Better than the Oscars: 1

The following is from my series of Oscar Best Picture rankings, as well as my strongly worded suggestions for what should have won from among the nominees. For an introduction to the project, click here. For a way to vote on some Oscar-related ideas, click here. If I’ve written a review on any of the films below, I link to it in the movie’s title. Enjoy!


1) Lawrence of Arabia, 35th Academy Awards, directed by David Lean

Worth noting: Someone else could have played Atticus Finch besides Gregory Peck, but who could have played Harold Hill but Robert Preston? (Put your pitchforks down…that was mostly a joke.)

Here’s a list of conversations that Lawrence of Arabia absolutely deserves to be mentioned in, which I’m going to get out of the way before we actually chat about the movie. The point is not necessarily to say that it is the best in any of these categories, but if you’re going to talk about any of these subjects, you can’t do so without giving serious air time to Lawrence:

  • Best Oscar Best Picture winner (hee)
  • Best British movie ever made
  • Best biopic ever made
  • Best war movie ever made, specifically the best about World War I
  • Best movie about imperialism
  • Best original score (Maurice Jarre)
  • Best edited movie of all time (Anne V. Coates)
  • Best leading performance by a male actor (Peter O’Toole)
  • Best movie in the English language (I know this is unnecessarily huge, but I don’t think this is a crazy idea)

Now that you may be mildly infuriated, here are some of the things about the picture I find interesting.

Lawrence of Arabia pivots hard about three-quarters of the way through the movie, a moment so breathtaking that the only comparison I have for it is Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act IV, Scene 4. In a movie that is justly famous for its visual aspects, it’s some rapid back-and-forth dialogue from Robert Bolt’s screenplay between Lawrence and Allenby (Jack Hawkins) that sets up the turn. Lawrence is not himself in these scenes; his ego soaring, his name in all the papers, his prestige among the Arabs at its peak, he made a monumentally stupid decision to scout the enemy city of Deraa personally. Captured, humiliated, and tortured, he returns to headquarters a chastened man for the first time in the movie, even wearing his regular uniform instead of his Harith robes. Allenby manages to stroke Lawrence’s ego in just the right ways. He tells Lawrence that he will be internationally famous for years to come, that he may even have a “destiny.” The word destiny smacks of what some of the Arabs have told him when he first came to the desert with them: for Lawrence, it may be that nothing is written unless he writes it himself. The pep talk works. At first, Lawrence—who is not unaware of British territorial designs on the region—boasts to Allenby that not only will he and the Arabs make it to the focal point of Damascus before the regular British troops, but that once they get there, he has plans for the city.

Lawrence: They won’t be coming for money. Not the best of them. They’ll be coming for Damascus, which I’m going to give them.

Allenby: [A very long pause, from the perspective of anyone who knows how this is going to end] That’s all I want.

Lawrence: All you want is someone holding down the Turkish right. But I’m going to give them Damascus. We’ll get there before you, and when we’ve got it, we’ll keep it. Tell the politicians to burn their bit of paper now.

Allenby: Fair enough.

Lawrence: Fair? What’s ‘fair’ go to do with it? It’s going to happen. I shall want quite a bit of money.

Allenby: All there is.

Lawrence: Not that much.

In this scene his face is cut in two by a shadow. The blonde hair is as blonde as ever, and the blue eyes as cerulean and piercing as they’ve ever been. But the shadow is the thing, entirely natural and entirely symbolic at once. He walks away from Allenby through shadow, into light, through shadow again, and then finally into the light before a stone carving of a god. Standing in front of it, looking into the distance, Lawrence says something thrilling and awful very much in the same resolved grandiose mind as “O, from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”

Lawrence: The best of them won’t come for money. They’ll come for me.

I don’t think you could even get Kobe Bryant to say something like that. This is spit-take level arrogance from a man who was just offered a tremendous opportunity to learn through failure and pain what a little humility might have done for his ability to appraise himself or preserve his own life. He will return to the battlefield with guns and money to pay out, wearing his robes, and ultimately ordering a bona fide war crime. (It is here that his earlier statement that he enjoys killing becomes particularly and frighteningly significant.)

Rewind to the early part of the movie, where Lawrence is working on two projects: maps and winding up his buddy, Potter (Harry Fowler). Lawrence famously snuffs out a match with his fingers, which Potter tries as well only to find that it smarts, rather. “The trick, William Potter,” Lawrence says coolly, almost seductively, “is not minding that it hurts.” Our first two interactions with Lawrence are his death in a motorcycle crash, in which he obviously goes too fast for safety, and then this scene with the match. Later on, the clever politician Dryden (Claude Rains) warns him about the desert, telling him that no one can love it; Lawrence is certain he will. Then there’s the Turkish bey (Jose Ferrer) who has Lawrence flogged while he’s in custody, although the scenes have a strong (and for mainstream 1962, downright unbelievable) sadomasochistic homoerotic tinge. Martin Scorsese’s read on Lawrence is that Lawrence is self-loathing, attempting desperately to prove something about his character. He is in a constant state of competition with just about anyone or anything he find to compete with. Scorsese notes that Lawrence’s contest isn’t against God, a contest I am an admitted sucker for. I don’t think he’s contesting the desert either, although Lean imparts a vastness to the desert that makes us wonder if it’s the only thing big enough for Lawrence to throw himself at. (Lean’s genius in those wide shots we all know and love him for is that he makes grandeur understandable. That desert, those cliffs, this army, whatever the case may be: Lean finds a way to let us wrap out heads around how huge that thing is. No one will ever be able to replicate Lean, who had the patience and the eye of a higher being.) Lawrence is having it out with himself, a fight amplified because Lawrence is plugged into the world’s greatest geopolitical struggle to date and his reach, almost by accident, is exceedingly great.

With a movie this big and with this much space for a supporting cast, we have the opportunity to witness a horseshoe-shaped spectrum take shape. (Y’know how centrists think the political spectrum is horseshoe shaped? I don’t know why they think that either.) Here, check out this enormously classy thing I just made:

Nearest to one another are Dryden and Faisal (Alec Guinness, because playing someone who’s not white is an acting challenge and totally not racist, sigh), the political pragmatists of the film whose goals are self-serving and good for the people who pay their bills. Both of them are also absent from the film for extremely long stretches, and when they do show up in the back half of the film they do so together often as not. Dryden is one of the architects of the treaty that Faisal knows will be the death knell for the pan-Arab nation he has in mind. Faisal comes to believe that even Lawrence has betrayed him; when Lawrence, genuinely believing that the French and English have not partitioned the Near East, appears confused when Faisal mentions a treaty, the prince scoffs. “He does it better than you, General,” Faisal says to Allenby, who has been denying this treaty himself, “but then again, he is almost an Arab.” The line is ironic for obvious reasons, but it’s a sign of Faisal’s intellect and ability to read others. No other slight could wound Lawrence more. Dryden approaches a similar tack with Lawrence. I tell lies, Dryden says, but you tell “half-lies.” Dryden’s critique is almost as harsh as Faisal’s; a liar knows what the truth is, “but a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.” Allenby and Auda (Anthony Quinn, also not Arab) are farther apart because neither one is particularly political in himself, but both see opportunities for advancement and, of course they have military pedigrees. For this last reason they also tend to be the people Lawrence has the most bother with.

On either side of Lawrence are his closest confidantes, top subordinates, and nearest people to friends he can muster. Ali (Omar Sharif) and Brighton (Anthony Quayle) have in common a prudent personal caution that Lawrence emphatically lacks. They both stand some level of critique of their respective cultures from Lawrence as well, but they are good representatives who act honorably. And they are exactly the kind of people who are, in Lawrence’s view, “the best of them.” Auda and Ali, who are grudging collaborators, have a rare conversation between themselves before Lawrence returns to them. Ali tells Auda that he was offered money by Lawrence to come fight for him. “Did you take it?” Auda asks. No, Ali answers, and the look on Sharif’s face shows the pain of being treated that way by a man he has become devoted to; it is a grievous attack on his own character. There are other moments more horrible in the film, but none that touch a chord with me more painfully.

Lawrence of Arabia is unique for many reasons among Best Picture winners, but one of those reasons is a good trivia question: it is the only Best Picture winner without any women characters. Women are heard, and occasionally seen from a distance, but there are no women who are people, for lack of neater phrase. In practice, the lack of characters whom we might expect to curb the more masculine obsession with glory or “destiny” is writ large on the film.

Interestingly, it’s not even the only movie nominated at the 35th Academy Awards with this no-women distinction; Billy Budd is in the same boat (ha!). In that way Billy Budd is potentially instructive, too, because one of the lingering subtexts of the story is about repressed homosexual desire; this is at the heart, certainly, of Claire Denis’ brilliant Beau travail, which is based on Billy Budd. We’ve already touched on this idea of a potentially homosexual Lawrence as well as the potential sources of his jollies. Where women are not, the men tend to find ways to express themselves sexually, or at the very least a sort of uneasy homosocial state of affairs takes over. Certainly this is the case for Ali, who over the course of the film becomes increasingly protective of Lawrence in ways that wife figures do in other movies about “Great Men.” The two are attached at the hip in fat times and lean alike, and Ali shares every bit of the danger that Lawrence gets himself into. In short, they very much toe that fuzzy line between “brothers in arms” and “lovers in arms,” frequently touching in ways to let the other man know he’s there. As previously mentioned, the most potent potential sexual experience of the film is delivered by a literally anonymous Turkish official; it’s an encounter which mirrors some of the anonymous connections made in the very illegal gay bars and clubs of the time. Nor do I think it’s coincidence that Lawrence’s light torture session with the bey is a turning point in his relationship with Ali, turning it from a warm, bodily friendship to one that has an awful lot of nagging from Ali’s end, the sort of complaining that one sometimes sees when the bedroom is a little too crowded.

It would be very wrong to say that Lawrence is an entirely male production. Read this very fine article for more on the subject, but the short version is that women, as they have done since the beginning of movies, are frequently found on the production team. At the top I mentioned Anne V. Coates, who edited the film, won an Oscar for doing so, and may have done a better job editing a movie than anyone else has ever done. (The article notes that the cut from Lawrence blowing out the match to the rising sun was Coates’ idea, which shows a particular genius.) Also working in a similar field was Barbara Cole, the continuity supervisor; that’s an undervalued job almost by definition, but in a movie pushing four hours, the person in charge of continuity becomes just hugely important. Even by present standards of exclusion, women were absent from many of the more glamorous jobs in cinema in the 1960s. Lawrence is proof that women absolutely have a role in every inch of production, and furthermore that we may be cheating ourselves out of better films by not offering the opportunity. David Lean was an editor before he became arguably the greatest British director of all time; who can say if Coates wanted to direct, but I like to think that in a more progressive time she’d have had the well-earned chance to do so.

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