Monday, October 10, 2011



With the choice of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA the Academy gave director David Lean his second best picture winner,  (his first being 1957's BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI) and helped cement his reputation for epics.  But LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is an unusual epic in that, even though it has the prerequisite cast of thousands and enormous battle scenes, it also has a complex and often half mad main character who stands in stark contrast to the one dimensional heroes of such films as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS or SPARTACUS.  It is this unusual hero (and the great lead performance by Peter O'Toole as that hero) that keeps the film from feeling dated and stilted like so many other epics from that era.  Today it is still seen as the one of the best epics ever made, an opinion I certainly concur with.
After the huge success of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, director Lean and producer Sam Spiegel were looking for a follow up.  Lean had shown an interest in making a film about T. E.  Lawrence after reading Lawrence's autobiography THE SEVEN PILLARS OF WISDOM in the early 50's, but Spiegel didn't get the rights until 1960.  At first, Marlon Brando was considered for the title role, and then Albert Finney, before Lean convinced Spiegel to let him cast the then virtually unknown O'Toole, a decision that would certainly prove itself correct.  With a script by Micheal Wilson and (then uncredited) play write Robert Bolt,  Lean went to work on the mammoth production, spending two years on the preproduction alone, before shooting in Jordan, Spain and Morocco.  Although it wound up over budget, it became a smash hit, returning around $45,000,000 on a budget of 15.
The film tells the true story of Thomas Edward Lawrence, a young English military officer, who during World War I, is sent to Arabia to aid Arab prince Faisel (Alec Guinness) in his battle against the Turks.  For two years Lawrence leads successful raids against the Turkish military, most famously taking the city of Aqaba.  After a brief but brutal capture by the Turks embitters him, he later leads his men in the  slaughter of a retreating  Turkish army.  After this harsh experience, combined with his realization that the European powers have no desire to allow the Arabian people to run their own country, he leaves the Middleast entirely and becomes a common soldier.  Years later, he dies in a motorcycle crash (which opens the film).
Right from the start, it has to be said that this is one of the best looking films ever made; although all epics try to knock out the audience with their visual splendor, few succeed as impressively as this one. The incredible way that Lean cuts from Lawrence blowing out a lit match to the desert sands of Arabia is one of the most jarring and stunning edits in movie history.  More importantly,  Lean wrung not only beauty, but drama from the way he and cinematographer Freddie Young shot the pure white sands of the desert, which look not only beautiful but foreboding in the way that they almost swallow the often tiny looking people moving across them.  I love the way that Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) first appears through a mirage in the distance, or the way that the taking of Aqaba is filmed from high above in one long panning shot of the Arab army charging the city, that ends with the camera resting on a now worthless Turkish cannon pointed the wrong way.  (Not since GONE WITH THE WIND has a single shot summarized a battle so effectively!)

The Seige of Aqaba

Although he has had a long and varied career, O'Toole will always be know for his star making performance as Lawrence, and with good reason.  The movie is almost four hours long, and he's practically in every frame, easily carrying the film; along with his smoldering good looks and piercing blue eyes, he was able to  exude an instant charisma that marked him as both a movie star and as a credible military leader in the film.  He is likable in the early scenes, where we see him clumsy and uncomfortable in the British military, and when he resolves to live as much like an Arab as possible once he's in Arabia. (I also really enjoy the almost childish way that he parades about by himself after his men give him a new white robe and dagger). And he is clearly shaken and upset when he admits that he has come to enjoy killing.  But then he begins to lose the audience's sympathy as he begins to see himself as something more than human ("They can only kill me with a golden bullet!"), and he begins to compare himself to Moses and Jesus.  Finally, after his short but brutal imprisonment, he appears to have completely snapped, and he becomes truly frightening, especially when he charges forward to slaughter the retreating Turks with a huge smile on his face, (a chilling image if there ever was one!).  O'Toole perfectly shows his character changes over the course of the film without ever overplaying it.  (When he speaks of his messianic abilities he does it in a quiet and determined voice).  And even as he falls into madness, he is still compelling.
O'Toole is well matched by the rest of the cast: Shariff is excellent as the proud Sherif, who shifts from skeptic to believer to voice of reason over the course of the film.  And if Anthony Quin's Auda Abu Tayi is perhaps too loud and broad, his lovable bandit character is clearly supposed to be over the top, and he brings energy and humor to the film, so  I don't mind at all. Alec Guinness and Claude Raines also have  small but pivotal roles, and they both acquit themselves well.

Peter O'Toole and Omar Shariff

At almost four hours, the film has no real slow spots, and is never far away from a terrific image or well acted scene; the closest thing I can find as a flaw in the film is in the role of Arthur Kennedy as American reporter Jackson Bentley.  Although he is important to the plot in that his reporting makes Lawrence famous, there is little that he brings to the film; almost everything he says to Lawrence is obvious to the audience already, and it feels that his presence in the film is nothing more than a sop to American audiences.  Still, this is a minor point.


While other fine films like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT came out the same year as LAWRENCE, clearly this impressive epic stands head and shoulders over the rest.   I must admit that for the third straight year I can't really argue with the Academy's choice.  That streak will end with my next entry...