The late Roger Ebert wrote in his 1989 review of Lawrence of Arabia…
“T.E. Lawrence must be the strangest hero to ever stand at the center of an epic. To play him, Lean cast one of the strangest actors in recent movie history, Peter O’Toole, a lanky, almost clumsy man with a sculptured face and a speaking manner that hesitates between amusement and insolence.”
I wholeheartedly agree.
The best picture of 1962 opens with the death of its main character, Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence. We see Lawrence killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935 followed by his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral. At this time we’re introduced to characters we know nothing about but who will play roles, both minor and major in Lawrence’s life. They speak of his virtues and vices and it quickly becomes clear (as Ebert said) that T.E. Lawrence will indeed be a hero unlike any we’ve seen before.
The film flashes back to the height of World War I where Lt. Lawrence serves in the British Army. His mentor Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau works to convince Gen. Murray (Donald Wolfit) to send Lawrence to meet with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) to assess the situation in Arabia. The situation in question is Faisal’s revolt against the Turks.
Thus sets in motion the first part of this remarkable true story that takes Lawrence through the Nefud Desert (the Sun’s Anvil) into Aqaba, across the Sinai to and from Cairo and into the inner circle of the Arab leadership.
Besides Alec Guinness that Arab leadership is played brilliantly by Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali. Sharif would receive a best supporting actor nomination but lose out to Ed Begley in Sweet Bird of Youth. I’m still not sure about that one.
The film has one of the most perfectly timed intermissions. The story arrives at a critical turning point with looming questions of what comes next. It’s right up there with Gone With the Wind.
And as the story pivots so does (now) Major Lawrence. He has becomes a folk hero warrior who leads the Arab tribes in guerrilla warfare against German depots, trains, outposts and just about anywhere else they can think of. His successes and the adoration of so many of the Arab soldiers that follow him into battle go to his head. Arrogance begins to cloud his judgment. He becomes careless and rash and he pays the price. In the enemy-held city of Deraa he is captured, beaten and sexually assaulted by the Turkish leader there.
The sequence pushed the envelope for 1962 but it isn’t gratuitous. It’s dark and disturbing and Lawrence is never the same. It breaks him.
Director David Lean proves again why he was one of the best director of the 50s and 60s. Lean did some good work in the 40s but between 1955 and 1965 he made was nominated for best director 4 times with three films up for best picture, winning twice.
One of those best pictures was 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai. But as good as that film was Lean made great improvements on his very next project Lawrence of Arabia. The Bridge on the River Kwai had moments of grandeur and scenic wonder but much of it was spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Lawrence of Arabia is different. Mind you, there is a TON of spectacle. Thousands of costumed extras. Exotic locations. Highly crafted battle sequences. It’s truly magnificent. But every bit of it is tied directly to the plot, the character development or both.
In the midst of some of the greatest and most stunning cinematography in film history is the heart and soul of these characters. In the center of it all is T.E. Lawrence, a man trying to write his own story.
“Truly, for some men nothing is written unless they write it.” – Sherif Ali
With each step of his journey Lawrence is continually discovering what he wants his life to be about and what matters most to him.
Prince Feisal: You are an Englishman. Are you not loyal to England?
Lawrence: To England and to other things.
Prince Feisal: To England and Arabia both? And is that possible?
David Lean masterfully juxtaposes this solitary man against the vastness of the Arabian desert. He perfectly balances the panoramas with the portrait. It is both enormous and intimate.
This is truly a visual masterpiece, perhaps the greatest visual film ever made. The sweeping vistas are legendary and their magnificence isn’t overhyped. Every shot is so well thought out it’s like a painting. But that’s not to say the story isn’t strong, it just plays second fiddle to the cinematic majesty. Contrast that with one of the other best picture nominees that year, To Kill a Mockingbird. Mockingbird is a film with strong visuals (the opening credits… wow) but its strength is its stellar script.
In the 4 major categories where these two films went head-to-head they split 2 and 2 with Lawrence winning picture and director and Mockingbird taking best actor and screenplay.
Both are magnificent films and both are in my current top 25 of all time.
It’s a shame Peter O’Toole never won an Oscar. He was nominated 8 times as best actor. In my opinion he should won back-to-back Oscars in 1968 and 1969 for his work in The Lion in Winter and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. But alas, when he died 3-1/2 years ago his mantle was devoid of Oscars*.
Lawrence was not only a success at the Oscars winning 7 awards, but it was the highest grossing film of 1962. In fact, all five best picture nominees were in the top seven money-makers at the box office that year. With The Music Man, The Longest Day, To Kill a Mockingbird and the remake of the 1935 best picture Mutiny on the Bounty all on the ticket, this was a pretty stout year.
The 35th Academy Awards would see the great Bette Davis receive her 10th and final best actress nomination. Her work in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is the stuff of legends. It’s not so much for her performance, which is great as always, but because the film was the climax of the long-running feud between her and her Baby Jane co-star Joan Crawford.
In fact, apparently Crawford told all of the other best actress nominees (Anne Bancroft, Katharine Hepburn, Geraldine Page and Lee Remick) that if they weren’t able to make it to the Oscars that night she would be happy to accept the award on their behalf.
As fate would have it Anne Bancroft won for The Miracle Worker but was busy doing Broadway at the time so Crawford gleefully bounded up to the stage to receive Bancroft’s Oscar. Bette Davis (shock!) took it personally and blasted Crawford who as a result quit the production of their next film together Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a planned follow-up to Baby Jane.
*In 2002, the Academy honored O’Toole with an Honorary Academy Award for his entire body of work and his lifelong contribution to film.