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Oliver Twist is a 1948 British film and 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 and Robert Newton played Bill Sikes.

Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist1948.movieposter.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byDavid Lean
Produced byRonald Neame
Anthony Havelock-Allan
Written byDavid Lean
Stanley Haynes
Based onOliver Twist
1837 novel
by Charles Dickens
StarringAlec Guinness
Robert Newton
Kay Walsh
John Howard Davies
Anthony Newley
Music byArnold Bax
CinematographyGuy Green
Edited byJack Harris
Distributed byGeneral Film Distributors (UK),
Eagle-Lion, United Artists (USA, 1951)
Release date
22 June 1948 (London)[1]
Running time
116 minutes (UK)
CountryUnited Kingdom

In 1999, the British Film Institute placed it at 46th in its list of the top 100 British films. In 2005 it was named in the BFI list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14.


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, Noah, 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 Jew 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. 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 Sykes (Robert Newton), and Sykes' 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 Sykes, 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 — particularly Sykes who attempts to make his escape by taking Oliver hostage. Clambering over the rooftops, and with climbing rope hung around his neck, Sykes is shot by one of the mob and is accidentally hanged as he loses his footing. Mr. Brownlow and the authorities rescue Oliver. 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.



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 perpetuate Jewish racial stereotypes.[2] 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."[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7] 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. It was banned in Egypt for portraying Fagin too sympathetically.[8]

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 receptionEdit

Box officeEdit

The film was the fifth most popular film at the British box office in 1949.[9][10]

Critical receptionEdit

Oliver Twist currently has a 'fresh' rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 8.51/10 based on 21 reviews.[11]


Author Marc Napolitano noted that Lean's version of Oliver Twist impacted almost every subsequent adaptation of Dickens's novel. The film had two major additions that were not in the original novel. Napolitano wrote, "The opening scene, which depicts the beleaguered and pregnant Agnes limping her way to the parish workhouse in the midst of a thunderstorm, presents a haunting image that would resonate with subsequent adaptors. Even more significantly, the finale to the Lean adaptation has eclipsed Dickens’s own finale in the popular memory of the story; the climax atop the roof of Fagin’s lair is breathtaking." Songwriter Lionel Bart acknowledged that Lean's film "played a role in his conception" of the musical Oliver![12]

Katharyn Crabbe wrote, "One common complaint about the form of Dickens' Oliver Twist has been that the author fell so in love with his young hero that he could not bear to make him suffer falling into Fagin's hands a third time and so made him an idle spectator in the final half of the book." Author Edward LeComte credited Lean for resolving the issue in his film version[13] where Oliver remains "at the center of the action" and has a "far more heroic" role.[14]


  1. ^ Silverman, Stephen M. (1992). David Lean. H. N. Abrams, Inc. p. 77. ISBN 9780810925076.
  2. ^ ""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.
  3. ^ Drazin, Charles (3 May 2013). "Dickens's Jew – from evil to delightful". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
  4. ^ Mark Burman, presenter (27 June 2013). "Stuart: A Face Backwards". London. 13 minutes in. BBC. Radio 4. Retrieved 27 June 2013. Missing or empty |series= (help)
  5. ^ Phillips, Gene D. (2006). "Oliver Twist (1948)". Beyond the Epic: The Life and Films of David Lean. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813138205.
  6. ^ "Fagin in Berlin Provokes a Riot". LIFE: 38. 7 March 1949. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
  7. ^ "Oliver Twist". criterioncollection. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  8. ^ Brooks, Xan (8 August 2000). "The ten best Alec Guinness movies". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  9. ^ "THE STARRY WAY". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane: National Library of Australia. 8 January 1949. p. 2. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
  10. ^ Thumim, Janet. "The popular cash and culture in the postwar British cinema industry". Screen. Vol. 32 no. 3. p. 258.
  11. ^ "Oliver Twist", Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved on June 30, 2019.
  12. ^ Napolitano, Marc (2014). "Chapter 1 - Setting The Stage: Oliver Twist, Lionel Bart, and Cultural Contexts". Oliver!: A Dickensian Musical. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-936482-4.
  13. ^ Crabbe, Katharyn (Fall 1977). "Lean's "Oliver Twist": Novel to Film". Film Criticism. 2 (1): 50.
  14. ^ Crabbe, p. 47


  • Vermilye, Jerry. (1978). The Great British Films. Citadel Press, pp. 117–120. ISBN 0-8065-0661-X.

External linksEdit