Monday, September 7, 2009
A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma
This year marks the 70th anniversary of that landmark year in American movies, 1939, and the year has been observed in a number of ways, including a new documentary on Turner Classic Movies and a slew of the notable films of that year shown on the channel. Much has been written about the year 1939 and how it was Hollywood's greatest year in terms of the sheer number of great American films released that year. Entire books have been written on this subject. When you read a list of the memorable movies from that year, it is difficult to disagree with the premise. Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, The Women, Love Affair, Destry Rides Again, Midnight, Only Angels Have Wings, Dark Victory, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Roaring Twenties, Goodbye Mr. Chips— it really was a year filled with wonderful movies of all genres and also with remarkable performances by some of the greatest stars of the studio era.
Although no other year quite equals 1939 in the history of the American cinema, several others come close. The years 1937, 1940, 1941, 1949, and 1950 also strike me as remarkably strong years in American film. But at the very end of the studio era—in fact, after the studios had reached their peak and were already in decline, doomed by television, independent productions, and the newfound interest in foreign-language films—Hollywood had as a last gasp a year that to me arguably ranks second only to 1939 for the number of memorable films released. That year is 1962.
Of all the great movies of that year, Lawrence of Arabia (technically an Anglo-American production, produced by Horizon Pictures for Columbia) is universally considered the greatest. This is the movie that defines the term epic and was indeed named by the American Film Institute as the best epic movie ever made. Running in excess of three and a half hours and filmed, according to the Internet Movie Database, in 34 separate locations including, among other places, Morocco, Jordan, Spain, England, and even the Imperial Desert of southern California, Lawrence of Arabia is monumental in every respect.
No movie had ever looked quite like this one. Photographed by the great Freddie Young (Goodbye Mr. Chips, Lust for Life, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan's Daughter), the film would have been inconceivable without Technicolor and the widescreen format. Wrapped in Maurice Jarre's rapturous, exotic theme music, it created in the cinematic collective consciousness the archetypal images of the deserts of the Middle East—sun-drenched light; radiantly blue, cloudless skies; vast, empty, horizontal landscapes where "lone and level sands stretch far away"—as vividly and indelibly as the Westerns of John Ford did for the American Southwest.
David Lean, the director of Lawrence of Arabia, had been directing for nearly twenty years when this movie was released. Sharing directing credit for his first film, In Which We Serve (1942), with Noel Coward, who also wrote and starred in it, Lean continued to work for several more years with Coward. His next three movies were all adapted from plays by Coward and included the classic romance Brief Encounter (1945). In the late 1940s Lean aimed higher than the relative simplicity of his earlier work, escalating the scale of production values in two excellent adaptations of novels by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1947) and Oliver Twist (1948, although not released in the US until 1951), the former in my view the best screen adaptation ever made of a work by Dickens and one of the greatest movies of any kind ever made.
For the next several years, although he occasionally revisited period projects such as Madeleine (1950) and Hobson's Choice (1954), Lean returned to movies of more modest scale. In 1955 he made Summertime, the delightful story of an unmarried, middle-aged American librarian traveling to Venice and having a brief but ultimately unhappy love affair there, starring Katharine Hepburn. Summertime marked a return to the pronounced emphasis on pictorial values of Lean's earlier Dickens films. In Summertime the setting was restricted to Venice, and the city, ravishingly photographed in Technicolor by Jack Hildyard, became almost the second lead character in the story, sharing equal importance with Hepburn. Yet the spatially confined settings never threatened to overwhelm the rather simple story.
It was two years before Lean's next movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), was released. With this film Lean returned to the outsized production values of his works based on Dickens and clearly attempted to match an epic-scale story with epic-scale production values. The movie was a huge success, winning both the Oscar and the New York Film Critics Circle award for best picture, and Lean won the best director award from both groups as well. Many film critics, though, especially those of an auteurist bent including Andrew Sarris and David Thomson, view this movie as the beginning of Lean's artistic downfall, a slide marked by Lean's preoccupation with visual grandiosity over personal expression, what Thomson calls "the Selznick syndrome." (I have to admit that I find some justification in this view, although at this point in Lean's career it was still more of a possibility than a certainty. For me the rot didn't really set in until 1965's Dr. Zhivago.)
Lawrence was Lean's next project after Kwai, and this time a full five years passed before the film's release. Lawrence also won the Oscar for best Picture and Lean the Oscar for best director. (The New York newspapers were on strike that year, and the New York Film Critics Circle, who were all newspaper critics, chose not to give any awards. If they had, Lawrence almost certainly would have won, and Lean would have received his third best director award, having also won previously for Summertime. In 1984 he did receive his third best director honor from the group for his last movie, A Passage to India.)
The film critic Andrew Sarris was one of the few who was not bowled over by Lawrence or by Lean. (Nor, apparently, was New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, possibly the most influential critic of the time. Lawrence did not even appear on his list of the top ten films of the year, and he later wrote that if the New York Film Critics Circle had given awards that year, he would have voted for the British film A Taste of Honey.) In The American Cinema Sarris rather sarcastically opined that Lean's "modest virtues . . . have been inflated with the hot air of Lawrence of Arabia." With his rigidly dogmatic bias in favor of the auteur view of films and film directors, Sarris observed that the "sheer logistics of Lawrence . . . cannot support the luxury of a directorial point of view."
Of course he was correct in this assessment. With its intricate structure that begins with Lawrence's death ride on his motorcycle, its large cast of consummately professional actors, and its purposefully chosen stylistic grandeur, the movie would have caused any director to engage in an ongoing struggle with his simultaneous roles of project manager, cinematic construction engineer, and film artist. But does it really matter with a movie as magnificent as Lawrence of Arabia? I think not. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and Lawrence is one mighty impressive pudding filled with unquestionable movie artistry and a profusion of unforgettable images.
Lawrence of Arabia is dominated not only by its imagery, but equally by the stunning and star-making performance by Peter O'Toole as the title character. Here is one of those instances of an actor being the embodiment of the role. I find it impossible to imagine Lawrence of Arabia without O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence. Yet that was very nearly the case, for O'Toole was not Lean's first choice to play Lawrence and was offered the role only after Albert Finney, a sublime actor in his own right, turned it down. Some have criticized the movie and its star for not offering a more specific point of view about who and what Lawrence really was. But isn't that really the point of the movie and the person himself—that Lawrence, with his self-created mythological persona, was ultimately an enigma who defied any precise explanation or definition?
My only regret about O'Toole is that he did not receive the Oscar for best actor that to me he so plainly deserved. The winner that year was Gregory Peck—to my mind one of the most wooden of all major American movie actors—for To Kill a Mockingbird. I have always believed he won more for the noble character he played than for superior acting ability. The Academy voters evidently preferred a modest, prejudice-defying American civil rights crusader/martyr to a mysterious Brit of ambiguous sexuality and an oversized ego. Peck also had an advantage over O'Toole in that he was American, a big Hollywood star popular with his fellow professionals, and although nominated four times before had never won.
In the coming months I'll be writing about other great movies of 1962. But by any standard, Lawrence of Arabia must be viewed as the greatest American film of that memorable year.