Using an adaptive finite–element (FE) scheme developed recently by the authors, we shed new light on the long–standing fundamental problem of the unsteady free–surface Stokes flow exterior to a circular cylinder rotating about its horizontal axis in a vertical gravitational field. For supportable loads, we observe that the steadystate is more readily attained for near–maximal fluid loads on the cylinder than for significantly sub–maximal loads. For the latter, we investigate large–time dynamics by means of a finite–difference approximation to the thin–film equations, which is also used to validate the adaptive FE simulations (applied to the full Stokes equations) for these significantly sub–maximal loads. Conversely, by comparing results of the two methods, we assess the validity of the thin–film approximation as either the load is increased or the rotation rate of the cylinder is decreased. Results are presented on the independent effects of gravity, surface tension and initial film thickness on the decay to steady–state. Finally, new numerical simulations of load shedding are presented.