I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1962 winner, Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean (who also directed The Bridge on the River Kwai) and starring Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif.
Lawrence of Arabia is a beautifully-shot epic about the British officer, T.E. Lawrence, who worked with Arab allies in the Middle East during World War I. The movie shows the political machinations that underlay military decisions. Sometimes, it's politically dense, but it is always a visual treat.
The competitors were: The Longest Day, Meredith Wilson's The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, and To Kill a Mockingbird, several of which could have won, if not competing against that favored Oscar genre: the historical epic.
When we first meet Lawrence, he is a brash young officer who makes no apologies for his style. He tells a superior officer, that the problem is his manner: "It looks insubordinate, but it isn't really." Lawrence gets sent to serve British interests in North Africa. Initially, he knows very little about the local customs and survival techniques, but he learns quickly. Soon, he proves himself to the tribal leaders with his bravery and resourcefulness, in addition to demonstrating respect for their customs.
The panoramic scenes of the desert are extraordinary, characterizing both the challenge and the lure of this world to Lawrence. But after he's asked to do some things that make him question his own ethics, he returns to his commanders to beg to be released from this duty.
The contrast between the scenes in the desert and the scenes in the British command post are striking. In the desert, there's an aura of dusty, sweaty heat. By contrast, the command post is fresh, orderly and cool looking. The image of Lawrence, with his sunburned face and desperate eyes, sitting on an upholstered chair, shows how far he's come from the world he's known.
The higher-ups insist on sending him back into the fray. The second half is more difficult to follow because it delves into the political intrigues in play at the time, about how warring segments of the population factored into war alliances. The many scenes of commanders talking strategy in tents may leave some viewers cold, but the battle scenes are visceral and easy to comprehend, especially Lawrence's transformation in battle, as he unleashes the fire within that had been brooding beneath his jovial exterior.
Peter O'Toole deserves praise for his portrayal of Lawrence. He immersed himself so fully in this role that he is still associated with this part today, despite his many movies since. Of course, if the director had his first choice, he would have cast Albert Finney in the role. Finney did a screen test and was offered the job, but turned it down because of the long-term contract he'd be required to sign. Other actors reportedly considered for the part were Marlon Brando (who dropped out to play Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty) and Anthony Perkins. Alec Guinness, who had played T.E. Lawrence on stage, wanted the role, but the filmmakers felt he was too old and gave him the role of Prince Feisal when their original choice, Laurence Olivier, turned it down.
Omar Sharif, likewise, does an excellent job. He plays a character whom viewers initially hate, then learn to respect, understand and even admire. It's a difficult task for an actor, to produce so many emotions over the course of the movie. His understated acting produces the right result. He also had some help from a special 482mm lens from Panavision, used to film his entrance through a mirage. Panavision still has the lens, which cinematographers refer to as the "David Lean lens."
It's notable that Sharif got the role that he did, considering that most ethnic roles in those days were played by white actors in makeup (such as Alec Guinness).
The cinematography is excellent, as is the attention to detail in terms of costuming and casting. King Hussein of Jordan lent an entire brigade of his Arab Legion as extras for the film, so most of the "soldiers" are played by real soldiers. Interestingly, the 227-minute movie is reportedly the longest film not to have any dialogue spoken by women.
The film took a long time to complete, which led to an interesting story by Peter O'Toole, told on The Tonight Show. He referred to the scene when Lawrence and General Allenby, after their meeting, continue talking while walking down a staircase. According to O'Toole, part of the scene had to be reshot much later, "So in the final print, when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I'm a year older than I was when I started walking down them."
This movie will be a bit hard to follow for people who aren't enamored with military strategy. Initially, I saw this movie as a teenager with my brother at an outdoor showing. I missed a lot then, but I thought it was due to a combination of a poor projectionist (who mixed up the reels at least once), and the poor lighting during the first half of the movie before the sun had completely set. But now, rewatching it 20 years later, I found that it was still difficult to keep track of the different political alliances and schemes.
That aside, Lawrence of Arabia is an excellent movie, full of subtext, superb acting, and breath-taking visuals, and it is one of the best films ever to win the Best Picture award.
Rating (4 1/2 out of 5): **** 1/2
Every once in a while, an epic truly deserves epic praise.