BP’s Top 100 Movie Challenge #11: Lawrence of Arabia, by Sarah Brinks
I decided to undertake a movie challenge in 2017. This seemed like a good way to see some classic movies that I have unfortunately never seen. The Battleship Pretension Top 100 list provided such a challenge.
This was my first viewing of Lawrence of Arabia. I know, I know. I had always wanted to see it, but the problem was the length. I was admittedly intimidated by its nearly four-hour runtime when I sat down to watch it, but the film really moves and it didn’t feel as long as it was. I am so glad I finally saw Lawrence of Arabia. I admit I prefer the first half of the film to the second half, but it an extraordinary story and so beautifully made.
I am a huge David Lean fan. He directed one of my favorite films of all time (Brief Encounter). But the more of his work I see, the more I appreciate him as a filmmaker and story teller. Lawrence of Arabia is a huge film in terms of length, scope of the story, and of course the locations and number of actors. I have to appreciate ambitious filmmakers. It could not have been an easy project, but it deservingly won Lean an Academy Award for Best Director.
I mostly know Peter O’Toole as an older actor, so it was wonderful to see him as a vibrant young man. His thin stature, shockingly blond hair, and piercing blue eyes make him stand out not only from the other Englishmen in the film but especially from the Middle Eastern actors. There are shots of O’Toole in the desert when the sun and sand are so bright his eyes shine in an almost other-worldly way giving him a haunted look. He was a wonderful contrast to another wonderful actor, Omar Sharif. Sharif plays Sherif Ali, a complicated character who taught as much to Lawrence as he learned from him. Sharif is all dark and brooding and was a powerful foil both physically and emotionally to Lawrence.
The first half is more about Lawrence learning to find his footing and being bold and daring, while the second half has him questioning himself more and gets more into the politics of making Arabia into a functioning country. I liked it when Lawrence had the vibrato of a young man who hasn’t yet seen enough of the world to know what horrors truly lie out there. He does suffer some pretty serious blows in the first half, like when he has to kill the man he saved from the desert and when he loses the young kid to the quicksand. He still has a spark and drive after that but when he is beaten by the Turks he loses an important part of his identity. That drags him into a melancholy that is understandable but less interesting to me.
There are some weird parts of the film, specifically around some of the casting. Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal was a little shocking. Guinness delivers a great performance and they really made him look the part, but it still felt whitewashed. There were also practically no women in the film and no speaking parts. I can understand that the story wasn’t about women it was just notable and strange. It was also strange to see Anthony Quinn, a Mexican actor, play Auda Abu Tayi. That was better than having another white actor play that part, it just stood out as I was watching the film.
I have to give a lot of credit to director of photography Freddie Young for the gorgeous cinematography in the film. The desert scenes in particular were beautifully shot. He made the desert look equally seductive and deadly. The way it was shot you could almost feel the heat and smell the sweat. The scene when the Bedouin’s take Aqaba by riding in on their camels from the desert side and take the Turks by surprise is shot in wide shot from above the city and it is dramatic and beautiful.
As I so often am with these films that I had never seen before, I was so happy that the Battleship Pretension Top 100 list gave me a reason to watch Lawrence of Arabia. It is one of those films that I really want to see on the big screen sometime to get the full effect. Unlike most films I went back and rewatched the beginning after I saw the film to fully understand the start and why people reacted the way they did. The structure works wonderfully, and was especially impactful.
I’ve decided to rate each film using an arbitrary scale based on the board game Battleship (lowest: Destroyer, Submarine, Cruiser, Battleship, highest: Carrier)
Lawrence of Arabia ranking: Carrier