THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 79: LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

by Daniel Suddes

Lawrence of  Arabia (1962)  Director: David Lean   Screenplay: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson Starring: Peter O Toole. Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Shariff  OSCAR COUNT (7) – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Art Direction  Best Music – Original Score

Lawrence of Arabia is the most unlikely success story in history. A biopic about a historical figure very few know about, featuring no star power (this was Peter O’Toole’s first major role) with a running time that usually makes everyone run for the bathroom. But it is still among the most compelling films of all time about a war that has become among the most significant of the 20th century. 

But a film like this would not last just for trying to show a relatively unknown part of history that helps educate people. It is also what has come to define what an epic film can be. It can recreate a world long since gone, but still make that world feel truly alive.

I must confess – epic films tend to be among my least favorite Hollywood films. In technical terms, they are great – they truly recreate the worlds that they mean too. The problem is that these technical credits often overshadow the rest of the film. Does anyone actually remember the script and dialogue of Ben Hur? If you said yes, you are lying. Everyone remembers set pieces like the famous chariot race.

What do people remember about Lawrence of Arabia? What they remember is the strong performances of Peter O’Toole and his assimilation into the Arabian culture. That is why the film is among the greatest ever made. It manages to not only recreate a world that is long (well, not really THAT long) gone and make it still feel alive. The heat of the desert resonates off of the film constantly, and eventually, so does the characters.  


Now, the film is about the time in which many European nations still had many colonies in the Middle East. The modern film would try to condemn the Europeans. Lean does so in a few scenes, but that does not seem to be the point of the film. Rather, he merely wishes to examine T.E. Lawrence and his motivations. Why would he relate to the plight of the Arabic people? Who is he? What are his goals? Most of who he is remains mysterious during the running time. It makes the film far more fascinating. 

Additionally, the film is about something that few films try to discuss – modernization. Think of a film like Dances With Wolves and how it glorified the lifestyle of the Native Americans. Lawrence of Arabia does not try to say that any one side is better than the other. Rather, it seeks to examine the faults of both societies. After all, the Arabic people, at the time, still depended on a tribal lifestyle.  Uniting them was not an easy thing to do (as we still see today). Lawrence’s ultimate failure is not on the battlefield, but in his inability to help the people survive after the war is over.And let’s not talk about how much imperialism and nationalism created problems that still survive to this day.

That is actually a very poignant message that almost everyone has forgotten. Lawrence of Arabia ultimately becomes about our own political world. I am not sure how many times throughout the twentieth century that different nations have tried to improve nations by replicate what has worked for their society. Sometimes, this works (for example, Japan). Other times, it turns into a flat out disaster. Looking at, say, the modern Iraq War, Lawrence of Arabia almost seems prescient.

This brings me to my favorite scene in the film, which I actually managed to find. It is the scene in which Lawrence takes one of his friends into an officer’s bar. Now, again, this is the moment in which most films would enter into a long speech about equality and the rights of all men. Lawrence does not; he barely speaks at all, because what he says gets the point across. He ignores pleas to not allow his friend to enter the bar, simply saying that they are both “thirsty” and that “he likes your lemonade.” The strongest part of this film is not what is said, but what is not said. O’Toole comes across as a man who does not want to make a point with words – he wants his actions to speak for him. And it is one of the few times that such a thing has come across.

Did You Know: This film has no female speaking parts. At almost four hours long, this may very well be the longest film to accomplish this feat. 

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