From left: Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) in “Lawrence of Arabia”. Image via IMDb

I’ve referenced this movie many times on this blog–I’ve quoted lines from it, hailed its timeless themes, and in general sung its praises at every turn.  And yet, I’ve never done a proper post about it.  Well, I intend to rectify that now.

Of course, you might think it hardly seems necessary. The movie is practically legendary at this point. It’s been referenced in scores of other movies, its influence can be seen in the work of directors like Kubrick and Coppola, and of course, its subject matter remains relevant to the politics of the Middle East to this day.

And yet, for all that, critics don’t really get Lawrence of Arabia.  They still can’t understand what makes it great. Fortunately, I’m here now, and can tell them.


It’s not Citizen Kane anymore.  It’s now Vertigo.  Strange that it took Sight & Sound so long to notice a movie made in 1958 was better than a movie made in 1941.

To be perfectly frank, I always thought Kane was a bit overrated.  Not that it’s a bad film by any means; it’s  just not anywhere close to being the greatest ever.  It’s a well-acted drama and nothing more, in my opinion.  Also, there seems to be a massive plot hole at the center of it which has always kind of detracted from it.

I also wonder: did the people who were polled watch every single movie ever made before voting?  I kind of doubt it.  For one thing, think of how many languages they would have had to learn first.  (Watching with subtitles is not at all the same thing.)  What if the real greatest movie ever is a Japanese film that no one in the U.S. or Britain has heard of?

I won’t even begin to address the question of how there can be a single greatest movie when there are so many different genres.  I like Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady, but it’s hard to really compare the two.  This is why they do genre rankings, although even then there are problems, like why is Star Wars always listed under “sci-fi” when the man who created it says it isn’t?

The sound effects are *awful* by today’s standards!

Finally, there are technical issues, like: if a film was great “in its time”, does that mean it’s always great?  Metropolis is considered a very great film, but if it were made today, would anybody think it was any good?  Moreover, if a new technique is created and used with great success in a film, it is inevitably copied by other films, thus diminishing the value of it for future viewers.  Does a film deserve bonus “greatness points” for being the first to try something that eventually becomes common?  And when a viewer fifty years later sees a transition or camera angle that is familiar to him, but was brand new at the time, how will he ever be able to appreciate it?

I think that many critics are aware of this issue, and so overcompensate by giving undue weight to older movies.  It’s similar to what I was talking about here with video game rankings. In some cases, you have to admit, “well it was certainly great then, but there can be little doubt the special effects would be much better if they could have made it today.”  What was yesterday’s special effects masterpiece may look awful to the viewer of nowadays.

That’s not saying, by the way, that newer movies are automatically better.  Sometimes, they have better special effects, but vastly worse acting, characters, dialogue and story.  In fact this happens rather a lot.  But from a technical point of view, it makes ranking difficult.

The way he announces it is priceless.  It’s too bad he never won an Academy Award for any of his outstanding performances.  (He did win an honorary one.)  He’s one of the greatest actors ever.

Everyone remembers his awesome performance in Lawrence of Arabia–as well they should–but in my opinion, his greatest performance was in a truly bizarre film called The Ruling Class.  It’s one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen–funny, disgusting, thought-provoking, somewhat blasphemous, and kind of campy all at once.  I can see hating it or loving it, but either way O’Toole’s performance in it is incredible. (Incidentally, Carolyn Seymour, a voice actress in many famous video games like Mass Effect and KotOR, also appears in this movie.)

Ah, well.  Nearly all his performances are great–if you’ve never seen him in anything, you really should.

I was reading about this upcoming sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise called Oblivion.  The IMDb synopsis says:

A court martial sends a veteran soldier to a distant planet, where he is to destroy the remains of an alien race. The arrival of an unexpected traveler causes him to question what he knows about the planet, his mission, and himself.

Hmm.  That sounds a bit like the plot of what I consider the most overrated movie of all time, Avatar.  Also like Avatar, this thing seems to share a name with another, totally unrelated franchise.

Of course, people say the idea for Avatar was itself stolen from Edgar Rice Burroughs, or some British comic book, or Dances with Wolves.  I wouldn’t say “stolen”, exactly; but it’s an age-old plot.

The plot of Avatar is:

  • Guy is sent by military to deal with exotic natives to help pursue military’s interests.
  • Guy becomes sympathetic to natives.
  • Guy rebels against military, helping natives.

This is, in broad strokes, also the plot of one of my favorite movies, Lawrence of Arabia.  The difference is in how it’s done–compare the character of General Allenby in Lawrence with Colonel Hambone from Avatar.  (Okay, so that’s not his name.  But it should have been.)

This is so often the case with fiction.  Another example:

“A video game about someone who causes tremendous damage to a planet, and must then face the consequences of that action.”

This could be describing either Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords or Tonic Trouble.  The former I consider to be the greatest game ever made; a masterpiece of storytelling and characterization, complete with a philosophical depth more powerful than any other work of fiction I have seen.  The latter is about a purple cartoon alien who fights mutant tomatoes.  “The Devil is in the details”, as they say.

Zaphodb2002 pointed out in a comment on this post that if you just give a synopsis of the most basic points, so many great works don’t sound all that impressive.  It is, as he said, how the story is told.