We continue our survey of the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1960s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1930s click here.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1920s click here.
3. Lawrence of Arabia, 1962.
Such a strange movie.
No girl. No big stars. No memorable action sequences. No plot.
And yet Lawrence of Arabia is mesmerizing.
A genuine epic, four hours long, costing an enormous amount of money to produce, Lawrence of Arabia is perhaps the most original portrait of an anti-hero ever filmed.
The real Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence, was the illegitimate son of a minor but wealthy British aristocrat, Sir Thomas Chapman, and Sarah Lawrence, a governess who herself was illegitimate. Perhaps homosexual—though he claimed to be “sexless”—but with a taste for flagellation, Lawrence was a deeply private man who craved fame even as he loathed his own lust for celebrity. He was, in short, a man of deep contradictions, a neurotic mess who through sheer force of personality managed to unite a few nasty desert tribes in a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire from 1916 to 1918.
In truth, the “great Arab revolt” was not all that great. In Lawrence’s own words, it was nothing more than “a sideshow of a sideshow” in the great game in which the European colonial powers indulged during and after World War I. The consequences of this game are still with us in the dysfunctional Arab Muslim world.
But director David Lean and screenwriters Michael Wilson and Robert Bolt saw the quirky and flamboyant Lawrence as a unique sort of hero. They understood that Lawrence was no patriot, but a bitter outsider who resented the rigid British class system and leeched onto the notion of wild desert tribes who would punish first the Turks and then the haughty Brits in a dashing, romantic desert revolt.
When I think of Lawrence of Arabia, I see a tiny speck in the desert, like a ghost, floating through shimmering waves of desert sand, cohering at last into the image of an Arab riding a camel. The image is held for a long time. The camera does not blink. There are no cuts. It is a visionary shot that has few precedents in motion picture history.
Another shot: Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, posing in his flowing white desert robes and admiring his own reflection in the shiny metal of his dagger. Later, O’Toole poses again, but this time madly defying bullets aimed right at him as he strides atop the roof of a burning Turkish railroad car that he and his Arab troops have bombed and looted. The image is almost laughable because O’Toole brings to mind a flamboyant gay man oozing down a catwalk in Milan. The image is stunning, a glamorous misfit leading a guerrilla campaign. The idea that Lawrence is playing at war and carnage as sexual sublimation is never stated, but it is always there, between the lines, in this film.
In an early edition of his memoirs, Lawrence summed up his psychological pathologies quite explicitly: “… a bodily wound would have been a grateful vent for my inner perplexities.”
I have no doubt that screenwriters Wilson and Bolt jotted down this confessional line, and used them as the spine for their characterization of Lawrence.
When Peter O’Toole was cast as Lawrence, he was an unknown. An Irish actor with a very strange delivery and a sliver of a body whose limbs seem clumsily out of sync, O’Toole articulates his lines as if reciting poetry by Dylan Thomas. His delivery has nothing of the Method naturalism. He is wildly theatrical in every syllable and gesture. He is one of the most quirky actors ever to grace the screen. We don’t look to O’Toole for quiet moments of repose or inner anguish. He is best when exploding with gesture and poetry. Unlike Richard Burton, also a deeply theatrical actor, O’Toole manages — in his best performances, and Lawrence is still his best role — to impart a profound sense of intimacy. It’s a rare gift. The bigger he gets, the more personal his connection to the audience becomes.
The screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia is brilliant. Exposition is almost invisible. The dialogue is lean, almost poetic. Screenwriters Wilson and Bolt never attempt to turn Lawrence into a traditional romantic hero. Wilson, Bolt, and Lean understand that the flawed hero is the best hero. In fact, Lawrence, with his azure blue eyes and bombshell blond hair, is truly charismatic, undeniably courageous, but also borderline crazy. His flaws — masochism, narcissism and, most disturbing of all, brutality to surrendering Turkish troops — are a disturbing subtext that runs throughout the film. That subtext, together with the haunting desert imagery and Maurice Jarre’s memorable score, makes Lawrence of Arabia one of the most vexing, yet compelling, movies ever made.