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Lawrence of Arabia

Turner Classic Movies was very very good to me this past weekend. In honor of this year’s Academy Awards, they offered up a four day marathon of Oscar winners for best picture, and thanks to the miracle of TiVo I was able to record them all. Of course now the DVR is sitting on 86% full so I have to do a little house cleaning. The biggest chunk of that is the Oscar winner from 1962, Lawrence of Arabia, clocking in at about four hours.

One of three best picture winners mentioned in Billy Joel’s "We Didn’t Start the Fire," Lawrence of Arabia is the story of British officer in World War I who leads Arab attacks against Turkish outposts. We begin at the end, with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident in England. At his funeral, no one seems to have known him all that well and those that did mutter under their breath that he was something of a clown. In flashbacks to his days in Cairo we see there may be some truth to that, as he screws up a game of pool then quotes Greek philosophy to a senior officer as a way to brag about his education. The senior officer is not impressed and sends him to Arabia, a "sideshow of a sideshow" as he calls it, to detirmine if a group of beduoins who raided a Turkish outpost are worth supplying. Lawrence and his guide ride accross the desert. Then they stop to talk. Then there’s more riding accross the desert. Then more talking. Then the guide gets shot for drinking from some guy’s well. This is a half-hour into the movie. Thirty minutes into a war movie and the only two deaths have been from a motorcycle accident and a guy drinking from a well. This is also the scene where we see Sherif Ali, played by Omar Sharif, ride towards the well from the horizon for about three minutes while no one says a word and nothing else happens. All this to make a point about there being no Arab unity, a point which the movie just repeats a few scenes later. Then Lawrence rides through the desert some more.

Eventually he hooks up with another British officer, who serves as a military advisor to Lord Feisal, who basically ignores the advice. All this to mention that the Arab world was more advanced in the 11th century than Europe. Then, just to mix things up a bit, Lawrence leaves the camel at home and walks through the desert. This leads Lawrence to hatch a plan of attacking a coastal stronghold of Aqaba by land. Then they ride through the desert some more. At one point Lawrence notices a riderless camel, so he goes back to get the guy who fell off. That alone is a ten minute scene.

Then they take Aqaba. This entire scene is about two minutes long. Of course Lawrence has to tell his British superiors about it so it’s time for another ride through the desert. Let me remind you this is suposed to be a war movie, so the battle scene gets two minutes and the rest of the movie involves riding through the desert.

After a brief intermission, Lawrence is back in Arabia, followed by an American journalist. He blows up a train, gets captured and tourtured by the Turks, gets released by the Turks when they fail to realize who he is, then captures Damascus. All of this is rushed through so that we can get to more scenes of Arabs not trusting people from other tribes and British officers questioning Lawrence’s patriotism.

Damn that is one long movie. Clocking in at 216 minutes it seems even longer. Suprisingly, it also won an Oscar for best editing, even though it seems like every frame they shot wound up in the final cut. Most scenes are twice as long as they need to be and many don’t need to be there at all. Give me the raw footage and some editing equipment and I’ll have it down to 140 minutes in no time at all.

The acting is adequate, but doesn’t really stand out. Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif are decent, though it seems like O’Toole kind of hams it up sometimes, and Gregory Peck’s work in To Kill a Mockingbird was certainly more deserving of the best actor statue.

The competition for best picture wasn’t that stiff that year. There is one movie that stands out though, Longest Day. The all-star cast large scale epic about D-Day was a better movie. At 178 minutes it is fairly long, but not nearly as long, and most importantly, it never seems that long. Sadly, the best movie released in 1962 would not be eligible for Oscar consideration, and is not the type of movie Oscar considers anyway. You see it was released in England in October 1962, but for the Academy to take a look, it has to be released in Los Angeles and New York, which did not happen until the following spring. It’s a movie adaptation of an Ian Flemming novel called Dr. No. Sean Connery, who had a bit part in The Longest Day, got his first staring role as British superspy James Bond. Lawrence of Arabia isn’t in the same league.

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