Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lawrence Of Arabia

 The AFI has Lawrence of Arabia listed as its fifth greatest film of all time. Depending on which year you read of course. Either way it is immaterial as this is without question a truly great piece of cinema, and when watching it I could only marvel at the name David Lean.

 I really hadn't taken much notice of who directed The Bridge on the River Kwai which I recently watched and reviewed, so I was surprised when I found out four of his films were to play here. When I saw who directed Lawrence after having seen Bridge on the River Kwai I could instantly see why Lawrence was rated so highly. Both are of extra-ordinary quality and Lean's style is indelibly stamped over them both. There really is very little to go between these two epics though. Both are truly brilliant, and if I was pushed to make a choice as to a favorite I would un-hesitatingly say Kwai.

 Coming up next week is Doctor Zhivago. Again I didn't realise this was a Lean film , and it also appears on the AFI's top 100. I haven't seen it ever, and the following week will be Ryan's Daughter, which I haven't seen either. Then it will be A Passage to India, which was Lean's last film and one I have actually seen, although many years ago. I remember my parents going to the flicks to see in back in the day. I haven't read the book for Zhivago or Passage either! I missed out on a second hand copy of Passage several months ago and really rue it now that I have the opportunity to see it on the big screen.

( So lucky me!! But it is getting expensive because I am also paying for the weekly run of the mill offerings from Hollywood each week to. Am annoyed as the telly programmers here have put the new Doctor Who series on on a Thursday night which is my movie night! Arrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhh!! So the VCR will be getting a workout! ).

 I saw this film with a mighty audience of seven people!! I kid you Two less than Charade last week. Admittedly it was the last screening of its four but I expected better than that. The other thing is that all four have been at 11.00 am so many people just wouldn't be able to get there. I have a love/hate relationship with my employer. He loves what I do and I hate him!! So I just tell him I'll be off for several hours and he doesn't grumble because he knows if he argues I'll tell him where to stick said employment!! And like last week I was the youngest there at 40 years old!! I just cannot believe that younger generations don't take the opportunity to see these classics on the big screen. To me they are a once in a life time opportunity and grab them with both hands.

 Lawrence was also like Charade in that it wasn't a re-mastered copy or edited. It was an original and in some places in quite bad condition. It got severely grainy in some places with some quite bad scratches, and yet was crystal clear in others. Charade was in better condition even with its own graininess. The sound track was perfect except in one place after the inter-mission the lip-sync was out for several minutes. ( The score must be mentioned as it was definitely of 'Epic' proportions and I had a huge grin on my face at the uplifting rousingness of it. Great stuff, and a reminder of how great films should be, and used to be made ). But do you know what? It may have been grainy but it just added so much lustre to the thrill of seeing one of the greatest films ever made on the big screen. It is honestly a real experience!!

 And what an experience! This is a film that is just shy of fours hours duration! They don't make them that length anymore do they? And what a real trip down memory lane when the first half of the film finished and there was an 'inter-mission'!!! I must be getting old because I'm sure there are those of you out there who remember the days when EVERY film had an inter-mission. I vividly re-call inter-missions in all three original Star Wars movies and even the first Indiana Jones movie. I don't exactly miss inter-mission but this was a real treat and brought back fantastic memories of a cinema going experience that has long gone, and of which newer generations know nothing about. I absolutely loved it, and had a nice cup of coffee to celebrate as the reels were being changed!!

 I have seen Lawrence before many years ago on telly and it certainly wasn't four hours long. I couldn't remember a thing about it and as I watched I re-called nothing either. But I'll never forget it now as it is seared into my little mind forever and a day. The thing that really struck me was for a four hour film it never felt long. It is superbly paced and I quickly lost track of time. This is a real sign of Lawrence's timelessness and quality. Great films never drag , lumber, or let go of the viewers attention. Lawrence was brilliant from the first scene until the last and I felt at the end I could have quite happily sat and watched another fours hours!

 The graininess didn't take away from the visual impact. I have always loved the old classics and the colour of them. Gone With the Wind still looks absolutely brilliant today and the colour is superb. Lawrence is the same and the techniques of the era are wonderful. Progress is inevitable but it was somewhat sad to see how the colourising used back then gave way to our more modern CGI and digital techniques. For me this is why it is such a pleasure to see the classics on the big screen because they have a visual style I like which modern films just can not compete with.

 Lawrence was filmed in Morocco and the desert scenery is un-believable. Lean captures it beautifully and it reminded me very much of John Ford's camera work in John Wayne outing The Searches. Both films capture the rawness and colour of the surroundings perfectly and add another character to each film, all-be-it an unpaid one! On every level Lawrence is visually brilliant. There isn't a week link anywhere. The cinematography is perfect and was a real feast on my gluttoning eyes!

 But the performances! Oh oh oh oh, where do I begin!. When you look at the cast and the performances it is hard to credit that the likes of Albert Finney, Marlon Brando, and Laurence Olivier were ever offered parts! Finney was initially offered the role of Lawrence but declined and the other two were unavailable. Incredibly Peter O'Toole was second choice. At the time he was a virtual unknown and when you look at how Alec Guinness was last resort for The Bridge Over the River Kwai it is remarkable how O'Toole got the part when there were better know actors available. He was fortunate Lean saw him on stage and instantly saw his 'Lawrence'. The whole cast is just superb and I can't find a stand out performance among so many stand outs.

 Guinness for me shows again his Oscar for Kwai was richly deserved as he is just incredible as Prince Faisal. He has the intelligence, and calmness for the role and I looked forward to each scene he was in. He altered his accent and appearance for the role to sound and look more Arabic. It was stunningly successful and I never felt patronised in the use of English actors in the roles of Arabs. Guinness was a truly gifted actor and I can see why in later life he cringed at himself for taking the role of Obi-wan-Kenobi and the banal lines he had to deliver. It is a shame that he felt that way as the Star Wars films have their place in cinematic history and Guinness, with his professionalism, added  much to their reputation. He was just too good for the role, and unfortunately the role of Kenobi over-shadowed his earlier and far superior roles. In any ones language Alec Guinness was one of the greatest actors even and from any country. To put in a stellar performance in Kwai and then back it up with another in Lawrence confirms this.

 Maybe the highest praise for Guinness comes from Lean himself who cast him in his films calling him his ' good luck charm'. This was in spite of some serious on set dis-agreements. It would have been interesting to see how Ryan's daughter would have differed if Guinness had accepted the part Lean offered him, but of which he declined. But if they dis-agreed they both proved totally professional, not to mentioned gifted,  as the final products of their combined talent are some of the best films ever made.

 Omar Shariff is out standing and this must surely have influenced Lean to cast him in the lead role for Doctor Zhivago. Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quinn etc, the great acting just seems endless! Like Guinness Quinn  looked Arabic, and I can only say again the length Lean went to to achieve an authentic look without be-littleling Arabs in the process.  But for all the great performances this is certainly Peter O'Toole's film. Just how good is he?! I can't put his performance into words but it must surely be one of the greatest cinematic performances to have never been awarded the coveted Oscar. It is incredible to think in such a long and illustrious career he has never won an Oscar even after eight nominations, ( I recommend his 2008 outing in Venus, of which he was nominated, and again over looked ).

 Lawrence as a film is of the long lost genre of the 'Epic'. David Lean must be regarded as almost the master of the genre for having two of his films rated so highly in Lawrence and Kwai. With the death knell of the 'Epic' Hollywood ushered in a new genre, namely the 'block buster'. Where Eagles Dare is good example and was only made several years after Lawrence, but the differences in style are obvious. The 'block buster' as I knew it has pretty much died even though the term is still used. The epic bred the block buster but unfortunately Hollywood today attempts to make very movie a block buster and the term has come to mean less and less. Thank god I can get to see a great film like this on the big screen just to remind myself of what great film making is all about!

 The film makes no pretences to historical accuracy. I suggest a visit to wikipedia's page on the film as it explains the background to the film and how it is loosely based on the life of T.E. Lawrence. The motive of the film was to make an' Epic' and that was very successful! Some figures are historically real such as Allenby, Prince Faisal, as are some events such as Aqaba, and Damascus, etc. Some of Lawrence's characteristics are explored, especially his struggle with personal identity and personal wish to be 'normal, and his supposed egotistical streak is often alluded to. He was a complex and extra-ordinary man with a keen, well educated mind, that was never at peace with itself. He never found peace as he was too much of a hero in the eyes of the public and never found the anonymity he craved. As a film it must be taken as entertainment and not a true biographical look at Lawrence. But there is much that mirrors the times and the real events but it was never made to be a factual account as it was an epic to entertain.

No prisoners!
 Lawrence of Arabia was like Charade, an absolute privilege to see in all its big screen glory. Whereas Charade was fun and a great 1960's thriller/comedy and totally enjoyable as a result, Lawrence of Arabia was darker and not so enjoyable in the sense of enjoyment. I enjoyed it for the brilliant film it is and was awestruck at the scale of it and the performances. Just a stunning film and cannot be regarded as anything less as one the very, very best films ever made.

Click here for a synopsis and more:

Thomas Edward Lawrence

Lawrence in Arabia during the war.


  1. This is one I need to sit down and concentrate on again. I see it's beauty and it's greatness but for some reason I felt at arms length the entire time.

    Perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind, excellent write up.

  2. I know what you mean! I think if you are not in the right frame of mind then its 4 hour length will kill you. I do think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the better of the two. But none the less t is a great film without question.

  3. Great write up of a truly unique film. THere is nothing else out there quite like it. THe thing that fascinates me, is that hearing the story, it doesn't sound like something I would care for, but the movie sure exceeds expectations. O'Toole is so briliant here, and it's shot so beautifully, that it could almost go on longer and I wouldn't even notice. Filmmaking at it's finest.

  4. I found it hard to define just why it is such a great film. All I know is this, once watched never forgotten!