best film:  For all but a few actors in cinema history, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is going to be that actor’s best film if they were a part of it – and that holds true for Alec Guinness. And though it does not happen to be one of his best performances – Lawrence of Arabia is a testament to Guinness’ abilities as a shapeshifter – Guinness plays Prince Faisal. Lawrence of Arabia is Peter O’Toole’s show – but Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, in particular, do not back down or blink at all in the face of O’Toole’s performance – they are all absolutely going for it. Great Expectations (1946), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) are magnificent films – all three (3) also with David Lean – and just a step or two down from Lawrence. Obviously to everyone a certain age or younger – Guinness is most recognizable as Obi-Wan Kenobi from both Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – giving Guinness some real depth to this category.


best performance: The Bridge on the River Kwai is the easy answer, and this is Guinness’ Oscar winning performance. He was nominated a total of five (5) times.  William Holden may give the slightly stronger performance in the film – but this is not a zero-sum game exercise – both Guinness and Holden can be superb (and they are) – and it is Guinness who gets the devastating moment pictured here.


Alec Guinness in the climatic moment as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai – it is rare to grab the exact film frame that shows an actor’s finest moment.


stylistic innovations/traits:  Alec Guinness is an actor who often flourished when disappearing deep into characters – performances that often included varying nationalities (an example noted in Lawrence above), different looks (he is a Scottish, a soldier and scotch drinker in Tunes of Glory), and unique accents and voices (The Horse’s Mouth for one where he has that distinct grumble the entire film).  This is the Paul Muni and Gary Oldman chameleon school of acting – and Guinness clearly had an effect and influence on his costar in The Ladykillers – the younger Peter Sellers.  The range from Guinness is special – his bumbling, but clever Father Brown in The Detective (1955) would not be more different than his by-the-books steady Colonel Nicholson in River Kwai just two (2) years later.  There are three (3) distinct threads or modes to the career of Alec Guinness. First off, there are the six (6) David Lean collaborations. These run over nearly forty (40) years and stretch on top over Guinness’ second phase – the Ealing comedies – and the third phase – the Star Wars universe. Guinness is in four (4) archiveable Ealing comedies from 1949 starting with Kind Hearts and Coronets and spanning till 1955 with The Ladykillers. These films give Guinness a fuller filmography – he has twenty (20) total archiveable films. Those twenty (20) archiveable films come in under fifty (50) total film credits – a very strong archiveable film to total overall film ratio for an actor who started in the 1940s especially. Star Wars came along deep into Guinness’ career (he is north of sixty in 1977) – and he is paramount to that first 1977 film.             


Guinness spent most of his career giving louder, attention grabbing performances – but there is an easy control in work as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977). He hits all the right notes here.


directors worked with:  David Lean (6), Robert Hamer (2), Alexander Mackendrick (2), Ronald Neame (2), Carol Reed (1), George Lucas (1). It is Guinness’ alignment with David Lean that is most important. Guinness is with Lean for the two Charles Dickens’ adaptations in the 1940s to sort of start his career. Then there is just that awe-inspiring string of epics from 1957 to 1965 with River Kwai, Lawrence and Zhivago. A Passage to India in 1984 is their last film together (and Lean’s last overall) – a mixed results attempt to get the band back together one last time.


Guinness had a working partnership with David Lean that spanned decades. After playing Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946), Guinness, one of those man of many faces actors, would play Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948).


top five performances:

  1. The Bridge on the River Kwai
  2. Star Wars
  3. The Lavendar Hill Mob
  4. Oliver Twist
  5. The Ladykillers


archiveable films

1946- Great Expectations
1948- Oliver Twist
1949- Kind Hearts and Cornets
1951- The Lavender Hill Mob
1951- The Man in the White Suit
1954- The Detective
1955- The Ladykillers
1955- The Prisoner
1957- The Bridge on the River Kwai
1958- The Horse’s Mouth
1959- Our Man in Havana
1960- Tunes of Glory
1962- Lawrence of Arabia
1965- Doctor Zhivago
1976- Murder by Death
1977- Star Wars
1980- The Empire Strikes Back
1983- Return of the Jedi
1984- A Passage to India
1988- A Handful of Dust