The Best Picture Oscar: In which multi-hour epics take no prisoners
Lawrence of Arabia is a 1962 epic historical drama film directed by David Lean and stars Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Quinn. The film was nominated for ten Oscars and won seven.
With its name permanently etched into the cinema history books, there is absolutely nothing that one measly review in 2017 can do to alter the way that the world views and interprets David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. With that said, I feel no guilt whatsoever in sharing this thought: I do not think very highly of Lawrence of Arabia. How can this be? It does everything right when it comes to all of the necessary qualifications for a film to, at least, get nominated for Best Picture. It's the same director who spearheaded a fairly recent (recent to 1962, I mean) Best Picture winner in Bridge on the River Kwai, a film that I think very highly of and gave a very rare A+ grade to. Lawrence of Arabia has the epic scope, the strong acting, and the beautiful cinematography to stand out as a film that the Academy will suck up without batting an eye and a film that any dedicated cinephile would consider a must see.
Here's the thing, all of the film's terrific production accomplishments serve as smoke and mirrors for problems that every multi-hour epic film is vulnerable to suffering from: a lingering sense of sheer boredom drawn out by the film's bloated running time and an inability to keep the viewer engaged with the subject material. Lawrence of Arabia, which is a multi-hour epic, suffers from these problems.
The plot revolves around the life of British military officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole). He is sent by the British military to serve as a liaison between the British and the Arabs during World War I, due to his knowledge of the Bedoui Arab tribes and the mutual interest of the British and Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. From there, the film depicts various experiences that Lawrence has during his time in the Arabian Peninsula and explores the inner turmoil that Lawrence suffers from as he struggles with his divided allegiance between his native British army and those he aligns himself with in the Arabian desert.
Lawrence of Arabia is a film that shares similarities to the likes of Fantasia and 2001: A Space Odyssey; it's a film that you must "experience" and cannot watch like you would any other film that would start at Point A and end at Point Z and how much you like said film depends on how well you thought the film got from A to Z. Now unlike Fantasia and 2001, Lawrence of Arabia isn't completely fictional, and its story has already been told once before. The Academy has always been in love with biopics, especially those that center on a historically male figure and spend multiple hours telling you how great/important that male character is (George S. Patton, Gandhi, and T.E. Lawrence to name a few). How much you'll like said films or not depends on how willing you are to soak in their artistic style since that's what they're all about. To be clear, epic films that are meant to be "experienced" aren't my cup of tea, so let's just say that I don't particularly enjoy sitting through them, especially because they love to be at least 3 hours and quickly turn into a snooze-fest. Lawrence of Arabia comes in at a monstrous 227 minutes, and it feels every bit as long as those 227 minutes.
There's one question that you're probably wondering that I haven't addressed yet, "Why is Lawrence of Arabia boring?" Well, the movie largely takes place in the freaking desert, one of the worst settings for a movie that doesn't focus solely on the survival of a select group of people who are somehow stranded in the desert (Flight of the Phoenix, anyone?). Freddie Young's Super Panavision 70 mm cinematography can't hide the fact that the characters are still surrounded by waves of sand hills, no matter how shiny or glorious that they might look. The film is also relatively light on plot, so there's long stretches where it seems as if nothing important is happening.
- Epic films that center on a historical male figure usually have said male figure portrayed rather excellently by a credited actor. Peter O'Toole is front and center here, and I will give him the credit that he absolutely deserves. O'Toole was a lanky figure known for his dashing good looks in his youth (I must acknowledge, his hair always looks perfect throughout the film), and he made a reputation for portraying real life characters. O'Toole had no barriers to breathing as much life as he could into Lawrence. There is no love story or mawkishness for Lawrence to be hamstrung by. Hell, there isn't even a significant female character during the full 227 minutes. It's a male dominated picture, but the male figure at the heart of it all is human and down to earth. As the film begins, Lawrence is timid and and out of place. Midway through, he returns home from his early adventures in the desert and, with a stern look across his face, Lawrence, along with one of his Arab servants, walk through a crowd of British officers and go to a counter where Lawrence asks for a glass of lemonade. By this point, Lawrence has evolved into being more fierce and assertive which carries over into the film's third act. O'Toole is able to do this all brilliantly.
- To reiterate a little, F.A. Young's cinematography is nothing short of spectacular. Many shots of Lawrence and the Arabs riding through the desert, along with the various desert battles that take place, are all beautifully shot. One scene I especially loved was the Arabs launching their attack on Aqaba, which features many long and tracking shots of the Arabs riding their horses into an invasion against Turkish soldiers. It's amazing what a non-CGI battle sequence can look like.
- David Lean didn't really have a choice when he decided to tackle Lawrence of Arabia. He knew that he was going to be making a near four hour film that is mostly set in the desert. The fact of the matter is that if your premise involves a lot of travelling through the desert, your film is just not going to be overly interesting. There is only so many times that one person like myself can bare to watch walking camel after walking camel. And just to be clear, Flight of the Phoenix, another "desert" film, is stationed on one goal (fixing a crashed plane) and has a "race against time" component to it, and a race against time is much more interesting than watching camels walk through sand. Lawrence of Arabia maximizes its desert setting to the extreme, and the only thing that might keep you upright in your seat is the main theme by Maurice Jare that consistently plays. It is a lovely theme, but I will admit that I find it too repetitive.
It isn't a cozy feeling at all when you can only so much as shoulder shrug when asked what you think of a highly regarded film, and your answer is, "I didn't like it that much." In terms of cinematic artfulness, Lawrence of Arabia is in a class of its own with its masterful cinematography. But no matter how nice that your film may look, you can only get so far if your story only sounds intriguing to major World War I scholars and cinephiles who consider this film a must-see. The first two hours are a lousy bore, though things do pick up a bit after the intermission. It's a tough thing to try and hold someone's attention and interest for four straight hours.
Recommend? I'd say it's worth seeing, but if you're not a fan of super long epic films, I would pass
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