“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.”
No one does epic like David Lean. Sure, there are movies like Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur, but they come with a certain amount of melodrama that always makes them movie characters and movie situations. There’s nothing real about them. But Lean can take the most melodramatic of stories, drop it in the most removed from reality period setting of elaborate costumes, and still make his world real and believable. And while movies like Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India and Great Expectations are epics in their own right, they all look like low budget indies next to Lawrence of Arabia.
It’s the First World War, and English troops stationed in Egypt are helping the local Arabian tribes fight the invading, colonising Turks. TE Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a plucky young Lieutenant, known for his cockiness, ego and speaking back to superiors, is chosen to rendezvous with Prince Faisel (Alec Guinness), the closest thing to a unified leader that the disparate tribes follow.
In his search for the Prince, crossing the harsh desert, Lawrence meets Bedouin tough nut, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). At first wary and suspicious of each other, Lawrence and Ali soon bond over battle, and an almost life threatening trek across the almost uncrossable Nefud Desert. Crossing the desert, they meet and recruit tribe leader Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), and soon, with his first major win against the Turks under his belt, Lawrence has the respect of the Arabians.
With the loyalty of the Bedouin, Lawrence launches a guerrilla campaign across Arabia against the Turks, with Ali constantly by his side. The only problem is, Lawrence is against colonisation in a time when the Brits were still big fans of stealing countries. So while he fights for true Arabian independence, his superiors are more than happy to take advantage of his victories and wait in the wings to take the country once Lawrence has done all the hard work. But when they begin to fear that he may have “gone native”, the British generals and politicians realise that they have created a monster.
When the opening credits said, “Introducing Peter O’Toole”, I assumed that must have been a lie, but when I looked at his IMDB, besides a few TV roles, this really was his first big screen appearance. At first, I couldn’t believe that director David Lean, or the studio funding Lawrence of Arabia, would trust the major role in such an epic movie to a relatively unknown. But as the movie went on, it made sense.
TE Lawrence is an unknown every time he comes in contact with a new group of people. And every time, they’re sceptical of this young, fresh faced, golden haired pretty boy. And every time, he proves them wrong. And I think that would have really worked on the 1962 audience too. Or maybe I was just too aware of it after reading the “introducing”. But for me, it made TE Lawrence more of a wild card every time he entered a new situation and every time he took on a new mission.
I’d seen Lawrence of Arabia before, at home on DVD. I liked it and respected it, but wasn’t blown away buy it. This time, I saw it the big screen, with an audience and it was a totally different experience. This time the total and complete epicness was impossible to ignore. Every impeccable David Lean shot was more impeccable. Every tortured look on O’Toole’s face when he realises the consequences of his actions and the futility of his cause was more tortured. And every joke, of which there were way more than I remembered, was funnier.
Lawrence of Arabia is a kind of epic that we’ll probably never see again. Shot on location with no special effects, it’s more breathtaking than any CGI filled blockbuster. The battle scenes are more visceral than any heightened actioner, and I can’t imagine any modern movie ever justifying an almost four hour running time this well. The only question I still have about this movies legendary reputation is, why is it so low on the AFI list?
Best Director – David Lean
Best Actor – Peter O’Toole
Best Supporting Actor – Omar Sharif
Best Adapted Screenplay
Best Art Direction
Best Original Score