Friday, June 6, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture 1962)

Lawrence of Arabia is probably the most beautifully photographed Best Picture film of all time. Unfortunately, just because a film is beautiful doesn't make it great. It seems to me that once again The Academy chose to bestow Best Picture on a film that was an achievement in film-making, but was not a great film.

My first question before I watched this film is, besides being Peter O'Toole, who WAS Lawrence of Arabia?

I hate to tell you but we never really do find out who the heck he was.
Here's what I did learn by watching Lawrence of Arabia: T.E. Lawrence died of a motorcycle accident in the UK sometime after World War I. People either liked him or hated him. He spoke Arabic. He did not judge people by class or by race. (Although he seemed to be a reverse-snob in the sense that he seemed to think that most if not all other British men were idiots.) He had an immense ego, until he was brought down by torture. He tried to unify the Arabs into one big "tribe" or "race," but when they wouldn't go along with his efforts, he got fed up and went back to Great Britain. The End. 
All the rest of the film is just details, mixed up and hard to follow. This seems like it's a war film, but until very very late into the film you get no map of where the action is supposedly happening. So the initial charge is into Yenbo, for example, but we have no idea if that is near, far, within reason, or out of the question. The characters seem to know, but that information isn't shared with the audience. (Or am I admitting that my sense of geography isn't what the average audience member of 1960's would have been?) So what drama there is, really isn't. And because the film begins with the death of Lawrence in England (eight minutes of excruciatingly dull scenes of him on a motorcycle!), there is no drama about Lawrence possibly dying in the midst of his story, either. So what is the point of this motion picture? More so than your "average" film, an epic spectacle like this seems to me to cry out that there IS a point to it. However, if there is one for Lawrence of Arabia, I have no idea what it is.
I don't mean to imply that the film is all bad. For the first half, especially, there seems to be a determined plot of Lawrence acquiring the Arabs' respect as he attempts to guide them as a force against the Turkish forces in Aquaba. (Is it bad of me to admit that I kept thinking of the city from Aladaddin, Agraba, every time they mentioned their battle plans?) The plot in the second half breaks down, however, as Lawrence does dumber and dumber things and there are more and more back-stabbings occurring. For example: Lawrence believes he can go into a Turkish city and not be noticed. (O'Toole is very very obviously blonde and blue-eyed). Lawrence believes he can win Damascus and then hold it against the British forces AND the Arab in-fighting. Lawrence believes he can defeat the Turkish forces, slaughtering them all, and still remain above the fray. (Symbolically, his robe remains mostly cleanly white throughout the film.)
Although this is a world-famous epic spectacle, the best parts of this film are the more intimate character moments. Lawrence makes the effort to save a man's life in the desert, then lives to regret it. Lawrence and his servants trek across the desert to inform the British Army about a battle; when they get to the British HQ he insists that his boy is served lemonade, even though the boy is an Arab.

Another highlight is the cast. Lawrence meets Ali (Omar Sharif) as an enemy, but they eventually become good friends. Both Sharif and O'Toole shine, especially in their scenes together. O'Toole as mentioned is totally Caucasian and wears a white robe; Sharif is a tall, dark, and handsome Arab, and wears a black robe throughout the film. Visually, they are opposites. And as mentioned, they are photographed well. Anthony Quinn is also outstanding as a Bedouin chieftain who joins Lawrence only for his own personal reasons. Claude Reins plays Dryden, a conniving bureaucrat. He is great, although I never quite understood what his role was supposed to be in the story. And Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, the supreme commander of the British forces, is also superbly underplayed. Not so well acted is Alec Guinness as Sheik Feisal. I am not a fan of Caucasian actors playing other races, and by this time, in glorious living color, Guinness simply looks like himself with tanner and a fake beard. It's embarrassing. By the way, no women have any speaking roles in this film. There are wives of Bedouin raiders shown, but none of them speak.  
A lot of what was probably wonderful in 1960 we can see nowadays on National Geographic specials. I ask you, how many scenes of the desert do we really need to watch? Five scenes of watching Peter O'Toole (or his stunt double) riding a camel in the desert for five minutes at a stretch doesn't make this a Best Picture.

Lawrence of Arabia
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1961*
Produced by Sam Spiegel
Directed  by David Lean
Screenplay by Robert Bolt (original) 
and Michael Wilson (credit added later)

Geez, even the trailer is long!
Watch this 5 minute mini-epic and skip the film.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Longest Day
The Music Man
Mutiny On The Bounty
To Kill A Mockingbird
It's hard to believe that one of the greatest US films of all time, To Kill A Mockingbird, lost out to Lawrence. I challenge you to watch both if you haven't already and then tell me which is better. There is a reason that Gregory Peck won Best Actor over Peter O'Toole. The Music Man is the rare musical film to be nominated for Best Picture but then not to win (others such honored were Anchors Aweigh, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, The King and I, and most famously, The Wizard of OZ). The Longest Day is another war epic, this one about D-Day. but in black and white. Compared to Lawrence, it must not have been "epic" enough. And if Mutiny On The Bounty had won it would have been the only re-make of a Best Picture (1935) to also win. Unfortunately, Trevor Howard and Marlon Brando were not Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. Also a shame that The Miracle Worker wasn't even nominated. This is the story of Helen Keller and her tutor, Anne Sullivan, which won Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars for its stars, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. If you have never seen this film, you should. It is amazing.

No comments:

Post a Comment