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Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture, 1962)

It’s amazing to think that this was Peter O’Toole’s first major role in a film. He apparently did some B-movies before this, and that’s where director David Lean first saw him.  The role of T.E. Lawrence was apparently originally intended for Albert Finney, but the production staff was eventually convinced to cast the unknown O’Toole instead.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is the epic film to beat all epic films, even fifty years later.  All subsequent epics – LORD OF THE RINGS comes to mind – hope to live up to its legacy.  Historians will tell me that the film is inaccurate.  Leaving aside the nine inch height difference between Peter O’Toole and T.E. Lawrence and the fact that several characters are amalgamations of real people, there are inconsistencies in the story, in the portrayal of historical events, and so forth.  There may also be discussions regarding the colonial history, and the relationships between British soldiers, Lawrence, and the Bedouin.  It’s hard to say at this distance how accurate the behavior and implied emotional intentions of the characters in the story may be.  Did the Bedouin truly love Lawrence, or was he valued for his ability to lead and win? I’m not here to discuss Orientalism (I’ll leave that up to people who studied it and know what they’re talking about, like Liz of My Beautiful Bookshelf).

I’m here to talk movies. And in spite of the ridiculous length and endless vistas of hot, dusty desert, this movie is absolutely phenomenal. The attention to detail is amazing – apparently the costume designer even made O’Toole’s British Army uniform a little too small and ill-fitting to help show Lawrence’s discomfort.  The trivia section on IMDB also tells me that Alec Guinness, in costume and makeup, physically resembled Prince Faisal so closely that people who knew the late prince mistook the actor for Faisal.

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA deserved every award it won, and possibly even more.  Omar Sharif and Alec Guinness are truly phenomenal.  Peter O’Toole simmers and seethes onscreen, burning with an internal fire that threatens to consume him.  It is a film driven by male figures; no female dialogue exists. If this movie were made today, Hollywood and political correctness would probably insist on having at least one major female character.  If not a love interest for Lawrence, than a wife or lover of Ali – if the character is invented, why not invent a wife for him?  But that would actually take away from the intensity of the film.  Maurice Jarre wrote one of the best and most iconic film scores of all time for this project, the cinematography and direction are phenomenal, and the costumes are fabulous.

In some ways the film is an epic only on the surface.  Underneath I can see a psycho-drama as it follows the path of Lawrence’s ego and his struggles with internal demons, like his enjoyment of violence and his guilt over the men he has had to mercy-kill.  O’Toole effectively communicates Lawrence’s ever-increasing self-hatred without need of words.  The intense expressiveness of his face says more than dialogue ever could.

And at four hours, it is remarkably gripping.

Tom Jones (Best Picture, 1963)

In ASSASSINATION VACATION, author Sarah Vowell quotes Johnny Cash after a performance: “I did ‘Mr. Garfield,’ which isn’t very funny if you’re not on the right wavelength, and nobody was.”

TOM JONES has nothing to do with Johnny Cash or President Garfield, but the sentiment expressed is how I feel about the film. From reading the plot summary on Wikipedia, I expected a rollicking good time, but I must be on the wrong wavelength. I felt this way when I watched BLAZING SADDLES a while back – intellectually I grasp that it’s meant to be funny and I can point to the moments that are meant to be humorous.  In spite of that, I find I am not entertained.

TOM JONES is full of boorish caricatures, marginal sight gags, un-subtle music cues to show when something is ridiculous, and an obnoxious consciousness of the audience.  The main character keeps figuratively nudge-nudge-wink-wink-ing the camera and the audience.  It all feels so forced.  And in between, there are long silent shots of English country life, from picking flowers to riding horses.  The story moves by jerks and starts.  I have to say, this is the first time I’m surprised at a film’s presence in the list of Best Picture winners.  I’m sure it was popular, but I’m accustomed to Best Picture winners being technically brilliant, if not my personal preference. I just don’t see it, in this one.

Next Up: My Fair Lady (Best Picture, 1964) and The Sound of Music (Best Picture, 1965)