Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Great Alphabet of Films—L is For

Lawrence of Arabia

      Excluding The Godfather, this film became the easiest selection for placement in my Great Alphabet. It is the film, quite simply, that defined the epic. Often considered one of the "greatest and most influential films in the history of cinema,"1 Lawrence of Arabia is a superior and beautiful examination of humanity, specifically, the humanity of one very complex man, T.E. Lawrence. It's not a chronology of the life of Lawrence. On the contrary, it is a riveting exploration of a man's struggle to understand his own identity in the face of untold violence, brought upon by the brutalities of war. David Lean's film etched an indelible mark in the hearts of aspiring filmmakers. We need not look any further than the words of Steven Spielberg to substantiate the enormity of how great this film truly is: "the mirage sequence is still the greatest miracle I've seen on film...and maybe the greatest screenplay ever written for the motion picture medium." 2
      Regarded as the Holy Grail of historical epics, Lawrence of Arabia encompasses the Allies' Mideastern campaign during World War I, explored from the perspective of the inscrutable exhibitionist, T.E. Lawrence (in a career-making performance by Peter O'Toole). After a prologue, which blatantly displays Lawrence's ultimate fate, director David Lean flashes us back to Cairo in 1917. An inattentive general staffer, Lawrence shrewdly facilitates a transfer to Arabia. Once in the desert, he befriends Sherif Ali Ben El Kharish (Omar Sharif, in one of the most spectacular debuts in film history) and orchestrates a plan to advance the Arabs in their rebellion against the Turks. Driven by a kind of enigmatic spirit, none of Lawrence's commanders are able to unearth his motives: Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) dismisses him, quite euphemistically, as just another "desert-loving Englishman," and his British superiors assume that he's either cavalier or unstable. Through a cumulative resolve of both diplomacy and fiddling impropriety, Lawrence manages to unite the rival Arab factions of Feisal and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). 
      After successfully completing his mission, Lawrence becomes an incognizant pawn for the Allies, as evidenced by Gen. Allenby (Jack Hawkins) and Dryden's (Claude Rains) tactical manipulation—discerning efforts by Lawrence's superiors to secure Arab cooperation against the Imperial Powers. Lawrence is captured and tortured by a barbarous and perverse Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer) while undertaking a covert mission to Deras. The psychological remnants from this vicious encounter torment Lawrence, for in the climax of his next battle, he savagely demands "No prisoners." He fights more ruthlessly than ever before. His brooding, madman army massacre the Turks and establish council in Damascus. However, these tribesmen are ill-matched for the rigors of peaceful colonization, and soon abandon the city. After relinquishing control to the British, Lawrence is promoted to colonel, and subsequently, ordered home; his services are no longer needed.

      Peter O'Toole, a handsome British actor, initially presents Lawrence as a restless, demure figure. But once he envisions Arab unity, Lawrence becomes a fascinating amalgam of intelligence, charisma, and a scarcely concealed madness. Elevating his character arc even further, he becomes disillusioned by the British forces consolidation of Arab power. The brilliance of O'Toole's performance is manifested through the intricate layers of his journey. The inner mystery of Lawrence remains intact despite the prominence of powerful hints at his material composition. This is the tragedy that emerges from Lawrence of Arabia.
      Alec Guinness, who inhabits the fiery and opportunistic Prince Feisal, wonderfully paints the portrait of a once proud man reduced to a bleak, sobering future. Anthony Quinn, the fierce chief Auda aba Tayi, exudes a finessed-authenticity, which juxtaposes the stark characterization of Omar Sharif's depiction of a handsome Arab fighter. Sharif brings a memorable humanity to the film, conveying a deep understanding of both the brutality of life and the unrelenting need for compassion. Even Jack Hawkins depiction of General Allenby stands out amongst the dynamite cast, which speaks to the ingenious stewardship of David Lean's direction. His perfectionist, calculating guidance forged a nucleus of unforgettable performances from a collection of disparate acting pedigrees.
      David Lean makes Lawrence's struggle for personal identity, a predominant focus of the narrative. However, the film's legacy is defined, not by themes of human tragedy, but marvels of the vast outdoor spectacle: magnificent scenery, barbaric fights, and a breathtaking desert mirage sequence, where Ali first approaches Lawrence on horseback, emerging from a shimmering haze on the horizon. There's a transition in which, after Lawrence blows out a match flame, the camera cuts to a blazing sunset. Undoubtedly, Lean and his cinematographer, Freddi Young, are compelled by the cinematic power to overwhelm. The desert is molded into an object of desire, a force as unforgiving as it is romantic. The visual impact of the barren desert landscape cannot be overstated. The oppressive winds cascading across the scorched sands, curling and spiraling over the Sun's anvil, is a miraculous sight of cinematic construction.
      Lawrence of Arabia's breathtaking cinematography strengthens the marvelous experience of moviegoing. The brilliant score mixes buoyant orchestral themes with elements of thumping Arabian rhythms to chilling effect. It may be a lengthy film, but not one moment is wasted. Ultimately, Lawrence, with his keen intellect, steely will, and assimilation motives, is unable to create an Arab state; to bridge the sacred barrier that exists between him and the men he leads. But the ambivalence of this ending works because Lawrence is too complex a character to dismiss; complacency in the viewer is not an option. The manifestation of Lawrence's outward struggles with the violence of war, and specifically, his ruptured view of his native British army and his newfound affinity for the Arabian desert tribes, is tantamount to our appreciation of his many assorted layers. 


*Lawrence of Arabia won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
**Screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson used T.E. Lawrence's own self-published memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as their principal source. Some of the characters are composites, and many of the "historical" incidents are unsubstantiated. 
***The film took two years to make—O'Toole's weight fluctuates from scene to scene (talk about demanding). And I thought Christian Bale's physical transformations ruled the day.

*Lawrence of Arabia - TCM Trailer

*A fascinating interview with Steven Spielberg. He discusses with such wonderful detail, his love for Lawrence of Arabia (I had to keep the Spielberg theme going from I-L):

Source 1: 
Source 2:


  1. back when he was younger, Peter O'Toole used to annoy me :) he was just so stiff and overly posh and extremely dramatic like he was constantly acting in a theatre and not in films. But in recent ten years, all of those characteristics started fitting lovely with his older age and now I adore every role he does because he brings that breath of old times which none of the younger actors (except Cate Blanchett) have.
    I loved him in recent films TROY, TUDORS, JOAN OF ARC, ONE NIGHT WITH THE KING ...
    Judy Dench is the empress, he's the emperor (the title he took from my favourite Peter Ustinov)

  2. I watched this with my nana so many years ago. I remember Omar Sharif.

  3. I saw this movie when I was about 12, and the grandness of it overwhelmed my senses. Peter O'Toole is an amazing actor: Lion in Winter, Becket, Lord Jim... What depth.

  4. This is on my list of classic movies that I really need to see at some point.

  5. I just logged on to see your comment and wondered how a man ran across my blog... I see you're doing the a-to-z challenge as well! Thanks for the comment, and congrats on being the first man to comment on my incredibly feminine blog!

    P.S. As Liz said above, I'll be adding this film to my list of must see classics. I'm so incredibly behind the times... In fact, I saw Top Gun for the first time a year or so ago. [Don't tell anyone I just said that though. ;)]

  6. I can't believe how much work you do for these posts! They're wonderful, they really are, and I agree with most of your choices for the A-Z challenge. This is an amazing movie, a must-see.

  7. I always meant to watch this...but I can say that Godfather is probably my favorite movie ever

  8. This is a cool and well-written blog too, and far more so I think. Great review, and properly done; worthy of the film!

  9. I can't believe I'm 45 and have never seen this movie! Because of your stellar review, I'll be putting L.o.A. in my queue.

    By the way, I found your site through the A to Z Challenge, and see that you have a "penchant" for the word "penchant." That word is in my blog title. You're a skilled writer. I appreciate your style and precision.

  10. @ Dezmond

    I know it exactly what you're saying about the younger O'Toole. He gets away with these theatrics in this film because of the complexity of his character. But in some films, it can be a turn off. His recent work has been well-received. He's lead a marvelous career.

    @ Niki

    That's great! Omar Sharif's character was truly memorable. He practically stole the show from O'Toole. It's still one of the most inspired cinematic debuts ever!

    @ Susan

    Precisely. Lean's direction along with Young's cinematography creates that wonderful, overwhelming effect. You can just watch this film on mute and just marvel at the shear beauty of the visuals!

  11. Okay, I am embarrassed to say it: I have not seen this film. Apparently I need to get up to speed.

  12. Another essential choice! And another one I was lucky enough to see on the big screen - a local 6 screen theater let a film club screen classics and recent indies and art films. The club would do a lot of indies and art, and one classic each 8 film cycle - and thankfully they picked LoA. As terrific as it in any format - it is magnificent projected. You said it best - a truly epic film. Thanks for posting! Cheers!

  13. @ Liz

    Classic-Yes! Must see-Yes! Just make sure to allocate the time. It is lengthy, but well worth it!

    @ Amy

    Haha. What an honor (a sheepish acknowledgement!). Feminine or not, I can appreciate a good writer and a good blog...that you have in spades! Your general content doesn't appeal to me, per se, but I'm always amenable to finding the intrinsic value in almost anything.

    It's alright. You got plenty of time to catch up. Fortunately, like books, the movies never go anywhere! And don't worry, I never spread gossip, esp. over the blogosphere.

    @ Cathy

    Thank you so much! All I can say is I love film. The work is really not that arduous. Writing about it is a relatively effortless process for me (and I'm not trying to come across as haughty or pretentious). Once I watch a film (esp. a good/great film), I am compelled to write. My impressions pour out like a fine glass of beer!

  14. @ Michelle

    Aha yes. You've got my vote. The Godfather is my favorite!!!

    @ Porky

    Thanks a lot! You're blog is hilarious, so I'd trade well-written for funny any day of the week!

    @ Zoanna

    Mission accomplished! "Penchant" is a versatile but poignant word. I think I used it in my obligatory "about me" section. It makes an even better blog name, so well-done!

    And thank you so much! I'm flattered!

  15. @ Susan

    Ha, you say it best yourself. "Get up to speed." This is the classic of all classics. I don't know what that statement means, but I always hear it in reference to something truly great!

    @ Craig

    Thanks buddy! And that's it exactly. This film needs to be seen on the big screen. It amplifies the arousing score, the immense sequences, and the spectacular cinematography.

    I always appreciate your stories. They're quite luminous.

  16. I'm sending you the Versatile Blogger Award! Come and get it =)

  17. Awesome site you've got here! Thanks for the comment and follow. I'm glad to join your pack.

  18. A film that has earned its place on any great list.

  19. I have to admit I still haven't seen the film, but you've definitely inspired me to remedy that :-)

    Great topic for the A to Z challenge!

  20. Lean certainly defined epic with this film. I can't help but think that so many of today's filmmakers would take a story like this and CGI it to death, that they would not take the time and the care with it as Lean did. Then again, today's studios seem to care more about the bottom line rather than a quality, finished product. There have been some exceptions, but not more than a very few. I long for a filmmaker to take on a grand, epic story like this. There are so very many that haven't been told.

    I love this movie because I have a fascination with the First World War and it's consequences for the rest of the 20th century and this one. This film is one of the few truly spectacular ones about this period of time. So many more have been done for WWII and for Vietnam. Perhaps because those vets are still around and because those wars are so much more prevalent in the American conscience. If you get a chance, see All Quiet on the Western Front. It's one of my very favorite war films and the f/x in there astound as well as it's young star Lew Ayers, who was a conscientious objector during WWII and made a lot of people angry. He eventually served as a medic and as a chaplain's aid.

    You have inspired me to watch this film over the weekend

  21. @ Tara

    Awww, thank you so much! I'm flattered. I'll incorporate it into my "N" Post!

    @ Robyn

    Thank you! My pack is always looking for new members. Thanks for joining.

    And you're welcome!

    @ Bob

    Thanks! Yep, any time someone espouses about the greatest films, this film warrants consideration.

  22. @ K.C.

    Thanks! Glad I've got it on your must-watch radar. I'm sure you'll love it!

    @ Melissa

    Awesome! I love inspiring other people to watch movies, especially classics of this ilk (in your case, a re-watch)!

    I've seen All Quiet on the Western Front. It is an incredible depiction of WWI, which is amazing, considering the film was made a few years before FDR entered office! Talk about a classic in the real sense of the word.

    And your analysis of the studio's reliance upon CGI is telling, but true. Their "bottom-line" fascination is troubling in terms of the celerity of the creative spirit. But the corporatization of Hollywood never surprises us. I understand their need to earn a profit—it's a business after all—but I can never quite rationalize their disparagement of creative mechanisms or using the best talents/properties available. Profit and creativity can coexist in a more cohesive process. It'd be for the better of filmmaking.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  23. @ Margo

    You're imagination and visual sensors are missing out on a wonderful experience. You should watch it as soon as you get a chance!

  24. A wonderful film. I saw it years ago and still remember the impact. Well done post, Matt.

  25. Great idea to make this list! I might consider doing it at some point. It's funny that you mentioned Lawrence of Arabia today ...I just finally convinced a friend to watch it for the first time. It's been one of my favourites for years. I wrote an essay on it for film class one year.

  26. @ Michael

    Thanks for the comment and for stopping by!

    @ Laura

    Awesome. I love coinkydinks! I'm sure you didn't have much difficulty writing a paper on this film! It is so beautiful, so immense, and so inspiring. Just cinematic perfection!