Category Archives: classic films

Best Films of 2003

2003 saw the ending of a fantasy saga as well as some great indie films and big-budget animation giants. It was an eclectic year that saw a return to form for directors like Clint Eastwood and the emergence of new greats like Sofia Coppola.

Best Film – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Capping off the greatest film trilogy of all-time, director Peter Jackson delivered his most grandiose and dramatic Lord of the Rings film in The Return of the King.

The quest has taken a toll on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). On the last leg of the journey, the evil forces opposing him and his shattered fellowship push forward with devastating effect. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must ascend to the throne he has hidden from and Gollum (Andy Serkis) continues to plot his own nefarious deeds that could spell doom for the world.

Relieved of the pressures of needing to introduce realms and species to an audience, all of the building storylines are brought to a close that is heartfelt, intimate and epic, creating a sensation few films have ever been able to achieve. In due time of course, Jackson would return to Middle-earth to complete another trilogy in The Hobbit series, but he needn’t have bothered. With The Return of the King, Jackson delivered an emotional epic that may never be topped.

Finding Nemo

Pixar delivered one of their greatest hits and most memorable films in Finding Nemo.

The tale of a father clownfish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), searching for his young son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), Marlin is forced to swim across half the ocean, aided by his bumbling sidekick, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). They come across sharks and jellyfish and all sorts of dangerous creatures, pushing forward to find young Nemo, who must confront his own mortality in a dentist’s fish tank.

Featuring great comedic moments, mesmerizing animation and a heartwarming message, the film still stands today as one of Pixar’s finest achievements.

Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece of finding simple connections between people regardless of gender, age or status, Lost in Translation features two of the best performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s careers.

Bob Harris is a past-his-prime film star scraping work together in Japan, where he is completely out of his element. He meets Charlotte, similarly lost, her husband a photographer on assignment. Finding each other and trying to find themselves on the crazy streets of Tokyo, they learn about the nature of connection and what their futures entail, whether it is what they want or not.

Understated in its approach, strong in its emotional power, Lost in Translation succeeds by using Bill Murray’s brilliant sense of comic timing to punctuate the laughs and bring meaning to the story.

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood had been a touch out of step after his instant classic film Unforgiven (1992) won him two Academy Awards in 1993. Making rather average movies such as The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Blood Work (1992), it was natural to wonder whether the movie icon would ever reclaim his past success. With Mystic River (2003), those fears were laid to rest.

Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are three friends growing up together in Boston in 1975. When Dave is kidnapped by two mysterious men and sexually abused for days, their friendship wanes. Now adults, they are drawn together once again as Jimmy’s daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is found murdered with Dave the prime suspect and Sean the police detective working the case. Fate has brought them together again and their destinies are all intertwined, for better or worse.

The film is about childhood loss of innocence and how that loss impacts us for the rest of our lives. Dave, Jimmy and Sean are all tied together through their past, present and future, helpless against the pain of time and regret. Mystic River is a haunting, beautiful film that truly explores the connections between people and the past.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a story of rebirth. The soul, the body and the world are reborn over the course of its telling, set in the Korean countryside.

A young boy (Jae-kyeong Seo) is raised by an elderly Buddhist master (Yeong-su Oh), who yearns to teach him the ways of peace and solitude. But the young boy, as all boys are, is impatient and gives in to his emotions, torturing animals and acting destructively. Once he gains sexual lust, he abandons the master and ventures off into the world. Only after he commits a heinous crime does he return to try and find the peace that the monk had tried to teach him. But both wonder whether it is too late; too late for the boy to find the inner peace he desires and too late for the master to overcome his previous failure and purpose in life.

Featuring beautiful cinematography and a deliberate pace, the film is a touching examination of the essential forces at work in the world: love, nature, mentorship, anger, desire and the continual rebirth of those forces over and over again.

 

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Best Movies of 2002

2002 was a seminal year for film in a variety of genres. The musical and fantasy adventure film were given some of their strongest entries in decades and classic films with themes of love, poverty and desire were produced. As the world settled into a post-9/11 mentality, filmmaking reflected both a need to escape current worries and to reflect on recent events.

Best Film – City of God by Fernando Meirelles

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God was hailed as an instant classic at its release over ten years ago. Its glow has not diminished since.

The story of two boys, Rocket and Li’l Zé, growing up in the 1960s in Rio de Janeiro, the film illustrates life in a crime-ridden world where violence is everywhere and moral corruption begins at a young age. Rocket is trying to figure out his life and just wants to be a photographer. Li’l Zé is hell-bent on power and will do anything to get it. By showing these two alternate roads, the film illustrates how difficult it is for youth to rise above their environment and the great temptation that environment has to corrupt.

Terrifying in its visual style and deeply moving, City of God is an incredibly visceral film that presents a history of violence. For those wondering how violence and poverty correlate in a world that is seemingly spinning out of control, this film explains it all.

Adaptation by Spike Jonze

Strange, funny, dramatic and at times disturbing, Adaptation focuses on not just the problem of writing, but the problem of finding meaning in something you create, a task far more daunting.

Written by the great Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, once the film starts, it never pulls back. Putting himself in his own screenplay, Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) has been given the task of adapting Susan Orleans’ (Meryl Streep) novel, “The Orchid Thief”, a tale starring orchid hunter John Laroche (Chris Coopet), into a film. Bewildered and suffering a crisis of confidence, Kaufman struggles as his own idiot twin brother (also played by Cage) develops his own ridiculous projects.

Strongly acted, stylishly directed and wonderfully written, the film embraces a number of genres to illustrate the difficulty of any act of creation, even the one presented to you now.

Chicago by Rob Marshall

With Moulin Rouge reviving the musical genre the year before, Rob Marshall and company took Bob Fosse’s classic Broadway show “Chicago” and brought it to cinemas. The result may be the greatest movie musical of all-time.

Starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly, Chicago tells the story of a young wannabe star who ends up murdering her lover and gaining infamy in prison through a desperate appeal to the press as her case comes to trial.

By presenting the musical numbers through the mind of Zellweger’s character, the film avoids the awkward intercut between music and dialogue. In addition, the editing allowed the filmmakers to move the story along with the songs, keeping a vibrant pace that smooths out the narrative. Wonderfully designed and endlessly watchable, the film is not only the most fun of the year, but also one of the best made.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson continued his foray into Middle-Earth with the second installment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Two Towers.

With the fellowship broken, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf and the rest of the free peoples of Middle-Earth must fend off a growing horde of evil as the forces of darkness march against them. Culminating with one of the greatest cinematic battles of the modern era at Helm’s Deep, the film also finally introduced audiences to Gollum, a CGI creature that forever changed the way movies were made.

Not just a breathtaking war story, the film also goes deeper into each of the characters, their struggles and themes of sacrifice and companionship. Perhaps the most beloved of the now decade-old trilogy, the film firmly established The Lord of the Rings franchise as a pop culture phenomenon.

Talk to Her by Pedro Almodóvar

Pedro Almodóvar delivered one of his best films in Talk to Her, the story of two men joined together by difficult circumstances and struggling to make sense of love and fate.

Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), after a chance meeting at a movie theater, meet again at a private clinic where they discover that they are each caring for a woman in a coma, Benigno caring for a Alicia (Leonor Watling), a ballet student, and Marco caring for Lydia (Rosario Flores), a matador. As they are encouraged to talk to the women despite their unresponsiveness, they learn intimate details about love and unrelenting desire.

Flashing back and forth from past to present, the films delves into fantasies and produces images that are thought-provoking, grotesque and beautiful all at the same time.

 

Best Movies of 2001

There are always top movies lists that come out every year.

On the one hand, it’s condescending to rank different emotional experiences on a subjective level. Artistic quality is hard to judge across different genres and there are hundreds of films released every year, and no one could possibly view them all (a reason why you find so many similar titles on best film lists is critics simply copy from one another).

On the other hand, lists are helpful to the viewer and enable them to get a grasp of the supposed best films.

As will all lists, it is important to remember that personal liking plays a huge role (despite what other critics may state). So here are my top films from the year 2001, presented with the top film and then alphabetical order for the other four, the first year of my true vested interest in film.

Best Film: Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki

It may be a bit much to call Hayao Miyazaki a national treasure, but his films, some of the most imaginative ever made, will endure as not only great works of animation, but cultural milestones for Japan.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro (voiced by Rumi Hiiragi), a young girl moving to a small town. When her father takes a wrong turn on the road, they end up driving into an old amusement park (never a good idea) where she wanders away, befriending a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino) who tells her that her parents are in great danger. She returns to discover that her mother and father have been transformed into pigs, and she must work through a mystical maze of creatures, demons and spectres to save her them all.

Full of imagination, heart and some of the best anime ever put to screen, Spirited Away is a fairy tale for adults and children, a sometimes haunting journey that Aesop himself wished he had written, and it stands as the best film of 2001.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Peter Jackson

It is important to remember that The Lord of the Rings films were quite a gamble at the time. Now regarded as one of the most successful franchises ever, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were considered unfilmable and making three films at once was an unprecedented risk. Should the first one fail, all subsequent films would fail as well. It must have been a great relief for the filmmakers and studio when their first foray into Middle-earth not only met expectations, but surpassed them.

The story of a hobbit, Frodo (Elijah Woods), given a quest to destroy the evil ring of power, the film deals with a multitude of races, Men, Elves, Dwarfs, Orcs, as well as a great many languages and dozens of characters, including the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), king-in-waiting Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and Elven queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett).

What could have been a train wreck of too many things happening at once is treated with the utmost respect and the adventure is brought thrillingly to life. Clocking in at almost three hours, the film evokes memories of grand epics such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Seven Samurai (1954), but always stays focused on the tale of a small hobbit and the struggle to find his courage.

Moulin Rouge by Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann’s films have always been a mishmash of technical wizardry, simple themes and erratic characters. Loved by some, reviled by others, he finally found a film that achieved both success and critical acclaim with Moulin Rouge.

The story of a penniless writer, Christian (Ewan McGregor), who falls for the seductive courtesan, Satine (Nicole Kidman), the film combined current songs into a medley that may have restored the musical to the movie world. Without Moulin Rouge, there probably would not have been Chicago (2002) or Les Miserables (2012) or Dreamgirls (2006) or La La Land (2016).

Dabbling into themes of jealousy and lust and displaying the kind of swervy camerawork and illustrious sets that Luhrmann is known for, the film succeeds mainly because of the strong acting of Kidman and McGregor and a timeless story both romantic and heartbreaking. Overdone at times, decidedly one-tone at moments, the film is a beautiful tribute to everything we go to the movies for: entertainment, allure, fun, dramatics and passion.

The Others by Alejandro Amenábar

Another Nicole Kidman film, where Moulin Rouge celebrated Hollywood spectacle, The Others gave a new spin on the modern ghost story.

Nicole Kidman is Grace Stewart, a mom with two children, Anne (Alakina Mann) and Nicholas (James Bentley), each of whom suffers from photosensitivity, meaning they literally have to stay in a big, creepy house as they are allergic to light. This sets the stage for a natural proclivity towards darkened interiors and suspenseful camerawork as Grace must look after the safety of her children as seemingly supernatural demons haunt their post-WW2 home. Rather than being a boring one-scare-at-a-time thriller, the film develops interesting characters and builds towards a terrifying conclusion that makes the entire story relevant and intensely interesting.

The twist at the end provides a vital “ah-ha” moment that makes audiences crave repeat viewings. Beautifully shot, masterfully rendered, The Others proves that ghost stories still have a lot to offer and that they needn’t be cheaply made gimmicks as they too often are, but moving tales of macabre.

Y Tu Mama También by Alfonso Cuarón

Before Alfonso Cuarón was making blockbuster films such as Gravity (2013) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), he gained fame as one of Mexico’s most intriguing new filmmakers with this film about a pair of teenagers trying to woo an older woman on a road trip to a beach that does not exist.

Starring Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna and Maribel Verdú, the film is an exploration into sexuality and what it means at different stages of our lives. Whether we are dying or angry or young or old, it means different things at different times to different people. Secrets are revealed and revelations made about love, loss and friendship along the way.

What could have been a very cheese sexploitation film (and the sex scenes are very intense) is portrayed as a film about reawakening in the most immediate sense. Melancholic and evocative, Y Tu Mama También is a haunting examination of youth.

Movie Essentials: The Godfather and the Godfather Part II

There is little to be written about the first and second Godfather movies that hasn’t been written before. They are the most popular movies in American culture, having revolutionized a Hollywood system that was dying off in the early 1970s and presenting a unique picture of not only mob life, but a story of America itself.

Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) never wanted to be a part of his father, Vito’s (Marlon Brando), illegal mob business. A war veteran of World War II, he is in love with a pretty girl, Kay (Diane Keaton), and has his whole life in front of him. He is still attached to his family, his hot headed brother Sonny (James Caan), his meek brother Fredo (John Cazale), his adopted brother Tom (Robert Duvalle) and his sister Connie (Talia Shire). When his father is shot and nearly murdered, it is up to Michael to save the family. By voluntarily killing his father’s near-assassins, Michael is thrown down a dark road that leads him to becoming the next head of the Corleone crime family.

By the start of The Godfather Part II, Michael has taken complete control of the empire and eliminated the other rival families. When a plot against his own life is foiled, he seeks those responsible, a path that draws him back to his brother, Fredo, and a very difficult collision between business and family. Haunted by the strength of his father, we are also presented with a young Vito Corleone (Robert DeNiro) and his rise to power, contrasted with Michael’s own moral condemnation.

The Godfather is its own complete film, presenting a singular story of son supplanting father, but The Godfather Part II enhances the overall themes of power corrupting, the love of family driving us to do horrible things and adapting to a new society. Viewed together, they are a remarkable portrait of American life.

Director and writer Francis Ford Coppola, screenwriter Mario Puzo and cinematographer Gordon Willis create something with the Godfather films of utter brilliance, completely defining a genre. At a time when the old Hollywood system was giving way to the film auteur of the 1970s, The Godfather merged both old and new styles, creating the modern gangster film and defining how new story structure, with its violence and its individual mark, could be constructed in a studio system. It launched the careers of Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and James Caan and gave new birth to Marlon Brando. Almost overnight, The Godfather became a sensation, and it’s legacy was firmly cemented forever with The Godfather Part II.

There are so many different interpretations of the two films. It has probably been analyzed more than any other work of cinema. Some see it as a representation of how evil infects our souls and destroys us, the devil represented by the mob. Others note how similar to mythology the film is, Zeus represented by Vito and the son, a Hercules, the Corleones literally gods on Mount Olympus. Others note how Michael loses sight of what his father accomplished and becomes so obsessed with preserving the Corleone legacy that he destroys it, thereby linking how the next generation destroys the previous one, how the stability of the American family in the 1940s and 1950s is destroyed by the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. And still others look at the immigrant story, the failed promise of an American dream (represented by Vito running away from a bad homeland to a United States full of promise). The dream is a mirage because human emotions, greed and cruelty, keep others from succeeding (how often Michael is kept from doing the right thing by corrupt politicians and cops and local thugs), thereby leaving crime the only way to survive. There is no single interpretation for Coppola’s work because to limit the films in such a way would be a detriment to their success. They stand for so many things and appeal to so many people.

Ever since its release, The Godfather and The Godfather Part II have remained the most popular films in American life, a representation of almost every facet of our culture (love, family, patriotism, crime, politics, feminism, religion, sexuality, loyalty, betrayal, existentialism and racism), epic in scope, impossible ever to replicate. It is rare for films to achieve cultural significance and alter the way we view the world, but the Godfather films touched the heart of America. They continue to stand as a representation of our best and worst selves, our own American story.

Movie Essentials: “2001: A Space Odyssey”

A rumor surrounding the initial studio screening of the film follows that one of the producers of the film, having worked hard to pump millions of dollars into the budget over an enterprise that lasted years, stood up at the film’s conclusion and promptly had a heart attack. Whether the rumor is true or not, the film has been giving viewers similar moments of shock, awe and bewilderment since.

2001: A Space Odyssey starts with a group of early humans, scrounging for food, competing with each other. They discover a strange, tall, black monolith which somehow instinctively draws them to it and soon they learn the concept of tools, the creatures taking the bones of a deceased tapir and using them to kill prey and rivals. Next, the audience is transported millions of years into the future, mankind now roaming space at ease, having discovered that same monolith on the moon, unsure what to make of it. A space mission to Jupiter finds a trio of characters, Drs. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) along with the artificial intelligence program HAL 9000 trekking to the far corners of the solar system. After HAL mistakenly reports that a part of the ship is malfunctioning, Bowman and Poole talk of shutting HAL down. HAL responds by killing Poole, cutting off his air tube in space and then disabling the life support systems of the other crewmembers in suspended animation. Bowman is able to unprogram HAL as the ship comes to Jupiter, finding another floating monolith in space that transports him through the cosmos. In a desolate room by himself, Bowman watches himself quickly grow old until he is on his deathbed. He stares up at the monolith above him once more, reaching out towards it before he is suddenly transformed into the Star Child, a fetus-looking organism that overlooks Earth.

What it all means has been debated for years. Some have likened it to the journey of evolution, the growth from primitive animal to man to machine to eternal being. Others note the similarity in the storyline to that of The Odyssey (Bowman using a key to unhinge HAL similar to Odysseus knocking the eye out of the Cyclops). Some even see technology being the true center of the story, HAL at times much more human than either Bowman or Poole, who often appear robotic and unemotional.

Kubrick refused to reveal his original intentions as to what the film meant. Wisely, he did not want to sway anyone’s opinion. Screenwriter Arthur C. Clarke once said, “If you understand ‘2001‘ completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered.” However, if you read the subsequent book that he wrote of the same name, it explains that the monolith is a creation of alien life that imbues other species with intelligent life. There are no aliens in the film however, giving the monolith a far more God-like feel, an omnipotent object that is unidentifiable.

Personally, in the mind of this reviewer, the monolith has always seemed a symbol of knowledge and power beyond human understanding, a metaphor for the eternal nature of the universe that we as human beings can only ponder but not understand. HAL, our attempt to create life, goes horribly wrong because of our inability to replicate consciousness as the universe does. What Bowman undergoes at the film’s conclusion is the metamorphosis into a being of sublime eternalness, the wisdom that comes from our souls joining the universe.

This process of understanding life is illuminated throughout the film itself, our birth represented as primeval man just learning to adapt (to walk for a child), the journey of adolescence symbolized by the voyage into space and the acceptance of inevitable death as Bowman is transported to a location beyond space and time, where such material aspects are inconsequential, and where he is joined with the universe, reaching a state of Utopian existence.

Now, that is only my interpretation. There are literally hundreds of others from all over. Different religions identify with the themes of the film and their own notions of the afterlife. Scientists debate its views on evolution and the progression of life on Earth and throughout the universe. Even hippies, those primarily responsible for making sure the film has the stature it does today, see psychedelic importance in the journey away from civilization into pure bliss. There is no right or wrong interpretation, creating a legacy for the film that will never end.

Kubrick stated that he wanted to change the medium of cinema with his work. He wanted to investigate new ways of experiencing film beyond the conformity that had set into the industry. With 2001, he has given audiences a film that continues to elicit questions and tickle our minds long after viewing. Boasting special effects that still appear seamless today and having influenced a generation of filmmakers, 2001 makes the wonder of the possibility of cinema seem infinite.

Movie Essentials: Vertigo

Upon release, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) was deemed a commercial and critical failure. It was not as dramatic as Rear Window (1954) nor as surrealist as Spellbound (1945). It took years before it achieved its status as a masterpiece, but is now considered Hitchcock’s greatest work and one of the best films ever made.

After suffering a severe case of vertigo which led to a policeman’s death, officer John “Scottie” Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is approached by an old friend, Galvin Elster (Tom Helmore) who believes that his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak) is being possessed by the spirit of an old suicidal ancestor. He follows her, begins to talk to her and ends up falling in love with her. His vertigo though prevents him from saving her as she climbs to the top of a tall church and hurls herself off. The incident and its supernatural origins send Scottie into a tailspin. He ends up spending months, possibly a year in a sanitarium, a wreck of a human being until he meets Judy Barton, a woman who looks remarkably like Madeleine. We learn that Judy was actually posing as Madeleine for him, enacting a plan concocted by Galvin to murder his wife and have Scottie play the part of detective willing to testify about her suicidal tendencies. Still in a fit of hysteria, Scottie goes out with Judy and convinces her to transform herself into Madeleine for him. Judy, hopelessly in love but trapped in her lie, placates him. When Scottie finally figures out the depths of her betrayal and who she really is, he corners her back at the church and forces her to the murder scene, overcoming his own vertigo. But Judy, haunted by the memory of what she did, mistakes a mysterious figure (who turns out to be a nun) as the spirit of the true Madeleine come back to haunt her and falls out of the church to her death, leaving Scottie alone again.

It is a heartbreaking story, part mystery, part romance, part ghost story, part drama. It is amazing how fluid it goes from beat to beat, genre to genre. Jimmy Stewart, in perhaps his greatest role, is always able to keep the audience empathized with his character even as he delves into a madness that mirrors the story of Carlotta. And Kim Novak, with all of her changing personas, pulls the viewer into her charm and mystique and makes us yearn for her just as she makes Scottie obsessed.

The film is about obsession and desire. Scottie has never felt love like he does with Madeleine. It is her mystery, her attractiveness that draws him in. More than just a fling or compatibility like he has with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), it is her connection to spirituality and the otherworld that has Scottie hooked. He is tempted by divine powers, powers he can’t understand. And when that love is taken away from him, desire overwhelms him.

Without the ability to feel that love and with loss stinging in his heart, he wanders through life aimlessly until he meets Judy by pure chance, fate interfering with his life again as this is the same woman he had fallen in love with, only hidden in her true form. But rather than try to move on with his life, Scottie’s obsession takes control of him, driving him into trying to recapture his old love, his incompatibility to move on from the past and resist temptation clouding his senses. Judy, helplessly in love with Scottie, can only try to please him.

Love is not a joyous thing in the film, but something that blinds reason and logic. It traps Scottie and Judy. It drives them towards tragedy. Scottie’s love towards Madeleine turns to anger as he realizes how he’s been betrayed by Judy. Judy is hopeless to leave Scottie because of her love for him, leaving both characters hurtling towards each other in an inevitable confrontation.

Guilt is also an integral force in the story. It is guilt that drives Scottie to try and help Galvin after the cop dies on the rooftop in the first scene. It is guilt that haunts Scottie after he is unable to conquer his vertigo to save Madeleine. And it is guilt that draws Judy back to Scottie as she feels compelled to be with him after she hurt him.

And in the end it is Judy’s guilt for the murder of an innocent woman that ends her life, leaving Scottie alone and hopeless once again, love and fate torturing him for what we assume will be the rest of his life.

Vertigo is Hitchcock’s deepest film, speaking to the universal sorrow of loved ones lost and the pain that guilt entails. Shot in gorgeous technicolor and utilizing a deep color palette that highlights San Francisco, Vertigo still entrances viewers with its haunting portrayal of Scottie and his doomed quest.

Movie Essentials: Lawrence of Arabia

“They won’t come for Damascus,” Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) proclaims near the film’s climax. “They’ll come for me.” T. E. Lawrence’s exploits in the Arabian desert during World War 1 as the British fought the Turkish empire are now the stuff of mythos. Director David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is both epic and yet also touchingly intimate.

T. E. Lawrence is tasked with investigating the progress of the Arab rebellion against the Turkish Empire at the film’s opening. That rebellion however is in shambles, the result of an indigenous people fighting amongst themselves and against a much better supplied foe. For the next two years, he helps organize the different clans of the desert into a unifying force and win critical battles against the Turks. As his exploits continue, and as the war effort against Austria-Hungary and Germany continues to flounder, he is promoted to hero status in the British and American press, helping turn the morale of the war for the Allied powers. Lawrence eventually leads the Arab people into Damascus in the hopes of creating a true Arab nation for the Arabs. But the conniving ruling classes in France and England make sure that their stakes in the new region will be well-managed and the infighting between the various Arab factions (Sunni, Shiite, Kurds) prevents the dream of a true Arabian state from coming to fruition. Lawrence leaves the desert a broken man.

Lean filmed the nearly four hour epic on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco over a period of more than a year. The film is one of the most spectacularly shot spectacles in history. The brilliant cinematography captures the vibrant colors and texture of the Middle East. The viewer can practically smell the desert breeze and feel the heat and the sand.

The scope of Lean’s vision and the re-enactments of climactic battles would alone make the film memorable, but where Lawrence of Arabia really surges is with the characters and their inner dilemmas played out on such a global scale.

Lawrence is an incredibly complex and dynamic character. Is he British, Arab or something else? With his fame, is he a god of the desert, a hero of war or just a confused man thrust onto the world’s stage? Everyone seems to have a different opinion of him. The British think he is crazy. The Arabs think he is a being of divine power, a gift from God. The press thinks of him as a hero. Prince Faisal (Omar Sharif), perhaps his one true friend after an initial distaste for each other, considers him a potential leader of a great cause and grows to love him, hints of homoeroticism latent throughout the film (there are no women in the movie at all). As the war takes its toll and Lawrence’s identity changes from British intelligence agent to war hero to Arab inspirational figure, Lawrence loses more and more sense of who he is. With the ultimate defeat of the cause he put so much blood and sweat and soul into, he is left to the conclusion that perhaps he is no one at all.

There are also so many parallels to current events in Lawrence of Arabia. One need only look at events in Syria, Iraq, Israel, the UK and the United States to see just how much things have not changed in nearly 100 years. The sectarian violence, the revolutions against oppressive regimes, the suspicion of the East against the West and the subsequent fascination of the West to colonize the East are all at play in the film. The events at the conclusion of the movie illustrate the state of the modern world, with rival Islamic factions unable to coexist and the Western powers dividing up land for their own benefit regardless of centuries old cultures that reject their beliefs. The reverberation of events continues to haunt us to this day.

The viewer cannot help but see a bit of themselves in Lawrence, a sense of wondering who we are and what our destiny really means. The film opens in Arabia with a mirage, the sun dimly exposing just something over the horizon. Is it real or just a figment of our imaginations? No one knows. The same can be said about ourselves. What is truth? Are we real or just mirages?