Alec Guinness, writes an embarrassed letter of congratulations to director David Lean.

Even before the movie’s initial reviews — many of which quickly questioned the strange casting choice of Guinness as the Indian professor Godbole — Guinness had felt uncomfortable in the role, and to some extent it showed on screen. Judging by his letter to Lean, his early critics had only amplified his regret at taking on the role.

Transcript follows. Image courtesy of the British Film Institute, who have a lovely collection of materials relating to David Lean at their website.

Image: BFI


16 XII 84

My dear David

I tried telephoning you yesterday evening but you had not yet arrived and as you are probably dead tired I shall leave you in peace. Hence this note.

I think the film is marvellously good and do congratulate you most heartily. It is expansive, handsome, gripping and yet somehow intimate. And the story — which we all know is somewhat complicated — comes over with simplicity. It didn’t seem a minute too long.

Also I think it is beautifully acted — with one excruciating exception. Peggy, for my money, gives a truly superb performance and should get a whopping big Oscar. And I thought Victor pulled it off charmingly and splendidly. As did the others. For my own part I’m afraid I thought I was sickeningly awful. I thought it was poor at the time we were doing it but I hadn’t realised how wide of the mark I was. I don’t in the least blame you, as you were helpful, but I do wish — when I asked Richard, very calmly and unfunnily, in the first week, if you’d all like to get rid of me he had taken me up on it. John Brabourne was right in his original objection. Well, there it is and some of the press have rightly pointed it out. One thing I am now grateful for is the disappearance of the song and dance — at least the agony isn’t protracted.

Anyway, that’s all fairly minor stuff. The film itself is outstanding and I think it combines, happily, your best work from the Dickens films to Lawrence of Arabia. Clearly it is going to be a huge success.

With love,