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The AFI Top 100 Films: Lawrence of Arabia (#5)

Entertainment 150Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean

Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? No? Well then, you should probably put down the Internet and go watch it as soon as possible. Because it’s the internet, this review will be waiting for you when you come back (though it might be a little defaced). Go forth, and educate yourself!

(Don’t read this part until you’ve returned in about five hours.)

Wasn’t that a *pretty* movie? With a very, VERY pretty main character? Full admission — I didn’t actually see a movie with Peter O’Toole in it until Venus, so it was quite shocking to know that he was pretty much a fairy sidhe back in the 60s. It was almost as bad as finding out that Frank Langella oozed jellicle-cat charm in The Seven Chairs.

Hello, you handsome man.

Hello, you handsome man (on the right, of course).

Peter O’Toole brightens up the desert as T.E. Lawrence, an actual British army soldier who embedded himself with Arabian allies to take on the Turks during World War I. Lawrence begins his career as something of a misfit, disregarding authority and his colleagues alike until he’s sent on what’s essentially a diplomatic mission to assess the prospects of a British ally aiming to claim the Arabian peninsula for himself and his kin. Once out in the field, Lawrence finds a wily yet effective manner that allows him to take whatever comes his way and use it to his full advantage. There’s a surprising amount of grit in him, too; when it really counts, he digs deep to find a reserve of it so he can do what’s essentially impossible. It’s through these feats that he gains the respect of his Arabian hosts and eventually comes to be considered one of them.

As Lawrence navigates the various groups he finds in the desert, he discovers a number of tribes that really don’t get along all that well. For different reasons they’ve been rumbling with each other for a very long time, and it’s only under his urging that they put aside their differences to combat the greater threat of the Turks. Maybe it’s for this reason (and subsequent military successes) that he comes to think of himself as something of a big deal for these guys. When he comes back to his British command post, it’s in traditional Arabian garb instead of his British uniform. The conversation he has with his superiors makes it clear that he’s flipped, and he’s representing the interests of the Arabians more than his home country’s.

When he returns to the warfront he launches a number of guerilla attacks on the Turks. The attacks aren’t without their toll, and one particularly bad episode leaves Lawrence fundamentally shaken. He and a lieutenant are captured by the enemy and beaten, possibly molested. After that point, much of the fight has gone out of him — it’s only at the insistent urging of an ally that he pushes on to the big prize of Damascus. Once British interests are fulfilled and it’s clear that the Arabians may know how to take a city but no idea how to keep one, Lawrence is dispatched back to England. His destiny, for all intents and purposes, has been fulfilled.

But what kind of destiny is that? Lawrence enters into the war a confident man just discovering the singular he abilities he possesses for success in it. When he leaves, he’s disillusioned, hollowed out and purged of any desire to touch those parts of himself again. There are a couple of episodes that force him to directly confront the violence of war, and both of these leave him disturbed. Interestingly, it’s not because he finds that violence distasteful — it’s because he loves it far too much.

The movie touches on a few things that are really fascinating, but doesn’t get too deeply involved with them. Was Lawrence something of a sado-masochist? There are a few details in the film that establish a through-line suggesting so. How did his capture and torture change him? What exactly happened there? He was already beginning to tire of the toll that war takes on a person, but that single experience actually broke him in a very real way. I wish we could have explored that fallout in greater depth.

But this isn’t really that kind of movie. It’s an epic of grand scale, full of massive set-pieces and intense, fascinating episodes that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other movie. This is the very first film that presents the desert as a thing of beauty — a harsh, austere one, but a beautiful landscape nonetheless. It offers us glimpses into the mindset of the people who call this place home, the various cultures that live there, the reasons why there hasn’t been a unified Arabia. What I find most impressive is that it does this without judgement or exoticization. The Arabians that Lawrence meets are flesh-and-blood people, not noble savages or Godless heathens. They have reasons for doing the things they do, an established perspective, and a code that they do their best to live by. In these highly-politicized times, it’s a really great thing to see.

Director David Lean clearly knows how to establish a unique, lived-in world. His previous entries on this list (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago) are certainly a testament to that. Lawrence of Arabia is the most visually-striking of the three, because he sees how such a barren world can be attractive, worth fighting for — and he shows it to his audience quite well.

Ultimately, Lawrence is disappointed in the outcome of his Arabian adventure precisely because these people are just like everyone else. They can be selfish, stubborn and uncompromising. It’s the very same traits that set him apart from his British colleagues, only manifested in a different way. I have a feeling that perhaps he thought there would be the chance to do something special during his travels through the peninsula; when his war turned out to be pretty much like the other war he left behind, that really took the wind out of him.

But of course, my interest in the story lies with its people; this isn’t necessarily where Lawrence of Arabia shines. It is one of the finest (if not THE finest) epics put to film, set in a region that really sets it apart from anything else. It’s definitely worth seeing, for its cinematography and score for nothing else. Though O’Toole, Guinness and Sharif put in wonderful, magnetic performances, elevating the writing through their sheer charisma. Even though it doesn’t quite go to the places I’d really love to see, Lawrence of Arabia takes me to places I’d never be otherwise.

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Bridge on the River Kwai (#13)

Entertainment 150The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins
Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson (screenplay) and Pierre Boulle (novel)
Directed by David Lean

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a chronicle of what can happen to twist our logic into insanity through the fog of war. Whereas Apocalypse Now explores what happens when man is allowed to give in to insanity with none of the societal constructs we use to block (or in some cases support) it, this movie shows us a man whose values get so twisted through his wartime experience that he ends up collaborating with — and ultimately supplanting — his sworn enemy as a matter of pride.

That man is Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness), an officer for the British army who was captured along with his platoon by the Japanese. The commandant of the prison camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is under pressure from his superiors to build a bridge within a certain amount of time. It holds vast strategic value, enabling the Japanese army to get men and supplies to areas of Burma that would otherwise be impossible. This would give them a significant advantage in the Pacific theatre of World War II.

Saito demands that all prisoners work on the bridge — even the officers. Nicholson refuses that last bit, under the grounds that it’s forbidden by the Geneva Convention. The resulting stand-off unites the men behind Nicholson (who ends up being punished in a sweat box) and encourages them to sabotage the building of the bridge, at least until Saito is forced to blink first and release Nicholson. The victory of the prisoners, however, is short-lived when their commanding officer sees the state of the project.

Appalled at the shoddy workmanship on display, Nicholson steadily takes over construction. At first he wants to give the men something to do so that their discipline and morale is improved, but it soon becomes a chance for him to leave a legacy behind after the war. The bridge, to his mind, will stand as a testament to British engineering and workmanship. Its prompt completion will be a thumb in the eye of the Japanese, proving that the Royal Army can do what the Emperor’s Army can’t.

Nicholson proves to be a harder, more effective taskmaster than Saito. He demands more and more of his men, even pulling people out of the infirmary to work. Saito just fades into the background as Nicholson becomes the new commandant of the prison camp, subjecting his own company to grueling work and punishing conditions just to prove his worth. Never mind that he has taken over the enemy’s work for them, or that the bridge actively works against the interests of his side.

Meanwhile, the one officer who survived in an escape attempt from the prison camp is convinced to go back and sabotage the bridge. Shears (Holden) is an American grunt who leads an international commando group to blow it up, and a lot of the film is devoted to him slowly giving up his selfishness in favor of a higher ideal. It makes for a really nice parallel story as Nicholson twists his ideals to serve his selfishness without even realizing.

The movie can only end one way, and that’s with a confrontation between Nicholson’s group and Shear’s unit. It’s a great opportunity to show just how far Nicholson has gone off the map, and even though you know he’s out in a mental and military wilderness it’s shocking to see just how lost he is. The climax of the film plays out like something of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the survivors are bewildered at the wreckage that they’ve had a hand in creating.

What’s fascinating about this film is figuring out exactly where Nicholson went wrong. His intentions were…sound enough, I suppose, but there’s clearly a line that was crossed at some point without the officer even knowing it. None of the people supporting him asked him to check his bearings before moving forward, and at some point he became the very thing he had been fighting all this time. Is this where an unwavering commitment to ideals gets you? Or is it just that he had been applying them improperly all this time?

We have the benefit of distance with which to determine the answers to these questions, but none of the participants in this scenario really did. And maybe that’s the point — when you’re in a situation where it’s the norm for men to be cruel to other men, it’s impossible to even find your bearings, to know what’s an acceptable application of your ideals and what isn’t. That at best, men are likely to turn into Nicholson and at worst they become Kurtz.

The movie is based on the book of the same name, and Nicholson is an amalgam of various French officers that writer Pierre Boulle served under in the war. Despite his repeated claims that he wasn’t trying to take a dig at the British, a lot of people (even star Alec Guinness) thought it was an indictment of the British Army. I could certainly see that, though really only one man drives the problem that needs to be stopped. It could be considered an organizational failure that his course wasn’t corrected well before the climax of the film.

The performances are first-rate all around, and given its unique location considering it’s a WWII film it’s one of the sunniest war movies I’ve ever seen. The adventurous, almost breezy tone masks a surprisingly thorny tangle of ideas in this movie, and that’s what makes The Bridge on the River Kwai so great. It’s entertaining, and when you stop to think about it really sobering. It’s the kind of movie you see on Friday night and end up thinking about through Sunday afternoon.

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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