Friday, August 30, 2013

Movie – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

What praise can be given to Lawrence of Arabia that has not already been spoken many times over?  What words can be written about both a movie and a man whose histories are both inextricably linked and also clouded in questions of reality vs. fiction?  To be clear, the film Lawrence of Arabia is epic, and even that’s a bit of an understatement.  While I know of at least one person for whom “epic” is a four letter word, I am using it in the most positive way.  I could joke, “Look up ‘epic’ in the dictionary and they will have a picture of Peter O’Toole as Lawrence.”  Instead, I will be completely serious when I write the following sentences.  I have seen all 85 films that have won the Academy Award for Best Picture – from Wings (1927) to Casablanca (1943) to The Godfather (1972) to Schindler’s List (1993) to Argo (2012).  If I were ever to be put in the “gun to your head, gotta pick only one as the best of the best” situation, then my choice would be Lawrence of Arabia as the greatest of all 85 Best Picture Oscar winners.

Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence was a man who became a legend in his own lifetime.  His exploits during WWI were written about in newspapers.  He later wrote his own autobiography, which some people said was highly exaggerated.  If so, this would be very much in keeping with the larger than life persona that he exuded.  As far back as the silent era studios tried to get permission to make a film about him.  For decades no one was able to move forward.  Finally Lawrence’s surviving brother gave permission for a film to be made, but later disallowed the filmmakers from using his brother’s autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom as the official source.

Entering into the picture in the late 1950s are director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel.  They had had a huge success with The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and were looking for another big picture they could work on together.  They chose the exploits of Lawrence during the Arab uprising against the Turks during WWI as the subject.  It was not until 1962 that the film finally got released, though.  The efforts that went into getting it made have become as much the stuff of legend as the subject himself. 

Two years were spent in pre-production on the movie, and then 14 more months were taken to film it.  It actually took longer to make this movie than it did for the real events that are shown happening within it.  Most of the major roles were recast at some point during the pre-production, and even a couple after filming had begun.  Picture Albert Finney as Lawrence instead of Peter O’Toole, Alain Delon as Sherif Ali instead of Omar Sharif, Lawrence Olivier as Prince Faisal instead of Alec Guinness, and Cary Grant as General Allenby instead of Jack Hawkins.  I could go on.  All were the filmmakers’ choices before ending up with the people we see onscreen.

Once filming commenced in Jordan (150 miles from the nearest water source) they received a ton of cooperation from King Hussein, up to and including him sending his own military to play soldiers in the film.  Unfortunately, the conditions in Jordan, combined with the extended shoot, meant there was a lot of illness during filming.  Eventually a break was ordered and the shoot ended up resuming in Spain instead.

The film finally made it to theaters and received ten Oscar nominations, winning for Best Picture, Director, Color Cinematography, Editing, Score, Sound, and Color Set Decoration.  Peter O’Toole did not win for Best Actor – at least understandable when the competition is Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird – and Omar Sharif did not win Best Supporting Actor – losing to Ed Begley, Sr. in Sweet Bird of Youth.  To Kill a Mockingbird also defeated Lawrence of Arabia for Best Adapted Screenplay.  O’Toole would famously be nominated for Best Actor seven more times in his career, but never once win the big prize.  He did receive an honorary “hey, we screwed up never giving you one” Oscar in 2003.  His eighth, and so far final, nomination actually came four years after this in 2007.  He lost again, this time to Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.

Despite all the accolades, the film’s nearly four hour running time was cut to about three hours when it was re-released.  This version was the only one that was available for decades.  Before DVDs, the 1980s saw the brief appearance of laserdiscs.  Lawrence of Arabia was one of the first films for which a massive restoration was carried out in order to present the best possible version for this new technology.  Four tons of additional film stock was delivered to the people doing the restoration of the edited (some would say butchered) movie.  It took a year just to go through all of it.  All the actors who were still living returned to re-dub lines for the scenes being placed back in the film.  For those who had passed away, sound-alikes were hired.  The movie itself underwent a digital restoration.  All of this resulted in modern audiences finally being able to see this film in all its glory.  This included the widescreen cinematography.

It has already been forgotten, but back in the late 1990s and early 2000s there was a huge fight between Widescreen and Fullscreen DVDs.  I always wanted widescreen and when I wanted to show people what they were missing I would pop in the Lawrence of Arabia DVD, then cover the outer quarters of the TV screen and show people why widescreen was better.  If there was a single film that should only ever be watched in widescreen it is Lawrence of Arabia.  This was the first movie that truly showed me how impressive the images around the actors could be.

Oh, and it should also be watched on as big a screen as possible, not, say, an iPhone.

There are a ton of famous shots, from Sherif Ali riding toward the camera out of the haze like a mirage (something a modern director would present with millisecond jump cuts accompanied by shakycam), to the crossing of the Nefud desert, to a scene that just simply shut my brain down for 5-10 seconds.  After spending a considerable amount of time watching most of the scenes in the desert all of a sudden we are confronted with the image of a large ship passing through the desert.  I just couldn’t comprehend what was going on.  It was so foreign an image by that time that they could have shown me a UFO and it wouldn’t have been any weirder.  It was not until the scene’s angle changed and we finally see what the heck is going on that my brain finally was able to accept what I was seeing on the screen.

I’ve been gushing about the movie and haven’t even gotten into why I have it in the Great Eyes category.  Peter O’Toole was a relative unknown when he was cast as Lawrence.  He even got an “Introducing” credit despite having done a couple films before this one.  In fact, David Lean had seen O’Toole in a B movie and was struck by his appearance, especially his piercing blue eyes.  Writer/director/actor Noel Coward joked after seeing O’Toole in this film, “If he was any prettier they’d have had to call it Florence of Arabia.”

In regards to the details of the plot, there is so much that happens in this film I would not be able to do it justice without several more paragraphs.  Suffice it to say that it covers a few years during WWI when British Lt. T.E. Lawrence is sent to monitor the Arabs in their squabbles with the Turks.  He soon goes against orders and is leading them into battles, all while winning their respect.  Key scenes include a legendary crossing of the Nefud desert, something even the Bedouins felt was impossible.  Not only do they do it, but Lawrence rides back for a man who fell off his mount and returns with him successfully.  And in a final, “I’m the badass of badasses” move, Lawrence takes the water canteen that is offered to him, but before gulping down water like all the other men, and even their camels had done, he looks Sherif Ali in the eye and says, “Nothing is written”, then drinks triumphantly.  And making this section of the film even greater is what Lawrence must do to maintain a fragile alliance between two of the Bedouin tribes.

There is far, far more going on in the film, of course.  Just because you can get men to win a battle doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to be statesmen and settle in to run a city, let alone a country.  And the British are always there, saying they have no designs on the Arab lands, but anyone who knows history knows what really happens.  And when it does, whose side will Lawrence be on, the British or the Arabs?

As I said at the top, I consider Lawrence of Arabia the greatest Best Picture winner of all time.  By extension, this means I also consider it one of the greatest films ever made.  For me, it is an absolute must see.  I do have to acknowledge that my sister saw it many years ago and she felt it was long and boring, so there is no such thing as a movie that every single person will like.  I do have to go with my opinion, though, and so I give this film my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  1. Chip--I used to love this movie. I watched it over and over again on VHS as a child. would to have loved to see this movie on the big screen. I'm sure it would have been beautiful. Beautiful desolation.

    1. Wow, nice childhood. :-)

      I didn't see it until after the restoration. It made the news and I deliberately sought it out to find out what all the fuss was about.

  2. God. Damn. Right!

    I don't think this would be my pick for greatest Best Picture (I think that will always be Casablanca for me), but I would put this on a very short list with the aforementioned Casablanca and Amadeus as films that really didn't have any competition in the field regardless of the other films nominated for the award.

    And you're right in the sense that this film and the chariot race from Ben-Hur are the best arguments for widescreen vs. pan-and-scan that exist. The environment here is a character in the film.

    For what it's worth, I'm never bored watching Lawrence of Arabia.

    Anything less than the highest possible score for this would be a travesty.

    1. Great minds think alike. I've also used the chariot race from Ben-you want widescreen, we'll give you widescreen-Hur. That 2.76:1 ratio is something else. I've actually seen the chariot race on TV in pan and scan. It looks like he's only being pulled by two horses and that there's no one else racing him.

      Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca and Schindler's List would probably be my Top 3, but check in with me next week and I might name something different.

  3. I saw this about six years ago and was just enthralled by the scope of the film. If I ever get a Blu-Ray player, this film would be one of my first purchases.

    1. I actually own this on Blu-ray and it's still sitting there unwatched. After completing this post I really wanted to pop it in, but I had other tasks I had to take care of. I'm still looking forward to it.

      It's not a movie, but if you get a Blu-ray player I highly recommend the BBC Earth series. The images in it are simply stunning. It's probably my imagination, but it looks ever higher def than other blu-rays. It might be because of the top of the line cameras they carried into the wilds to get the footage.

  4. Several battle scenes are just mind blowing, especially with that score, and since they filmed them for real, without CGI.
    I liked that the main character Lawrence was not just a hero, but had flaws as well.

    A minor issue, would have preferred the intro scene had been cut out. Same story device as Vagabond (1985), Life of Pi (2012) and The Hobbit (2012), we know what happens to the protagonist in the opening scene. That's the only reason I gave it a 4.5 and not a 5. Agree that it is a masterpiece. You call it best-of-the-best, so is this your favorite film, Chip?

    I love the blown-out-match to sunset moment:

    1. "I liked that the main character Lawrence was not just a hero, but had flaws as well." "I love the blown-out-match to sunset moment."

      Big agreement on both.

      In regards to the opening scene, since it takes place almost two decades later it doesn't really spoil any of the events we see in the rest of the film. I suppose it does spoil the fact that he won't die during the war, but since he's a real person that's already known. I do agree on Vagabond's opening. Knowing that she will soon freeze to death kept me from making any kind of emotional connection to the character.

      "You call it best-of-the-best, so is this your favorite film, Chip?"

      Well, I called it the best of the 86 Best Picture winners. There are great films that did not win that prize, both critically acclaimed ones (i.e. Citizen Kane) and ones that are extremely fun and entertaining from beginning to end (i.e. The Princess Bride.) I honestly have never put together a personal Top 10, Top 100, Top 1000, etc. Movies Of All Time list because it would change every time I would revisit it. Suffice it to say that Lawrence of Arabia would very likely be in my Top 5 along with the other two examples I gave. In my review here for The Princess Bride I did refer to it as my favorite movie of all time, if I was forced to pick only one.

  5. Wow! You know it's a good film when you call it 'The best of the best picture winners.' This used to be my all time favourite film. It's the first movie I've ever broken down scene by scene and analysed. If I had a gun to my head and had to pick the best of the best picture's, I'd pick Casablanca with Lawrence as a close second.

    Awesome review :)

    1. Thank you very much. If you read the prior comments you saw that Casablanca is in my top 3.