1 Year, 100 Movies: #7 Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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For 1 Year, 100 Movies, I will watch all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year- and will complete a goal on my 2013 Manifesto. Come along on the ride with me- oh, and please pass the popcorn!

I watched “Lawrence of Arabia” by chance on the day its star, Peter O’Toole passed away. What a sad day for the acting community. This film is a concept so large, the shots are so beautiful, and the acting- especially by Peter O’Toole- is exceptional.

The story begins with the death of  T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) due to a relatively mundane motorcycle accident. The remembrances of men in the prologue who didn’t really know him take us back to the beginning of T.E. Lawrence’s story, so we as the viewer can see what he was like. During World War I, Lawrence was a young British officer and scholar with a particular interest in Arab culture. Because of his knowledge of the Bedouin, Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) from the Arab Bureau calls upon Lawrence to assess the prospects of Prince Feisal’s (Alec Guinness) resistance of the Turkish forces. He eventually finds Feisal, who has been asked to fall back to Yanbu, on the central coast of the Red Sea. This move would force Feisal to give up ground to the the Turks, Lawrence is unsatisfied, and dreams up a plan.

Lawrence suggests an offensive. He and a small band will take the city of Aqaba, a key port held by Turkish forces. Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), a member of Feisal’s inner circle, and fifty others assemble. They must cross the Nefud, an impenetrable expanse of desert. Once through they will face large numbers of Turkish soldiers. Lawrence believes that other Arab tribes will join them after they have crossed the Nefud, impressed by their feat of courage. They strike out, and we get sequences of incredible landscape. Just as they are about to clear the Sun’s Anvil, a particularly relentless portion of the desert, Lawrence realizes that a member of their party has wandered off. Despite Ali’s warnings, Lawrence turns back to collect the lost man. We can see the ability of the beautiful desert to confuse, misdirect and utterly destroy a person.

David Lean takes a character who has only been fun and quirky up to this point, and starts to reveal his complexities. Lawrence, like the desert, is fascinating and terrifying, they are kindred spirits with a bond that is difficult to describe. Lawrence emerges from the desert with the lost man, and is welcomed as a hero. Ali presents him with sheik’s robes and renames him El Aurens. Ali and Lawrence meet up with Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), a tribal leader working with the Turks, and convince him to join them in taking Aqaba. With the additional men and the element of surprise, the newly formed Arab coalition storms Aqaba and takes it. Lawrence must return to Cairo to inform the British commanders of the accomplishment, in order to get additional weapons and money.

Back in Cairo, Lawrence is surrounded by a world that now seems foreign to him. General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), and Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) all speculate as to whether Lawrence has “gone native.” Allenby orders Lawrence to continue disrupting the Turkish forces, and arms him with money and guns. An American journalist, Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), who is searching for a hero who could ease the U.S. transition into the war, finds his poster boy with Lawrence. The raiding continues, and Lawrence’s fame grows, along with his arrogance. Lawrence walks into a Turkish town, believing he is untouchable, and is quickly arrested. He is questioned and taken for a deserter, never once an Arab, and is released.

Lawrence, changed by his abuse at the hands of the Turks, hires criminals and murders to join the Arab coalition. When they come upon Turkish forces marching through the desert, Lawrence, who had always been skeptical of violence, calls for the full slaughter of all of the Turkish troops. It all seems like a contrived production with Bentley the journalist taking pictures from a vehicle as they ride on their camels. The Arab forces finally take Damascus, but the bickering amongst the tribes undermines the successful establishment of a coalition, and Lawrence is left alone at the negotiation table.

In 1963 at the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and BAFTAs, “Lawrence of Arabia’ received a combined total of 14 award wins and an additional 7 nominations. The top ten billed actors from “Lawrence of Arabia” have won a total of 6 Academy Awards out of 33 nominations, 5 BAFTAs from 22 nominations, and 10 Golden Globes out of 25 nominations. That gives this group of actors a mind boggling 21 awards from 80 nominations. Peter O’Toole was an incredible actor, and this film is another one of those films that makes me glad I decided to go on this crazy journey of watching all of AFI’s top 100 films.

In my humble, non-professional, average movie-goer opinion this movie earns:

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