Lawrence of Arabia: Best Picture, 1962

The 35th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Frank Sinatra. Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for 10 awards:Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Actor (Peter O’Toole), Best Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best Sound. The competition (if you can call it that) included heavyweight literary adaptation To Kill a Mockingbird (8 nominations, 3 wins), remake of previous Best Picture winner Mutiny on the Bounty starring Marlon Brando in the Clark Gable role (7 nominations, 0 wins), token musical The Music Man (6 nominations, 1 win for its music), and The Longest Day (5 nominations, 2 wins), a D-day epic starring the likes of John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Sean Connery.

Few could stand before the mighty spectacle of Lawrence and its awe-inspiring 220-minute runtime. It took home seven of its ten nominations. It lost Best Adapted Screenplay (a category which that year also included Vladimir Nabokov’s sole nomination, for the Kubrick-directed adaptation of Lolita) to To Kill a Mockingbird. Best Supporting Actor went to Ed Begley for Sweet Bird of Youth. And, most shocking of all (or perhaps not?), Peter O’Toole lost out to Gregory Peck’s equally-iconic performance as a very different sort of hero: To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch. Few would argue that the award was undeserved, and it was Peck’s last nomination and only win. By contrast, O’Toole’s nomination was his first, but despite seven subsequent nominations he has not won a competitive Oscar to-date.

Lawrence of Arabia opens with the death of the title character in a motorcycle accident, followed by a scene at his funeral where a number of conflicting recollections of the man and his character are raised. The rest of the film is a (very) extended flashback which follows T.E. Lawrence from his days as a military cartographer in Cairo through his enormous success as the organizer and military leader of bands of Arab guerrillas mounting raids on the Turks during World War I. Through it all, Lawrence’s character undergoes a significant change as he struggles (and fails) to help the Arabs create their own nation and rule their own destinies. In addition to the deserving nominations of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif (in his first English-speaking role!), there is memorable work by Alec Guinness, who had previously starred in Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, Anthony Quinn, and the always fantastic Claude Rains.

Lawrence of Arabia is, in many ways, the Ultimate Movie: a sweeping epic of vast proportions (in length, scope, scale, and every other respect), often imitated but never truly equaled. Lawrence of Arabia‘s contributions to the cinematic lexicon are considerable, most notably its inspiration of filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. One memorable scene piles on top of another, with everything from quiet, private moments of powerful acting to moments of intense suspense to large-scale battle sequences. The action set pieces are marvelous, from the sabotage and looting of the train to the pulse-pounding invasion of Aqaba. Best of all, though, as in all of David Lean’s films, is the way the location is truly an integral part of the movie.

The desert vistas are given their full weight in long, slow takes that watch mounted characters crawling across the enormous distance from screen left to screen right like barely-visible ants on the rim of the world. In one scene, Lawrence and his guide note the approach of someone else out of a distant cloud of dust; the arrival takes nearly two full minutes (an eternity in film terms) as the figure grows from a microscopic speck to a full grown man on a camel. In another scene, Lawrence and his companion (returning to Cairo), stumble out of the desert and are stopped in their tracks at the sight of what appears to be an enormous ship sailing along the dunes. Topping the rise, they discover that they have reached the Suez Canal, and civilization. No one, before or since, has filmed a desert movie like Lean.

Thrilling action and beautiful cinematography aside, the guiding thread of the film is the personal journey of Lawrence himself. When we are first introduced to him, he is a young man, courageous and a bit overconfident. His fellow soldiers think he is rather odd, an opinion which is confirmed when he convinces his commanding officer to allow him to wander off into the desert on a vague, open-ended quest. Once there, he quickly wins the respect and admiration of the Arab people, clashing with the British liaison who is already there by honestly giving his opinion of the wisest course of action for the Arabs to take (rather than what would be best for the British).

Lawrence’s cockiness prompts him to lead a daring and dangerous trek across a nearly uncrossable desert to approach the enemy from behind. His admiring companions signify their acceptance by presenting him with clothing of their own style. In one of the movie’s most disarming moments, Lawrence (mistakenly believing himself to be alone and unobserved) flaunts his new robes and struts across the sand while trying to admire his reflection in a dagger.

Success after success ultimately causes Lawrence to believe himself to be invincible, and the formation of an Arab nation inevitable, but his assumptions eventually lead to disappointment and disillusionment as he fails to live up to his own iconic status and the tenuous tribal alliances he has created fracture and splinter apart. What emerges from all of this is a fascinating and complex portrait of an extraordinary life. It is an astounding story, brought to life by an equally-astounding film.

1962 was a pretty good year at the movies. In addition to Lawrence of Arabia, there are, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lolita, as well as the taut thriller The Manchurian Candidate and one John Ford’s most mature westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; and those are just the films in English. Lawrence emerges as the most outstanding film, perhaps, but there are a number of likely candidates which would have taken the award in any normal year. In particular, it is a shame that To Kill a Mockingbird should have had to compete with Lawrence of Arabia, for in its own way, it is just as great a film, and well-worth remembering.

~ by Jared on July 22, 2008.

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