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Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia  

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  1. 1. Does Lawrence of Arabia belong on the AFI list!

    • Aurens! Aurens! Aurens!
      6
    • Don’t believe the hype.
      3

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  • Poll closed on 09/13/19 at 07:00 AM

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Paul and Amy journey through 1962's David Lean WWI epic Lawrence Of Arabia! They ask if this can fairly be called a "white savior" film, learn about the many injuries Peter O'Tools endured during the shoot, and compare the film's structure to Citizen Kane. Plus: A brief look at the controversy around the Joker premiere.

For On The Waterfront week, what are times in your life you could have been a contender? Call the Unspooled voicemail line at 747-666-5824 with your answer! Follow us on Twitter @Unspooled, get more info at unspooledpod.com and don’t forget to rate, review & subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts. Photo credit: Kim Troxall

This episode is brought to you by Sonos (www.sonos.com), Beach Too Sandy, Water Too Wet Podcast, and Away (www.awaytravel.com/unspooled code: UNSPOOLED).

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Just starting the episode, but Amy made the comment, "I wonder how many American films are on the BFI list."

When people say they mean the BFI list, they mean the Sight & Sound best of all time poll, which isn't restricted by country... The way Amy said it, it left me unclear if she knew that, which seems like something she would know.

(Caveat, at some point, the BFI did do a best British culture films list, but that's like one of the random AFI lists that no one really thinks about. i.e. not "the" BFI list).

If have to look at the numbers, and the cutoff is a little arbitrary of what number on the poll qualifies as "making the list" (e.g. 10, 50, 100, 250...)

If have to check the list, but for the comparison of lists I did way back when, roughly half were "American" (including such films as Lawrence of Arabia as an American film - since the point was to see where a movie would land on the list, filtering out movies not eligible for the AFI).

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20 minutes ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

Just starting the episode, but Amy made the comment, "I wonder how many American films are on the BFI list."

When people say they mean the BFI list, they mean the Sight & Sound best of all time poll, which isn't restricted by country... The way Amy said it, it left me unclear if she knew that, which seems like something she would know.

(Caveat, at some point, the BFI did do a best British culture films list, but that's like one of the random AFI lists that no one really thinks about. i.e. not "the" BFI list).

If have to look at the numbers, and the cutoff is a little arbitrary of what number on the poll qualifies as "making the list" (e.g. 10, 50, 100, 250...)

If have to check the list, but for the comparison of lists I did way back when, roughly half were "American" (including such films as Lawrence of Arabia as an American film - since the point was to see where a movie would land on the list, filtering out movies not eligible for the AFI).

If you look at the BFI list (not the Sight And Sound list), the only films that are on both are Lawrence Of Arabia, Bridge On The River Kwai and A Clockwork Orange.

Doctor Zhivago was on the original AFI list but isn't on the current list. 

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1 hour ago, grudlian. said:

If you look at the BFI list (not the Sight And Sound list),

Sight & Sound is BFI's magazine. When one says "the BFI list" they mean the Sight & Sound list.

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1 hour ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

Sight & Sound is BFI's magazine. When one says "the BFI list" they mean the Sight & Sound list.

As you acknowledged, the BFI did a top 100 list of British films and I think given the context of talking specifically about British films versus American films, I think it's a logical conclusion that she was talking about this specific list even if it is less commonly referenced.

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I voted no solely because I agree with the argument that this is really a British movie, and if The Third Man could be knocked off then this one could too (if anything, that film is more "culturally" American since two of its lead actors are American).

As a film unto itself it's clearly worthy of standing among the Top 100.

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2 hours ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

I voted no solely because I agree with the argument that this is really a British movie, and if The Third Man could be knocked off then this one could too (if anything, that film is more "culturally" American since two of its lead actors are American).

As a film unto itself it's clearly worthy of standing among the Top 100.

Me, too! Of the clearly majority British films on the list, I think this one has the least amount of potential claim to be American. Outside of Anthony Quinn, was anyone involved in this American? I believe the AFI has used American funding as a reason to claim a film is American, but I believe the majority funding for Lawrence of Arabia is also British. Spoiler alert, I'll also be voting no on Bridge On The River Kwai for the same reasons.

To add to your Simpsons references, there's another purely visual one from Bart The Daredevil. It's Bart arriving on a skateboard to jump the gorge is an intentional nod to Alec Guinness's long take arrival in the desert.

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After watching LoA last night, I updated my Letterboxd account to include it in my Top 4 movies. I also have To Kill a Mockingbird and Psycho in my Top 4. After listening to them talk about how simple LoA and Mockingbird are, plot-wise, in today’s episode, I’m starting to feel pretty freaking basic 😜

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4 hours ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

I voted no solely because I agree with the argument that this is really a British movie, and if The Third Man could be knocked off then this one could too (if anything, that film is more "culturally" American since two of its lead actors are American).

As a film unto itself it's clearly worthy of standing among the Top 100.

I'm not familiar enough with the history of the intricacies of the AFI list - do we know the reason it's not on the 2007 list (after being on the 1997 list) is due to it being considered British as opposed to it just not getting enough votes?

I'm debating whether I'll vote on this one still because I think historical epics are my thing. I saw this in college and was "meh". I'm still kind of "meh". Relatedly, if I were to rank Spartacus (coming up) amongst Kubrick's work, it'd probably beat out Killer's Kiss and Fear & Desire, but that's it. I know he was a director for hire on that one, but it might also be a sign that the genre just isn't my thing.

I liked the scene of Lawrence in the sandstorm losing his way (well, his moral and literal compass). I wish there were more parts like that. Just viscerally, I suppose. 

I guess I'm waiting for Bleary to get in here for a stronger negative on it, because I remember he said he dislikes it.

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5 hours ago, grudlian. said:

As you acknowledged, the BFI did a top 100 list of British films and I think given the context of talking specifically about British films versus American films, I think it's a logical conclusion that she was talking about this specific list even if it is less commonly referenced.

I think some word choice would go a long way on clarity (ie just say the name of the list). I don't think the culturally British film list is that well known and some comments (mainly from Paul) in the early episodes of the podcast left the impression he thought the BFI list (by default refers to the Sight & Sound critic's poll), only had British films (or maybe European films). And I saw a number of comments on the FB group at the time implying the posters thought the BFI list only had British films. 

Has the podcast even explicitly stated the BFI made a list specifically for culturally British films? Asking not rhetorically, because if they have, then that might give better weight that I just am being uptight on this.  Otherwise, saying "the" implies one list and if you haven't stated there are separate lists, contextually you are creating confusion. 

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24 minutes ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

I guess I'm waiting for Bleary to get in here for a stronger negative on it, because I remember he said he dislikes it.

Well, I might be the strongest negative on the board, but I still won't say I'm vehemently against the movie.  To start, this was a really great episode to listen to, and while I generally align with Paul in that it's a film I respect more than love, the whole conversation gave me a greater appreciation for the movie and I do think that I'll continue to enjoy it more and more as I watch it more. 

I was glad to hear them tackle the white savior issue, which I wrote about in my Letterboxd review.  However, Amy and Paul mentioned the idea of portrayal of Arabs and Middle Easterners in general as being barbaric in relation to the conversation about hypocrisy, but I don't necessarily know that I forgive the film's portrayal of Arabs just because they also portray the English in a negative way.  I don't think it's misleading to say that Lawrence's devolution in violence is portrayed as him essentially falling to the level of the men he's fighting with.  He criticized the tribes for letting their personal or familial grudges outweigh their sense of mission, and he does the exact same thing in the end, after he has reason for a personal grudge against the Turks.  So yes, it is condemning Lawrence, but it's doing so in a way that's saying "he's as bad as the Arabs," which I think is a bit problematic.  Now Paul is right that because this is based in history, if it gets the facts right, it's harder to quibble with.  And the film does try to offer a counterbalance in Sherif Ali, whose arc goes in the other direction, as he begins shooting a dude dead over water and ends by protesting against Lawrence's bloodlust.  But I think Ali is exceptional, and most of the Arab soldiers are portrayed as savage and/or greedy.  So I still take issue with that.

I think the character of Lawrence has a shaky arc, since it does trend from childish to barbaric, but it does so in fits and starts.  He's confident, then he's not, then he's confident again, then he's not again, etc.  Similarly, they bring up his bloodlust just before intermission as something he felt ashamed of, but it's not like he's struggling with that throughout the rest of the film.  It just sort of disappears and then reemerges.  I would say that Lawrence's defining characteristics never change.  He is arrogant and reckless in Cairo when he smarmily explains why he's not being insubordinate, and that arrogance and recklessness propel him throughout the film up to his reckless motorcycle death.  So yes, I see the arc, but I also see the stasis, and that's a bummer for a film that's almost 4 hours long.

But besides those things, which are relatively minor, I don't really have a super strong negative take on this film.  I see the merits, and it'll make my top 100.  (I'm staying out of the American or non-American birther controversy.  My feeling is that the voters aren't meant to decide eligibility, only to vote on the ballot as it's presented to them.  And yes, I think Bonds and Clemens should be in the Hall of Fame even though I hate them.)  But I don't especially like watching it, at least through the two or three viewings I've had so far.  I don't think it's a screen size problem, because I do feel immersed in the environment when I watch it; I just don't feel immersed in the characters.  I'm not baffled by people who love it, but I just find that it's not for me.  (And I, too, have similar feelings about Spartacus.)

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2 hours ago, grudlian. said:

To add to your Simpsons references, there's another purely visual one from Bart The Daredevil. It's Bart arriving on a skateboard to jump the gorge is an intentional nod to Alec Guinness's long take arrival in the desert.

Oh yeah, here:

 

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5 hours ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

I voted no solely because I agree with the argument that this is really a British movie, and if The Third Man could be knocked off then this one could too (if anything, that film is more "culturally" American since two of its lead actors are American).

As a film unto itself it's clearly worthy of standing among the Top 100.

While listening to the tiny bit of the episode I've heard so far, it occurred to me that raising the bar as to what's considered "American" above its current level of "virtually anything even tangentially connected to America" would make narrowing it down to only 100 films easier and also free up more room for films that should be on the list. And maybe then we can even have room for more than 3 or 4 films made after 1970.

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1 hour ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

I'm not familiar enough with the history of the intricacies of the AFI list - do we know the reason it's not on the 2007 list (after being on the 1997 list) is due to it being considered British as opposed to it just not getting enough votes?

I think it really was just "people voting," not that the institute made any ruling to declare it ineligible, but I believe the oft-stated reason for The Third Man being left off the second list was that it wasn't really American. I'd argue that by the same standard, Lawrence of Arabia isn't either, probably even less so (The Third Man has an American lead character and antagonist, at least).

You could get into whole discussions about this "country of origin" stuff too. Like Lord of the Rings, what is that? The source material is certainly very British, along with a lot of the supporting cast. The production itself was New Zealand-based, as were the director, screenwriters, and most of the production staff. The studio financing was all American, as was much of the principal cast (Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler). You'd have a decent claim for all three countries.

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1 hour ago, bleary said:

He criticized the tribes for letting their personal or familial grudges outweigh their sense of mission, and he does the exact same thing in the end, after he has reason for a personal grudge against the Turks.  So yes, it is condemning Lawrence, but it's doing so in a way that's saying "he's as bad as the Arabs," which I think is a bit problematic.

Maybe, but a more generous reading would be to say that the movie is saying that humans in general are tribal like that, and that very few are able to see outside of that to a more altruistic view (as the Omar Sharif character does).

It comes from the perspective of the British, of course (being a British movie about a British soldier), but I do think the filmmakers seem pretty aware and critical of the "white savior" problem inherent in the story (especially for a movie from 1962!).

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2 hours ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

Oh yeah, here:

 

That's exactly it. I'm pretty sure they mention Lawrence Of Arabia in the commentary track on this episode.

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4 hours ago, bleary said:

Now Paul is right that because this is based in history, if it gets the facts right, it's harder to quibble with.

The "it's based in history" is a defense that usually doesn't hold up.  Even in a documentary, the film maker has to present a point of view, what to emphasize, what gets cut, de-emphasized, or just isn't considered worth including.  All of this forms a narrative, which might not be factually inaccurate, but it might not be accurate either.  And, as it was even said in the podcast, this was a fictionalized version of the story.

And the white savior complex isn't just applicable to "liberating" the Middle East from the Ottoman Empire, but also trying to change their culture, bring them democracy, the idea of a unified people.  Even if the narrative does try to undermine his attempt to accomplish this by the end, he is the arbiter and harbinger of these ideas as the film presents it.  e.g. The Arab Council could have worked if those darn Arabs just didn't take everything so personally.

Also, as stated in the podcast, this was a fictionalized take on the events.  And in the case of the Arab Council, a factually inaccurate one in terms of how long it lasted (also pointed out in the podcast - I'm taking this fact from the podcast.  I feel like I've been coming down a bit hard on Paul & Amy's takes the past couple of weeks, so need to give them credit for giving me a specific example undermining a line of reasoning given in the podcast).

This isn't to say it isn't without its strengths.  The Searchers, seemed to try grapple with the racism of the genre, but that doesn't mean it didn't still fall into certain racist stereotypes.

2 hours ago, sycasey 2.0 said:

I think it really was just "people voting," not that the institute made any ruling to declare it ineligible, but I believe the oft-stated reason for The Third Man being left off the second list was that it wasn't really American. I'd argue that by the same standard, Lawrence of Arabia isn't either, probably even less so (The Third Man has an American lead character and antagonist, at least).

You could get into whole discussions about this "country of origin" stuff too. Like Lord of the Rings, what is that? The source material is certainly very British, along with a lot of the supporting cast. The production itself was New Zealand-based, as were the director, screenwriters, and most of the production staff. The studio financing was all American, as was much of the principal cast (Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Liv Tyler). You'd have a decent claim for all three countries.

Hmm...  While I speculate on a lot of things, I guess I don't have a strong enough gut feel to speculate on the reasoning of the AFI voters (I think the AFI doesn't published who voted, what they voted for, and so we don't have stated reasons) - especially since their tastes seem to be different enough from mine.  e.g. Fargo was also removed from the 2007 list, the Sixth Sense was added, and I think Spartacus was added as well.

I agree with you that The Third Man feels more American than LoA, and would also point to the reasons you listed (I personally would be fine with TTM on a list of American movies).  Trying to run it through other examples, I wonder if the story type matters and just how much we're influenced by how popular/well-known they are in the US.  The two examples coming to mind are two of my favorite movies, Orson Welles' adaptation of The Trial and Kubrick's Barry Lyndon.

The Trial is more interesting since TTM was listed above.  The Trial is directed by an American (Welles), stars an American (Anthony Perkins) and has Welles in a notable supporting part.  It is however based on a German author's (Kafka) story, set in a location whose oppressive architecture feels Eastern European, and the characters are citizens of the location.  As opposed to TTM where the lead and antagonist are American actors playing Americans abroad in Europe.  Which seems like an American post-war type of story.  TTM is also much more well known in the US and The Trial, fairly uknown.  Barry Lyndon compared to A Clockwork Orange - same director, cast and location mostly British, but the dystopian story of ACO isn't uniquely British, at least culturally, where-as, European period piece/historical drama does seem very British.  And Barry Lyndon wasn't as culturally resonant in the US as ACO (I guess ACO getting pulled from theaters in the UK could have also greatly diminished it in British cultural presence).

Wrt LoA, I guess the one counter-argument I've heard was the production part (which you addressed above), but it is interesting to think - I don't know how the cast of AGoT breaks down, but if it was an almost purely British cast with a purely British crew, but it was produced and financed by HBO execs for the American TV market, would we be arguing about whether it was a British or American TV show?   I don't fully buy that as a justification, but the thought experiment does make the LoA was produced by an American company argument seem less blatantly wrong than what it did initially.

Granted, I'm still giving the list the side-eye for stating it's just doing American films.  I can't help but think it was for one of two reasons, and neither of them are good.

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I did think it was interesting that this film was made in 1962 after TE Lawerence's death in 1935-- people watching it in 1963  certainly would have TE Lawrence in their cultural memory quite strongly. It would be as if someone in 2019 produced a big budget movie about a figure who died in 1991-- say, like, Freddie Mercury? Or Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss. Other notable passings in 1991 were John Steinbeck, Frank Capra, and Miles Davis. Also Shamu the Whale but that doesn't seem quite the same. 
Incidentally, David Lean, the director himself. passed in 1991.   

The events of World War I was about 50 years from the time of the film (1962), meaning the equivalent of 2019 would be films about Vietnam, actually. Strange how that doesn't feel like an equivalency. We seem to be over that in some ways, at least in terms of epic filmmaking. The Gulf War would have been around that 1991 date, though.   

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One thing missed in the episode:  The "I once had the honor to shake his hand" man at Lawrence's funeral is the same medical officer yelling "outrageous" who slaps him in the Damascus hospital.  That's why Lawrence thinks they've met before during the handshake scene.  It's a pretty great ironic payoff from his indignation outside the funeral to his absolute disgust with Lawrence's hysterical laughing at the hospital.  I only caught this on my most recent rewatch on the big screen last weekend.

outrageous.jpg

honor.jpg

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Amy and Paul talk about Gertrude Bell on this (wonderful) episode.

For those who might not already know, Werner Herzog made a (passable though not great) film about Bell, Queen of The Desert starring Nicole Kidman, featuring Robert Pattinson as Lawrence.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1837636/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Queen of The desert.jpg

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I remember seeing this film the first time as a young person precisely because it was so influential on things like Raiders of the Lost Ark. (The character as well as the film itself-- in I think it was the first episode of Young Indiana Jones in which Li'l Indy meets TE Lawerence.) However, I must admit that I didn't appreciate it much more than, as Paul called it, "homework." I do appreciate the film better after various attempts to re-watch, but on this latest attempt for this podcast, I realize I am in a much different place as I just could not get around seeing so much of the white savior stuff in it.  

Paul & Amy make mention of this criticism, but don't really focus on it too much. "Can't be a white savior movie if it's a true story?" I understand the sentiment, but I disagree. Isn't it a white savior movie not because it's making one side, the "other," as bad vs. good-- it's that the growth of the main character is paramount and even superceded over the plight of the "native." 

19 hours ago, bleary said:

And the film does try to offer a counterbalance in Sherif Ali, whose arc goes in the other direction, as he begins shooting a dude dead over water and ends by protesting against Lawrence's bloodlust.  But I think Ali is exceptional, and most of the Arab soldiers are portrayed as savage and/or greedy. 

Not so much of a counterbalance. Isn't he just the "noble savage", demarked as separated thanks to his exposure to the Western world previously?

[about Amy seeing subversion of the trope by seeing people treat Lawrence like a god] She sees it as implying that the "British are [will be?] just as bad [i.e. barbaric?]." This is a bit of a modern reading, I think. First, I because I don't think it's discordant in the first place. But also because the intent seems to be to say "look at how bad it is if the white man accepts this," precisely BECAUSE the Arab peoples are willing to give the power that can be destructive as such. It's incredibly patronizing, dismissive, and entirely from the Western point of view.  If Lawrence is uncomfortable seeing himself as a savior, it's due to it being a white man's "hero's journey" into "wilderness" as well as to set up the hubris that will cause his fall (being "tainted" by this other world.)  

That being said, the film isn't trying for much socio-political commentary, so I don't think these tropes are necessarily damning to the film. It's a pseudo-historical biography and it's TE Lawrence's personal internal story, but isn't it a kind of priveledge to be able to have this point of view? If we have to grapple with The Searchers, Gone with the Wind, Swing Time, and more, we have to grapple with this one, too. 

 

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On 9/5/2019 at 4:59 PM, bleary said:

But besides those things, which are relatively minor, I don't really have a super strong negative take on this film.  I see the merits, and it'll make my top 100.  (I'm staying out of the American or non-American birther controversy.

This got a weird question in my head - what do you mean by your top 100?

1. Top 100 list of all time great movies?

2. Top 100 list of American movies?

3. Top 100 of the 100 movies we're watching for this podcast? (this interpretation was what got my brain chuckling and wondering)

4. Voting on the list of top 100 movies, you'd vote Yes to keep it on? (a lot more than 100 movies could meet this criteria)

5. If you were to go through the ballot of 400 movies from the AFI, it'd be one you'd include?

3 & 4 (and the impracticality of 5, unless we all go through all 400 movies), did make me wonder if at the end of the podcast, rather than looking at what movies passed the Yes/No vote, if we mimiced the AFI poll, and had everyone submit their top 25 (unordered) and tabulated those up to get the top 25 (keeping the ratio of 1 of 4), how'd that'd turn out. 

 

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7 hours ago, ol' eddy wrecks said:

This got a weird question in my head - what do you mean by your top 100?

1. Top 100 list of all time great movies?

2. Top 100 list of American movies?

3. Top 100 of the 100 movies we're watching for this podcast? (this interpretation was what got my brain chuckling and wondering)

4. Voting on the list of top 100 movies, you'd vote Yes to keep it on? (a lot more than 100 movies could meet this criteria)

5. If you were to go through the ballot of 400 movies from the AFI, it'd be one you'd include?

3 & 4 (and the impracticality of 5, unless we all go through all 400 movies), did make me wonder if at the end of the podcast, rather than looking at what movies passed the Yes/No vote, if we mimiced the AFI poll, and had everyone submit their top 25 (unordered) and tabulated those up to get the top 25 (keeping the ratio of 1 of 4), how'd that'd turn out. 

 

Essentially 4 and 5.  Basically, as the podcast covers each film, I make my decision about whether I think they're deserving or undeserving of their inclusion on the AFI list.  I think this one is deserving, even if it's not one I care for greatly.  I haven't seen all 400 films on the ballot, but I'd guess I've seen around 250 of them.  (I can't check, since AFI removed the ballot from their website.  If anyone has a link to that 2007 ballot elsewhere, I'd like to see it again.)

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