Oliver Twist (1948 film)

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Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist1948.movieposter.jpg
Original theatrical poster
Directed by David Lean
Produced by Ronald Neame
Anthony Havelock-Allan
Written by David Lean
Stanley Haynes
Based on Oliver Twist
1837 novel 
by Charles Dickens
Starring Alec Guinness
Robert Newton
Kay Walsh
John Howard Davies
Anthony Newley
Music by Arnold Bax
Cinematography Guy Green
Edited by Jack Harris
Distributed by Rank Organisation
Release dates
30 June 1948 (UK)
Running time
116 minutes (UK)
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Oliver Twist (1948) is the second of David Lean's two film adaptations of Charles Dickens novels. Following the success of his 1946 version of Great Expectations, Lean re-assembled much of the same team for his adaptation of Dickens' 1838 novel, including producers Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan, cinematographer Guy Green, designer John Bryan and editor Jack Harris. Lean's then-wife, Kay Walsh, who had collaborated on the screenplay for Great Expectations, played the role of Nancy. John Howard Davies was cast as Oliver, while Alec Guinness portrayed Fagin.

In 1999, the British Film Institute placed it at 46th in its list of the top 100 British films.


A young woman in labour makes her way to a parish workhouse and dies after giving birth to a boy, who is systematically named Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) by the workhouse authorities. As the years go by, Oliver and the rest of the child inmates suffer from the callous indifference of the officials in charge: beadle Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan) and matron Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare). At the age of nine, the hungry children draw straws; Oliver loses and has to ask for a second helping of gruel ("Please sir, I want some more").

For his impudence, he is promptly apprenticed to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin), from whom he receives somewhat better treatment. However, when another worker maligns his dead mother, Oliver flies into a rage and attacks him, earning the orphan a whipping.

Oliver runs away to London. The Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley), a skilled young pickpocket, notices him and takes him to Fagin (Alec Guinness), an old man who trains children to be pickpockets. Fagin sends Oliver to watch and learn as the Dodger and another boy try to rob Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), a rich, elderly gentleman. Their attempt is detected, but it is Oliver who is chased through the streets by a mob and arrested. Fortunately, a witness clears him. Mr. Brownlow takes a liking to the boy, and gives him a home. Oliver experiences the kind of happy life he has never had before, under the care of Mr. Brownlow and the loving housekeeper, Mrs. Bedwin (Amy Veness).

Meanwhile, Fagin is visited by the mysterious Monks (Ralph Truman), who has a strong interest in Oliver. He sends Monks to Bumble and Mrs. Corney (now Bumble's domineering wife); Monks buys from them the only thing that can identify Oliver's parentage, a locket containing his mother's portrait.

By chance, Fagin's associate, the vicious Bill Sikes (Robert Newton), and Sikes' kind-hearted prostitute girlfriend (and former Fagin pupil) Nancy (Kay Walsh) run into Oliver on the street and forcibly take him back to Fagin. Nancy feels pangs of guilt and, seeing a poster in which Mr. Brownlow offers a reward for Oliver's return, contacts the gentleman and promises to deliver Oliver the next day. The suspicious Fagin, however, has had the Dodger follow her. When Fagin informs Sikes, the latter becomes enraged and murders her, mistakenly believing that she has betrayed him.

The killing brings down the wrath of the public on the gang. Mr. Brownlow and the authorities rescue Oliver, while Sikes is shot and, because the rope is still around his neck, accidentally hangs himself trying to escape over the rooftop. Fagin and his other associates are rounded up. Monks' part in the proceedings is discovered, and he is arrested. He was trying to ensure his inheritance; Oliver, it turns out, is Mr. Brownlow's grandson. For their involvement in Monks' scheme, Mr. and Mrs. Bumble lose their jobs at the workhouse. Oliver is happily reunited with his newly found grandfather and Mrs. Bedwin, his search for love ending in fulfilment.


Differences from the novel[edit]

While in general faithful to the Dickens storyline, Lean's film omits the Rose Maylie sub-plot altogether. Instead, while Oliver is forced by Sikes to help him burgle a house, Nancy goes directly to Mr. Brownlow to warn him of the plot against the boy, and Fagin dispatches the Artful Dodger instead of Noah Claypole (who appears only in the early scenes) to spy on her. It is also Dodger, and not Charley Bates, who angrily gives up Sikes to the police (he suffers remorse after discovering Nancy's dead body and realising he has been an unintentional party to her murder). Oliver returns safely from the burglary with Sikes, rather than being accidentally shot during the break-in. Nancy's best friend, Bet, is also omitted from this film. As in the later musical version, Nancy plans to return Oliver to Brownlow on London Bridge; however, she plans on doing so at noon instead of midnight (she intends to drug Sikes with laudanum, something she does not do in the musical). But in the David Lean film, she never even begins to set her plan in motion, because she is found out and murdered beforehand.

As in most film and stage adaptations, Oliver is brought up in just the one workhouse, and the two respective matrons, Mrs. Mann and Mrs. Corney, are combined into the same character.

The boy dying of consumption and malnourishment in the workhouse, Dick, never appears in the film.

Unlike the novel, in which Nancy meets Oliver the day after he arrives at Fagin's and her sympathy for the boy is implied early in the story, she and Oliver do not even meet in the film until she helps to kidnap the boy; and although she defends him from Fagin's anger after the kidnapping, Oliver seems to still be unaware of any real concern she may have for him until late in the film, when he leaves with Sikes to commit the burglary. While wrapping a scarf around Oliver's neck prior to his leaving, she momentarily touches his cheek to silently reassure him, and he looks back at her in surprise as Sikes pushes him out the door. Unlike the novel, the musical, or many other film versions, Oliver is never shown displaying any feelings for Nancy one way or the other.

Agnes Fleming, Oliver's mother, is turned in the screenplay into Brownlow's daughter, rather than simply the paramour of Oliver's father.

Fagin's trial is not shown in the film, and his hanging is left unmentioned. Unlike the previous 1933 American film version, the 1948 film omits the scene with a semi-hysterical Fagin in his prison cell, awaiting his execution, although as the police close in on him, he does get to scream out the lines he has in the book in his death cell, "Strike them all dead! What right have they to butcher me?".

Oliver's father is never mentioned at all in the film, while in the book he was Mr. Brownlow's best friend.

Although the film includes the character of Monks, Oliver's half-brother, it is never explained in the script that Monks is the half-brother at all. He seems to be merely a mysterious stranger who turns up to make trouble for Oliver. The one clue to his identity is furnished when he says to Brownlow, "Is this a trick to deprive me of my inheritance?", and Brownlow replies "You have no inheritance, for as you know, my daughter had the child!" The terms of the will left by Oliver's father—that Oliver would be disinherited if he ever committed a criminal act—are also left unexplained.


Cruikshank – Fagin in the condemned Cell

Alec Guinness's portrayal of Fagin and his make-up was considered anti-semitic by some as it was felt to perpetrate Jewish racial stereotypes.[1] Guinness wore heavy make-up, including a large prosthetic nose, to make him look like the character as he appeared in George Cruikshank's illustrations in the first edition of the novel. At the start of production, the Production Code Administration had advised David Lean to "bear in mind the advisability of omitting from the portrayal of Fagin any elements or inference that would be offensive to any specific racial group or religion."[2] Lean commissioned the make-up artist Stuart Freeborn to create Fagin's features; Freeborn (himself part-Jewish) had suggested to David Lean that Fagin's exaggerated profile should be toned down for fear of causing offence, but Lean rejected this idea. In a screen test featuring Guinness in toned-down make-up, Fagin was said to resemble Jesus Christ.[3] On this basis, Lean decided to continue filming with a faithful reproduction of Cruikshank's Fagin, pointing out that Fagin was not explicitly identified as Jewish in the screenplay.[4]

The March 1949 release of the film in Germany was met with protests outside the Kurbel Cinema by Jewish objectors. The Mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter, was a signatory to their petition which called for the withdrawal of the film. The depiction of Fagin was considered especially problematic in the recent aftermath of the Holocaust.[5]

As a result of objections by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the New York Board of Rabbis, the film was not released in the United States until 1951, with seven minutes of profile shots and other parts of Guinness's performance cut.[6] It received great acclaim from critics, but, unlike Lean's Great Expectations, another Dickens adaptation, no Oscar nominations. The film was banned in Israel for anti-semitism. Ironically, it was banned in Egypt for portraying Fagin too sympathetically.[7][better source needed]

Beginning in the 1970s, the full-length version of Lean's film began to be shown in the United States. It is that version which is now available on DVD.

Release and reception[edit]

Box office[edit]

The film was the fifth most popular film at the British box office in 1949.[8]

Critical reception[edit]

Oliver Twist currently has a 'fresh' rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and an average rating of 8.6 out of 10. This is based on seventeen reviews (all of which are positive).[9]


  1. ^ ""JUNIOR ANGEL" AS FILM OLIVER TWIST.". The Sunday Herald (Sydney: National Library of Australia). 30 January 1949. p. 5 Supplement: Magazine Section. Retrieved 7 July 2012. 
  2. ^ Drazin, Charles (3 May 2013). "Dickens's Jew – from evil to delightful". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 27 June 2013. 
  3. ^ Mark Burman, presenter (27 June 2013). "Stuart: A Face Backwards". 13 minutes in. BBC. Radio 4. Retrieved 27 June 2013.  Missing or empty |series= (help)
  4. ^ Phillips, Gene D. (2006). "Oliver Twist (1948)". Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813138205. 
  5. ^ "Fagin in Berlin Provokes a Riot". LIFE: 38. 7 March 1949. Retrieved 27 June 2013. 
  6. ^ "Oliver Twist". criterioncollection. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  7. ^ Brooks, Xan (8 August 2000). "The ten best Alec Guinness movies". London: The Telegraph. Retrieved 20 January 2013. 
  8. ^ "THE STARRY WAY.". The Courier-Mail (Brisbane: National Library of Australia). 8 January 1949. p. 2. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  9. ^ "Oliver Twist", Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved on February 1, 2015.
  • Vermilye, Jerry. (1978). The Great British Films. Citadel Press, pp. 117–120. ISBN 0-8065-0661-X.

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