Today I watched Lawrence of Arabia. #5 on the 1998 list and #7 on the 2007 list. Yesterday I picked the shortest movie I could find on the list. Today, perhaps out of perversity, I picked one the longest.
Here’s the imdb page and here’s the synopsis quoted from said imdb page: “A flamboyant and controversial British military figure and his conflicted loyalties during his World War I service in Arabia.”
Wow. Where to start with this one? There’s so much I almost feel like this needs two posts. (Not least because at 3 hours and 45 minutes this film is basically twice the length of a normal film. It has an overture and an intermission and everything!)
This is a truly great film. The performances. The visuals. The poetry of the dialogue. That desert…so beautiful. The story is riveting. Lawrence himself is just fascinating to watch. Yes, it’s a four hour movie but his internal struggles, his dedication to the Arab cause, his love for his comrades…it is just all so compelling I never really felt the film drag. I basically watched it in one go without stopping–except at intermission for a pee break. The main actors in this (O’Toole, Sharif and Quinn) were fantastic. O’Toole is gorgeous and riveting and tragic. Sharif is loyal and solid and also gorgeous. Quinn is brutal but somehow appealing. Fantastic acting. Top notch.
But, man, this film is BLEAK. And the crazy thing it’s not even bleak because the main character is killed in the first two minutes. His senseless death is really the least tragic thing that happens to Lawrence in this film. The first half is wonderful, you get to see him come into his own, establish a rapport with these people. The British don’t value him, don’t understand what he can do and then he goes to the Arabs and becomes just magnificent. But then we get the hubris and his downfall. We watch his beautiful soul get chipped, corroded, then finally crushed with each successive scene. It’s hard to take. The first act is an adventure story. The second act is a Greek tragedy.
I found the homoeroticism in this to be pretty interesting. It’s very much that coy 60s thing we get in Spartacus where if you know to look for the subtext it is there. Boy, it is there. But if you’re naive enough to overlook it you won’t see anything at all except male friendship. It’s all oysters and snails. If that makes sense. Watching it, though, I was struck how the romance between Omar Sharif and O’Toole is pretty much played as a straight love story. Just without the kissing. (If one of them had been a woman there would have been kissing.) They don’t even do the usual thing movies used to do of adding in a token female love interest to sort of “throw people off the scent” of the homoeroticism. (There are no speaking parts for women in this movie at all. Quite a feat at over 3 hours.) But, anyway, I really loved the romance in the first half. I love that the filmmakers did play it that way, sincerely and without judgement or winking. Just a deep respect and affection between these two men. I wish there had been kissing actually, O’Toole and Sharif had fantastic chemistry. (Just as a side note: historians seem to think the real Lawrence was either homosexual or asexual. None of the arguments seem to lean too strongly toward him being straight.)
I also wanted to mention the dialogue. This film feels a bit like poetry in motion, which is a cliche but my God, look at that one shot of the sunset, listen to the beautiful exchanges and debates they have. If any film is a work of art then this one is.
Also, as a bonus, the line’s get pretty funny at times:
[asked by reporter if he knew Lawrence]
Jackson Bentley: Yes, it was my privilege to know him and to make him known to the world. He was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior.
[after reporter leaves]
Jackson Bentley: He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey.
Prince Feisal: With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.
Bartender: [after Lawrence enters with a dirty Bedouin] This is a bar for British officers!
T.E. Lawrence: That’s all right. We’re not particular.
Overall, I really loved this movie, but I’m not sure I’ll watch it again all the way through. It’s very draining emotionally. Unsettling. And you don’t even get the cathartic release of a good cry like you do at the end of Spartacus (at least I always bawl my brains out at the end of Spartacus). The ending of this film hurts but it deprives you of that release. I will probably watch the first half again, though.
What did I learn from this movie? I don’t know. It’s very moving. But it was kind of hard to study for screenwriter’s craft because I was so swept up by the characters and the story. Maybe that’s the lesson? Grab your audience by the throat and don’t let them go. From the moment Lawrence played his little game with the matches I was hooked. If you’ve got a great character you can take your audience anywhere.
Can I see why this movie has become a classic? Abso-fucking-lutely. The word “epic” was created for this movie. This is a classic and everyone should set aside four hours to see it at least once. (That’s means you. Yes you.)
Favorite part(s)? I mentioned it above, but the closeness between Lawrence and Ali. That was beautiful. I also enjoyed all of Alec Guinness’ scenes as Prince Feisal. He had this great dryness about his character that I loved. And any of those beautiful shots of the desert. All of them, in fact.
Overall Rating: ***** (I loved it)
For tomorrow: Maybe Spartacus? I seem to be in an epic kind of mood.