Is Lawrence of Arabia the greatest film by the greatest director who ever lived? No, probably not. But that occurred to me as I sat down to write this: As a technician, few directors get the kind of respect that David Lean did and Lawrence, arguably, next to Bridge On The River Kwai, may be his greatest film.
I had not seen it until the recent re-release. I was reluctant to go, as the movie clocks in at a startling four hours—brevity was not Mr. Lean’s thing, man—but @soquoted encouraged me, and The Boy has a new movie-going philosophy that got him worked up about it. (What? What philosophy is that, you ask? “Balls to the wall.” Yeah. Kids.)
I mix up Lawrence with The Man Who Would Be King so I really had no idea what to expect, other than sand—and lots of it. On the sand front, this movie does not disappoint. I’ve never seen so much sand. And I live on the beach. In a desert. (You wonder why I mix up those two movies? Because they were a common double-feature at revival houses when I was a kid, which I never went to, perhaps because of the six-hour total running time.)
Lawrence opens with the titular character riding a motorcycle in England, using shots that Sam Raimi liberally ripped off for his Evil Dead movies. So, that was kind of surprising. I expected to recognize influences on other films, just not that one. (It was a little like seeing a shower-head POV shot in an old Judy Garland musical.) Throughout the rest of the movie there were shots I was familiar with from a variety of other films, most notably Star Wars and the first Mummy movie.
My reaction to seeing this movie was “Hollywood should be ashamed. They could never make a movie like this now.”
And they couldn’t. Quite apart from being able to eschew the shaky-cam, to block the shots with casts of thousands, and to actually make a four hour movie interesting, this movie is way too politically incorrect.
Which is to say, it’s probably pretty accurate. The Brits are stubborn, principled, but also using the Arabs, while the Arabs are tribal, greedy, but also without pretense. There’s no kumbaya here.
Oh, the story is WWI North Africa, with the Brits trying to use the Arabs to defeat the Axis, but without really understanding the Arabs, and having no luck till a young intelligence officer is assigned to the area.
I barely recognized Peter O’Toole, so young and beautiful was he. I mean, I think the first movie I saw him in was The Stunt Man, and he was 47 by that point—and a pretty hard 47 at that. But his acting style was there, large and in-charge.
It’s odd. Lawrence is both possessed of British reserve in some regards, and wild and emotional in others. I’ve heard that Lawrence’s brother saw the film and didn’t recognize O’Toole, and I believe that, but it hardly matters.
At turns manic to the point of megalomania and depressive to near suicide, O’Toole barrels through desert, not quite able to “go native”, trying to bring British organization to Arab tribes, never really able to reconcile the two cultures.
Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Jose Ferrer and a bunch of other non-Arabs play Arabs. Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy and Jack Hawkins play white people. They’re all good and memorable. And familiar, too!
It’s a total sausage fest. There are some women in it, very briefly, and I don’t think they have any lines.
Maurice Jarré’s score is noteworthy for being simple but working for the whole four hours. If you’re not humming it during the intermission, you’re probably tone deaf.
Won seven (out of the ten) Oscars it was nominated for. Beat out The Longest Day, To Kill A Mockingbird and Mutiny on the Bounty (it’s said Brando turned down Lawrence to play Christian) and The Music Man. Ouch. What a year.
The Boy loved it.