The Best Picture Project – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Directed by David Lean

Screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson

Based upon the memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence

Cinematography by Freddie Young

Starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Sir Alec Guinness and Claude Rains

 Normally I start my take on a given movie the usual way, with a recap and my impressions and save any bits of trivia until the end. But with Lawrence of Arabia the trivia saved to the end would blunt its impact, so there’s no waiting for it. It goes right here.

Watching Lawrence of Arabia I was struck by just how long a movie it is, but it wasn’t until I did a bit of digging after I finished watching it that I realized that by at least one measure Lawrence of Arabia is the longest Best Picture ever, at just over 222 minutes (3 hrs., 42 mins.) It’s longer even than Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (200 minutes, though the extended edition is 50 minutes longer) and Gone with the Wind (221 minutes). However, it’s fair to not that one measure puts Lawrence of Arabia at number two of long Best Pictures, 232 to Gone With the Wind’s 234.

Whether it is actually the longest or the second longest, it’s a long movie by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll spare the usual recap. All you need to know is that its length is both the source of its greatest success, but also its biggest failure.

Where the length is a success is in the first half of the film.  Because it’s so long there is time to spare for just about everything, giving plenty of bits about the first time our diffident hero, Lawrence, is sent to the desert to reconnoiter with the Arabs, all the way through to the taking of Aqaba, where he seems poised to actually achieve the goal of uniting all Arabs into one Arabia. There are lingering shots of the desert, run-ins with interesting locals, the sequence where he saves a man from death in the desert only to have to later execute him to prevent the tense Arab coalition from disintegrating, and more. If left entirely at the first half the film would easily be one of the most stirring films ever.

Unfortunately, the film can’t simply be an exciting chase across the desert. It requires gravitas and so in the second half, the extreme length gives the movie time to get plenty muddled in mythmaking and politics and drags everything right down.  It is only because the first half of the film was so stirring and the anticipation for a few remaining bits of desert action, that one makes it to the end.

As Lawrence was such a famous figure round the world it comes as no surprise that there were many filmmakers hot and heavy to get Lawrence’s story to the screen. During his lifetime he apparently sold his story rights to Alexander Korda, who was somehow convinced not to actually make the movie while Lawrence was still alive. As soon as he died rival producers jockeyed to realize the film. Alexander Korda was the first on the ball, with his brother Zoltan directing, with varied men from Leslie Howard to Dirk Bogarde slated as Lawrence. Ultimately it would take thirty years and the combined talents of Sam Spiegel and David Lean to bring the film to the screen. Given that the film ultimately won Best Picture and Director, I suppose the wait was worth it.*

It’s interesting to note that 1962, in hindsight, might have been one of the tougher years ever at the Oscars. That year you had The Music Man in the Best Picture race, as well as To Kill A Mockingbird and even the mammoth WWI film, The Longest Day. Not an easy slate to overcome. More impressive is that other films from 1962that failed to make the Best Picture race included The Miracle Worker, The Manchurian Candidate, the barely-nominated The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and the completely unnominated – and my personal favorite – Jules et Jim. Do I think that any of those films had the goods to overcome Lawrence? No. But the fact that classics such as Liberty Valance and Jules et Jim can barely make a dent at the awards, or go completely unnominated, speaks volumes about that years competition.


This isn’t a bit of trivia – as such – but recently my wife and I were in Milwaukee for the weekend. Since I watched Lawrence I’d been interested in getting his memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but didn’t want to spend a fortune for it.  I was pleasantly surprised then that, in a used bookstore in Milwaukee, I found an old paperback copy that’d been issued at the time of the film’s release. Maybe I overpaid for it at $4, but I was happy to get it. Now, as soon as I finish Crime and Punishment – I’m nearly there – and a couple others, I’ll get to it.

A real bit of trivia here has to do with Sam Spiegel. In a previous post, about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest I mentioned Saul Zaentz being one of the two producers to win three Oscars for Best Picture. The other, was Sam Spiegel, winner of Oscars for On The Waterfront, Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia. He was nominated for a fourth for Nicholas and Alexandra, and was also a reciepient, in 1964 of the Thalberg Award. Not too shabby.

Since I mentioned Jules et Jim, please have a listen to one of my favorite songs ever, Le Tourbillon, which Jeanne Moreau sings midway through Jules et Jim.

To see the other winner’s seen and those left to go, click here.

*Thanks to 10 Bad Dates With DeNiro, Edited by Rickard T. Kelly, for some of this information.

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