Home > Sunday Screening Films > Sunday Screening #3: Lawrence of Arabia

Sunday Screening #3: Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Directed by: David Lean
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif

The result are in. Sunday Screening #3 is Lawrence of Arabia. The voting was pretty spread out, but Lawrence ended up quite a bit ahead of the competition, but don’t worry. High Noon and Freaks will be on the next poll, and I think we should throw a Screwball Comedy up there as well. I’m thinking Bringing Up Baby, in honor of my film history professor, but email suggestions for other poll films to SundayScreenings(at)Placeslost(dot)com. But on to the film. Just a head’s up, I picked up a DVD copy of Lawrence of Arabia at Target for $7.50 last night.

A lot has been written and said about Lawrence of Arabia, unfortunately I haven’t read a lot of this information, and I don’t want to read too far into it and possibly spoil the movie like I did for The Third Man. Lawrence of Arabia is David Lean’s follow-up film to Bridge on the River Kwai, and re-teams him with Alec Guinness and Producer Sam Spiegel. This movie comes in very high on most of the published “Top Movie…” lists, and I know that I am looking forward to finally seeing this film. Like most of my generation, I have trouble thinking of Alec Guinness beyond his role as Obi Wan Kenobi, so I welcome this chance to see him in another role (and yes, I realize that his most memorable roles were the comedic ones). This is an epic film in many senses of the word. The creators went out of their way to blow people away with the scale of the film. The cast is made of up quite a few of actings heavy hitters. The budget was huge, and thought a gamble at the time, but one that paid off.

So sit back and enjoy the Epic Technicolor visuals of Lawrence of Arabia.

  1. November 30, 2009 at 12:42 AM

    I haven’t finished Lawrence of Arabia yet (admittedly, my second time watching) or organized my thoughts, but I thought as a way of a discussion starter I’d ask what everyone’s opinion was on the fact that a nearly 4 hour film has no speaking parts for women. I have my opinions, but I’d like to hear yours first. I look forward to hearing everyone’s response and opinions on the film!

    • johnwm1
      November 30, 2009 at 10:24 AM

      I haven’t finished watching Lawrence of Arabia either, so I’ll just reply by saying that I have absolutely no problem with a movie not having any speaking parts for women, just as I would have no problem with a movie not having any speaking parts for men. Every story is different and has different needs.

      • December 1, 2009 at 1:51 AM

        I agree. It’s kind of relieving that they didn’t feel the need to force in a love interest or anything. There isn’t much place in the story to fit a woman in since it’s nearly entirely about the war effort. It would have felt unnatural.

  2. November 30, 2009 at 9:14 PM

    With the holiday weekend and being busy, I have to admit that I have not had a chance to watch Lawrence yet. My goal right now is to get to it tomorrow night after work…hopefully.

    So not ONE woman says ONE word? That’s kind of crazy. I’d think that some of the women here (or men) might have a problem with that.

  3. December 1, 2009 at 1:53 AM

    I watched it, but had an intensely busy Monday, so I’ll be here tomorrow with my full thoughts on the film. We are such good site creators. So diligent. Maybe John will get things started by the time I wake up.

    • johnwm1
      December 1, 2009 at 9:48 AM

      Sadly, that won’t be the case, as coming home late from work and then a random apartment issue (water from my bathroom somehow rushing out of the bathroom of the lady downstairs) took up most of my evening yesterday. But I’ll have thoughts after I finally finish watching the film after work today.

      A random bit of trivia in the meantime: according to Wikipedia, the ultra-reliable source of all human knowledge, Albert Finney was David Lean’s first choice for the role of Lawrence. I think Finney instead of O’Toole would have altered the feel of the film significantly. For one thing, it likely would have been less of an introverted performance. O’Toole has a haunting quality about his acting that seems to channel intense inner conflict with just one look.

  4. December 1, 2009 at 12:10 PM

    All right, it’s time to get this thing going for real.

    I’m in awe of nearly every aspect of Lawrence of Arabia. The score, the acting, the visuals. It’s all incredibly. I find it incredibly that the crew lugged 70mm cameras into the desert every day and that for it’s entire 3+ hour run time, I neither get bored or feel that there is an unnecessary shot anywhere. Even the scene transitions are clever and graceful (blowing out match to desert, wind-blown sand to clouds in sky, looking up at people above spins into shot of feet, the use of the business card to cut to Feisal).

    My favorite set piece is the crossing of the impassable desert. So little happens, yet it is absolutely intense. Characters mostly just speak of the danger and the camera fills in the rest with harrowing shots of the endless desert. When Lawrence goes back for the man who fell off his camel, the POV tracking shot is almost hypnotic with the mudcracks in the sand subtle-y flying across the screen. And, in fact, the entire film it filled with “what happens next?” moments like this scene where you need to know how Lawrence will succeed (only to end up dying in a positively mundane motorcycle accident).

    Lastly (for now), I can’t help but think how terrible this movie would be if it had been made today. Nearly everything would be CGI and it would lose the tangible feeling of being lost in the desert. The film is proof that doing things the easy way is not necessarily the best way.

    I have some more to say, but I don’t want to create an overlong post, so I’ll wait for others to post some stuff. I will end with some of my favorite quotes from an endlessly quotable film.

    “The trick is not minding that it hurts.”
    “You’re not fat?” “No, I’m different.”
    “My name is for my friends.”
    “My fear is my concern.”
    “But in whose name do you ride?”
    “If the camels die, we die.” — incredibly evocative line
    “You trouble me like women.”

  5. johnwm1
    December 1, 2009 at 10:34 PM

    Glad I finally watched all of this. I have to agree with Nate in my respect and admiration for this movie. So much of this film is instantly memorable, and I think the combination of the lush orchestral score and significant on-location shooting (aided by those frequent wide-angle shots emphasizing the vastness of the desert, and perhaps also the grandness of Lawrence’s ambition and vanity), play a big part. The establishing shot of them arriving into Aqaba about halfway into the movie is simply breathtaking.

    Lawrence’s outer and inner journey as a character is highly absorbing. You’re never quite sure of his motives, who’s side he’s on, how mentally sound he is. He’s the classic unstable genius. I also love the scenes that take time to show Lawrence as he is, by himself (when he dances around wearing his new robes, for example). There were a few comedic moments early on in the movie that I didn’t feel added that much and maybe slowed things down, but this is a trivial quibble. I completely agree that had this movie been produced nowadays, CGI would’ve been the only way realistically speaking (I don’t know how many major studios would have to come together nowadays to front the money for such a big production), and it would’ve utterly ruined it. There’s just no comparison.

    Although Patton is still my favorite character study film of this type, Lawrence of Arabia is simply an outstanding achievement, and amazingly disciplined considering the scope of the production. It’s an epic, sprawling movie that’s never off its center, thanks in large part to the fascinating character of Lawrence, and the arresting performance O’Toole delivers.

  6. December 2, 2009 at 12:26 PM

    It’s very telling that even within the pretense of the website, we all struggled so much to find time to watch a long movie. It really shows the risk of making a movie that’s over 2.5 hours (or even 2).

    The attack on Aqaba is pretty amazing. What is really surprising to me about much of the film is how much of the real action takes place off-screen. We just see the descent on Aqaba, then they have taken it and Lawrence is on the beach. Again, to compare to today, that scene would have to be a huge 10 minutes battle. Also, very rarely is someone shown dying. The camera typically pans or cuts away letting the viewer visualize it.

    Along those lines, the film does a great job of letting the viewer fill in blanks, such as when Lawrence and his companion come to the Suez Canal and call to the motorcyclist. The man calls over to Lawrence, “Who are you?” and the film cuts to the city. I wish more films let the viewers make these sort of connections. It’s pretty astounding that a nearly 4 hour movie can feel so thrifty.

    Some other things I found interesting: Lawrence continually has to kill people he is close to or they end up dying. Truly, it’s dangerous to befriend him. And I really enjoyed how much grief he got for wearing his hat in the officer club only to return later in full desert regalia sandblasted and sunburned.

    The film has complete mastery of its themes. Never are issues of pride and identity far from the surface of each scene and nearly all of the major players struggle with these ideas. It’s very impressive and kind of intimidating for anyone interested in writing.

    Lastly, another discussion question. My parents thought there were homosexual undertones to the seen where Lawrence is captured, though I didn’t really pick up on that. However, in his biography, Lawrence says there was sexual abuse. Did anyone pick up on these undertones before the beating?

  7. johnwm1
    December 2, 2009 at 3:25 PM

    Great point about how subtle the film is. I also noticed how a lot of the violence was off-screen, and while I figured this was mostly because of the producers obeying the Hollywood production code at the time, leaving things out does have the great advantage of leaving things to the viewer’s imagination.

    The guilt that Lawrence accumulates by seeing all these people close to him dying, especially when it’s by his own hand, is really palpable and fuels the tension propelling the character (and the story) considerably. I really love that aspect of the film too.

    The movie’s cynical (or just accurate) take on politics, chiefly through the character played by Claude Rains, was something that struck me. It spends a considerable amount of time exploring the motivations behind, and the effects of, Machiavellian politics, and that I found very interesting.

    I did detect homosexual undertones in the scene with the Turkish Bey, and after the scene was over, I thought they were rather strong (but still undertones), considering the film came out in 1962. What clued me in was the fact that he was speaking in such a vague way, and the tearing of his clothes seemed unnecessary. Also–and this I only thought about after the fact–that extreme close-up of O’Toole’s eyes before he strikes him seemed to suggest a particularly intense, personal fear of being violated.

  8. December 2, 2009 at 9:15 PM

    I think the cutaways from the violence were impressive because they feel so organic. I never feel like it’s a cop out like one does in so many PG-13 action/horror movies. Lean always picks something more interesting to focus on.

    I think one of the great running gags is General Allenby always saying how thankful he is that politics is not his domain.

    I guess I just wasn’t paying too much attention to the Turkish Bey scene. I totally went with the idea that Lawrence was angry about not having the proper skin to be a true Arab. I completely buy it, but wouldn’t have though anything of it had my parents not mentioned anything.

    • johnwm1
      December 2, 2009 at 9:48 PM

      Regarding the Turkish Bey scene, I think your reading of the scene is actually more accurate. I think Lawrence refusing the Bey’s aggressive advances could easily also be going on, but that’s definitely a secondary thing. I guess this shows how complex the film is, since it can work on multiple levels.

      And I love Claude Rains’ retort to Allenby late in the movie: “Yes, you keep saying that” (or something to that effect).

      One other quibble I’ll bring up was Alec Guinness’ performance. I am a huge fan of his, but I was slightly disappointed by his sometimes wavering accent, and the utter self-assuredness seemed to be laid on a bit too thick at times. Was curious if anyone else had similar or opposite thoughts.

  9. December 2, 2009 at 9:56 PM

    You stole the site’s 100th comment right out from under me!

    Guinness gave me the impression at times of being a precursor to Brando’s Godfather, and not in a good way. His speech just seemed kind of muddled and put-on. I didn’t have a problem with his confidence, probably because I view him as a counterpoint to Lawrence. He truly is a man who can exist in both worlds, whereas Lawrence struggles the entire film with whether he could be an Arab or not (and with being a British soldier, for that matter). Feisal has the experience behind him to understand both societies fully.

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