Young Sherlock Holmes

Inspired by a post from one of my on-line friends, I revisited this film today and decided to include it in the summer look back project, “films lost in time”. This really should not be a lost film but given it’s lack of box office success and the the fact that it is not yet available on blu ray, I suspect that most of today’s audience is only vaguely familiar with it.

This should have been a smashing success given it’s pedigree and release. Steve Spielberg is one of the Executive Producers and his team made up the rest of those responsible for bringing this to the screen. The Director was Barry Levinson, who had directed “The Natural” the year before and would go on to direct and win the Academy Award for “Rain Man” three years later. The script comes from Chris Columbus who had written “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” before this and who would go on to make a few films that will feel very familiar after seeing this (more on that later). This was released in the U.S. during the holiday season of 1985 and it basically tanked. The box office was mild to low and barely matched the production cost. So what went wrong, again, I’ll delay that for a few paragraphs. Let’s talk about the movie first.

The idea of retconning Sherlock Holmes into a youthful action character is not a bad one. In the original books, we learn of Holmes and Watson meeting as they take up rooms together on Baker Street, but this scenario makes them schoolmates at a posh academic institution in Victorian England. Holmes has already mastered the art of deduction as he calls it [frankly it is mostly inductive sign reasoning and a little hard to believe at times].

As the two young future archetypes are meeting, a series of deaths are taking place in London. We witness a mysterious figure using a small blow gun to shoot darts at several older gentlemen. Those men begin to have fantastic hallucinations which result in deaths that appear to be suicides. From the start of the film, it is clear that the film makers want to dazzle us with special effects as part of the excitement of the movie. Articulated puppets and stop motion animation are used early on to bring horrific images to life.

 

The most likely reason this film would be historically significant is that it contains one of the earliest CGI effects on screen to achieve the images the film makers wanted. A priest is attacked by a figure that climbs out of a stained glass window. This sequence explains why the films lone Academy Award Nomination was for Visual Effects. The Knight becomes a three dimensional image which strikes terror into the elderly man who runs into the street and is mowed down by a carriage.

Although primitive by today’s standards, it was jaw dropping at the time and I remember Siskel and Ebert talking about it and one of them picking it as their choice in their annual Oscar handicapping show.

The story centers around the two well known characters and a third one invented for this enterprise.  A confirmed bachelor like Holmes is during most of his film history, must have a woman in his past to explain his predilection. So Columbus creates Elizabeth, the niece of a character in the story and Holmes love interest. This will require that Watson and Holmes have to rescue Elizabeth on more than one occasion. That’s right, she is a damsel in distress for most of the last third of the film. The development of Holmes as a character is pretty good in the story. He is interested in unique subjects, he has an eccentric mentor, and he is admired by many and despised by a few elitists. His friendship with the new boy does not help him win the affection of either his belligerent teacher or the light blond future MP that he makes an enemy. Does any of this sound familiar to you? It should because it is likely that Harry Potter and friends grew out of this kind of stew. The fact that Chris Columbus who directed the first two Harry Potter films also wrote the screenplay here, seems like a lot more than just coincidence.

Let’s add another interesting parallel, young future Dr. Watson looks like a chubbier version of you know who.

With so many things going for it, what caused this film to fail with a broad audience? Speaking simply as a movie fan I think I can point to two things. The most criticized parts of the previous year’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” are resurrected to provide the villain and motives here. There is virtually no surprise when the antagonist is revealed, so the suspense is missing for the most part. When to secret society perpetrating the crimes is revealed, it is a moment right out of the very dark Indiana Jones movie.

 Acolytes surround a hapless victim overseen by an evil priest of an alien religious cult and a towering figure of the spirit that they worship. In a true “what the hell” moment, we discover that there are other murders connected to this story and suddenly the plot shifts to a completely different issue. Foreshadowing his future emotionally stunted growth, Holmes cries out and alerts everyone there to his presence. And none of this seems to be well connected to the logical procedural method Holmes supposedly follows. Instead, a series of chance insights leads to the discovery of an underground temple.

Holmes and Watson have to become Butch and Sundance and it is just not as credible at this point as it needs to be. The action points start driving the plot instead of the character points.

Holmes and Watson have to become the Wright Bothers at one point, and although the scene is fun, it feels tacked on rather than organic to the Holmes tradition of investigation.

One other thing that I think sabotages the film, and this is a spoiler so if you haven’y yet viewed the movie and don’t want to be ticked off before doing so, stop now and come back later.

Holmes fails.

All the build up and eventual destruction and the outcome is depressing and undermines the spirit of the film. Someone must have thought it was creatively challenging to finish on this note. Here is the way it came across to me. “Ho,ho, ho, your [character not to be identified by me] dies, Merry Christmas. Hope you and the family enjoyed this.” If you did the same thing to any of the other successful Spielbergian type movies at the time, you would get the same dismal box office result. “Goonies” would not be a beloved 80s touchstone, “Cocoon” would have stalled Ron Howard’s career, and “Raiders” would be an experiment that failed.

Despite the dramatic faults of the movie, it had a lot of other things to recommend it. The setting and sets were very nicely utilized and they look great. The costumes and the actors fit into the world that was created very effectively.

Bruce Broughton was nominated for the Academy Award for his music in “Silverado” from earlier in the year, and his work here is alo excellent. The theme tune will be a pretty simple earworm that will remind you every time you hear it of this film.

For those of you who think the Marvel Films invented the post title credit scene, stick around for the end of this movie. Clearly there were hopes of a sequel, but when a movie under-performs like this, you are not going to get Part II. Although Nicolas Rowe does reprise the character in a brief cameo in the far superior “Mr. Holmes” which I guess we can call “Old Sherlock Holmes”.

Stuber

This weekend was all back to basics at the movies. “Crawl” is a straightforward horror/thriller and “Stuber” is a honest to goodness action/comedy. Once in a while there were bits and pieces of social justice issues raised, but they are ultimately mocked or conventionally accepted and the film is about the jokes and the laughs rather than anything serious.  Kumail Nanjani did not write this screenplay, but it fits him as easily as the part he wrote for himself in the Oscar Nominated screenplay for “The Big Sick“. He plays Stu, a meek guy trying to make ends meet and get the girl of his dreams at the same time. His part time Uber gig brings him into contact with a hard as nails cop, played by Dave Bautista.

Buddy cop movies have been around for a long time and the variations are numerous. We’ve had old cop/young cop stories, goodcop/bad cop morality tales, and cops paired with dogs, Russians, Zombies, and even a T-Rex. Some of those movies were action films with a little comedy thrown in, “Stuber” is the opposite, it is a comedy with a little action added to it. The reason that the cop has to take uber is that he is recovering from lasik eye surgery and has basically become Mr. Magoo with a gun. This movie is filled with slap stick moments, some as simple as tripping or banging your head accidentally because your vision is impaired, but other moments of slap stick involve shooting people in the head or running them over with a car. The tone of the film sometimes tries to play it seriously, but we never do because there is way too much screaming.

The two main actors are solid in what are likely to become their signature character types. Nanjani is the striving outsider with difficulty expressing himself. Bautista is the bull in a china shop, ready at any moment to break something within arms reach. It may be a little unfair to pigeon hole them at this point, but let’s face it, stereotyping is  what casting is all about, and we know immediately what these characters are by who is playing them. The plot of the story is fairly standard cop movie stuff [dead partner/rogue cop/drug gang/duplicitous superiors etc.] What is creative here is the use of contemporary culture touchstones like cell phones, spin classes, and uber itself, to tell the story. Stu has movie culture to refer to in trying to cope with the circumstances he has found himself in. There are a half dozen cues picked up from other films that tell him how to behave or what to expect. Of course none of that comes out the way it is supposed to. As a straight man, Dave Bautista is solid but he has something else going for him, His charisma would allow him to play the part straight, but he has good comic timing and a voice that can make a joke work, even when it is not very good.

You will not remember the plot of the film for long after you see it. There are so many cliches involving the cop story that it will run together with dozens of other films. Heck, even the strained relationship between Bautista’s character and his daughter, is a trope that was mined in “Crawl”  . Parents and their adult children sometimes have issues, big surprise. The thing that will hold over in your head however is the comic relationship between the two leads. It’s a silly premise and there is no reality to the cop procedural stuff, but who cares about that when you are laughing.

I’m willing to endorse a film if it gives me four or five good laughs, and maybe one hysterical moment. Although I think they overdo the screaming moments of the film a bit, there were at least a dozen times that I laughed out loud. As someone who is suspicious of the range of an electric car, there is a joke waiting to happen, and it does. There were also some outright slap sticky moments with gun play in the film. And just for good measure as Henslowe advised in “Shakespeare in Love”, it’s always good to add a bit with a dog.

Crawl

I love it when a movie lives up to your expectations, no matter how low they might be. This is a horror, thriller that doesn’t pretend to have some deep comment about global warming or the place on animals in human habitats. Let people who want to argue about the right of coyotes to wander freely in suburban neighborhoods have their conversation someplace else. This movie is simple. Take some sympathetic characters, put them in jeopardy, and try to scare the crap out of the audience. Very basic and there are no supernatural elements to it, so those skeptics out there when it comes to ghost stories don’t have to worry, because this stuff is real [or at least as real as you can expect in a movie.]

There are a dozen or so people listed in the cast but in reality, this is a two person story. Haley, a college student on the swimming team travels back home looking for her father, as a massive hurricane is about to hit Florida. They end up trapped in the basement of their old house, battling alligators who have moved in with the rising flood waters. The premise sells itself, this is a high concept low budget feature. Man against nature is a recurring theme in lots of films, often with a philosophical bent to the plot line. “The Grey” and “The Edge” are two examples that come to mind. There are however lots of examples of movies that do the same thing without any metaphysics or spiritual overtone. Last summer we got “The Meg” which is simply a giant shark movie. A few years ago, there was “Bait” about a similar circumstance with people trapped in a department store after a tidal wave and sharks going after them. These movies are only interested in scaring you for ninety minutes and giving you a reason to eat popcorn in public.

Barry Pepper plays the Dad, who is a perpetual cheerleader for his daughter and pushed her as she was learning to become a champion swimmer. The relationship is a little strained because the parents broke up and Haley thinks it’s her fault because he neglected Mom to boost her career. That is just filler for the moments when we are catching our breath between gator attacks. This is a movie filled with jump scares and dramatic plot complications every five minutes.  Every time a little hope creeps in, the gators in the story manage to crush it, and if the gators don’t then the hurricane does. Admittedly, this is a movie that strains credibility in a few places. Our heroes get injured in ways that most of us would go into shock over and maybe end up in a coma. These two just strap up their limbs and keep fighting on. I turned to my own daughter right after the film and said, “Yeah, we’d be dead.”

The creativity in this story is primarily based around building up one objective after another, figuring out how to overcome it, throwing in a plot complication and then adding a visual moment of terror. It works over and over. Kaya Scodelario gamely crawls through mud, effuse, rats and body parts as Haley. She is also fine in the non-action scenes as well but she got her check from submitting to some pretty grueling physical scenes. Pepper has a few moments in the last quarter of the movie, but he is mostly immobile in the first part of the film. Credulity is also tested when he has to do some of the physical stuff and his character has been hampered by substantial injuries but he carries on anyway.

 There are a half dozen other actors in the movie, but as you can probably guess, they are grist for the gator mill and those moments are satisfying from a horror fans perspective. Let’s just say that what happens to the unfortunate soul who gets caught by a mob of zombies, is not too different from what happens here. Oh, and because the movie is pretty simple and standard in it’s story telling, there is also a dog for you to worry about throughout the ordeal. I like “B” movies that work well and are well made and “Crawl” fits the bill to a tee. So it’s not “Jaws”, instead it’s a faster paced, better version of “Jaws 2”. I just wish I’d been able to see it at a drive-in.

Charley Varrick, The Last of the Independents

I’m not sure whether to classify this as one of my “Movies I Want Everyone to See” or as a “Film Lost in Time”. It certainty fits the former category but for some film fans it may fit the later as well. It stars Walter Matthau, a guy who many modern film fans will not know well, but anyone over 40 is likely to have a dozen Matthau films on at least one of their best of lists. He appeared in in “Charade”, “Fail-Safe” ,”The Fortune Cookie” and most famously “The Odd Couple” in the 1960s. I knew him best however from his 1970s output which includes three gritty thrillers from 1973 and 74, this film plus “The Laughing Policeman” and the great “Taking of Pelham 1-2-3”.

With his hangdog face, laconic voice and middle age physique, Matthau hardly seems to be the template for a movie star. He used all of those characteristics however to play a series of recognizable human beings in circumstances that are a little bit extraordinary. As the title character in this film, he is a small time bank robber who along with his wife, eeks out an existence on the margins of society. The meticulous small town bank robbery he has planned goes off the rails within just a few moments.

Let’s start by looking at the credits and seeing the style of director Don Siegel. On on the heels of his smash Clint Eastwood film, “Dirty Harry”, the director followed his cop picture with a robbers picture. The movie opens slowly without any sense of direction, by showing us idyllic scenes of small town life in what is presumably New Mexico. People are sweeping their yards and sidewalks, kids are riding their bikes, ranchers are traversing their property checking on livestock. Nothing ominous in any of that.  Suddenly we see the plaque on the bank and our mood will change immediately. Like the long set up shot in “Dirty Harry” it’s not until one element is revealed that we get any sense of where the story might be going.

Almost immediately, Matthau is on screen, but he is wearing a mustache and a grey wig. The woman driving the car tells a police officer who has come to warn them about parking in a red zone, that her husband is infirm because of an injury. Matthau is then shown to be wearing an anle cast and the disguise seems more effective. He is playing the grumpy old man, twenty years before that became his signature role in the 1990s. As luck would have it, the cop as he is pulling away has a memory of the licence plates of the Lincoln, being on the hot sheet of auto thefts that he came across and so he starts back around to investigate. This is just one of the things that goes bad for the criminals and all hell breaks loose rapidly. Here again, you can see Siegels’s style as the robbery gone wrong will remind you of the robbery gone wrong in the Eastwood picture. Violence breaks out quickly and some die quickly while others linger. The seventies were full of car chases that were improbable, but the quick getaway here is messy and believable for the most part.

If there is one fault in the script, it is the limited reaction of Charley Varrick to what transpires with his wife. Sure he is a professional, and cold calculating behavior might be expected, but the screenplay tries to establish their relationship as being long term and deep, and It is hard to pass something like that off as casually as Varrick seems to.  There is a character fault that also we should get out of the way early. Andy Robinson’s character of Harmon, their accomplice in the robbery, is pigheadedly stupid. He barely listens to the wisdom that Charley wants him to follow and he seems to be subtly threatening Charley, a man who has just masterminded a robbery that resulted in the death of three people. It’s as if he is inviting a chance to be double crossed. There is also a little emotional whipsaw going on as Harmon goes from sympathetic exposition devise to belligerent plot development. Robinson famously portrayed the killer in “Dirty Harry” and he mines some of the same facial expressions and desperation in this movie that he used there. In the scene where he is being interrogated by the mafia enforcer, he whines in the same pitiful voice as his Scorpio character in the previous film.

Like most 70s films, this story is not in a hurry. Character gets developed by scenes that have irrelevant details in them. Background characters add a little bit of spice or humor without being essential. There are side trips that seem to lead nowhere but tell us a lot about the characters we are watching. For instance, Joe Don Baker as the hitman/enforcer Molly, stops at a location owned by the mob as he is starting his investigation. It is a brothel, and basically nothing happens there except we see what kind of man he is. He is brusque with the help and specific in his wants.  A similar scene takes place when high ranking mob guy John Vernon attempts to meet with the Bank President who is a confederate of the criminal organization. He is delayed by the police and steps over to a nearby park to push a little girl on a swing. Nothing transpires but we get the sense that this criminal is a little different from others.

Since I just mentioned both of them, let’s take a little sidetrack of our own and talk about these great character actors. The late John Vernon was the duplicitous partner to Lee Marvin in “Point Blank”.He went over the edge of the balcony naked and crashed to the ground in that movie, in other words, in his debut film he was a smash. He appeared in a couple of Clint Eastwood films and the Don Siegel film that followed this one, “Black Windmill”. He typically played a sinister antagonist, often an official like a Mayor or his most famous role as Dean Wormer in “Animal House”. His voice was distinctive and his demeanor authoritative but rarely powerful. He sometime came across as the feckless power standing by while wiser or more bold characters acted.

 

Joe Don Baker is an actor I first encountered in the film “Junior Bonner”. I next remember him for an obscure “B” movie I saw while at school called “Golden Needles”. His big breakout however was in the movie “Walking Tall” an exploitation film that achieved huge financial success and spawned several sequels that he did not appear in. His Texas drawl and pseudo avuncular personality made him a disturbing threat in this film. He comes across as a professional but it is clear that he enjoys the sadism of his vocation. As an actor he has also appeared in three James Bond movies so that automatically puts him on a list of some of my favorites.

There are a bunch of other well known character actors in the film as well. Normal Fell and Sheree North are two performers you would bump into if you turned on the TV just about any time in the 1970s. She played wild card women and he was usually the dull cop not to far from the star of the show. Albert Popwell who is in the first four “Dirty Harry” films in some capacity, is in another side road scene in this film as the guy who’s car gets repossessed by Molly. Willian Schallert is another face that was everywhere on TV over the last fifty years. In this film he is the determined sheriff seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the death of two of his deputies.

Back to our story. The thing that makes this such an effective film is that it does not draw attention to itself or try to explain too much. Except for some exposition spoken by Andy Robinson, we have to figure out what is going on by paying attention to the film. Charley seems to be plotting an escape, but it turns out that there is a hidden agenda in his machinations that only becomes clear as the story unfolds slowly in front of us. The tag like on the poster is that “When he runs out of dumb luck, he always has genius to fall back on!”  We just don’t see that genius until the plot threads start coming together and what seemed a bone-head move earlier suddenly is revealed as part of a large plan that we were not privy to.

After the bank robbery, the closest the film comes to an action scene is the climax where Varrick’s deceptive plan is revealed and we get a car chase, plane crash and some explosions. More than the fireworks however, the best thing to watch is the way little pieces of the plot play out. Varrick knows better than to trust any of the mobsters, and he has to find a way to get away clean. It’s great that he gets to use some old skills in the process. The way most of the tidbits we have been wondering about play out is very satisfying.

This is a film that I saw in theaters as a kid and probably did not appreciate as much as I do now. It was however a film I liked well enough to obtain on my favorite forgotten format.

I clearly stole this image of the two film laser disc collection. Universal had a number of secondary materials they released as double features to justify the cost of your investment. As DVDs came to the market place and the Laserdisc stopped production, I transferred a number of my discs to the DVD format and created my own packaging for the cover and the disc. This is the format I used to view the film for this post.

“Charley Varrick” is a great 70s thriller, high on style and character but low on action. If you like these kinds of movies, and why would you be reading this if you did not?, let me recommend that you either discover or re-discover the genius of Charley Varrick.

MV5BNDk2MTY5OTYtZDczZS00ODkzLTlhNTMtMDQ0ZGI5OTBkNzVjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjI4MjA5MzA@._V1_

Yesterday

“Yesterday” is a delightful little fantasy, that has little on it’s mind but everything in it’s heart. It is a love story about the music of the Beatles and the love of music in general. There is also a romantic element that weaves through the main story that dramatizes some of the same ideas that are being told in the main tale. Ultimately however, it is merely a fantasy film, designed for audiences that care both about music and the nostalgia of history.

The premise is pretty well summed up in the trailer. After an accident that results from a worldwide blackout, Jack Malik, an unsuccessful, struggling musician, is the only person who seems to know the Beatles. It’s as if Thanos snapped his fingers and just wiped out part of cultural history, rather than half the population of the planet. Like most fantasy, you have to be willing to go along with the conceit and not worry about the logic behind it, because there isn’t any. Much like a body switch comedy from the 1980s, we don’t need to know why the phenomena occurred, we just need to handle the consequences. Jack remembers the songs and lyrics of the greatest pop music ever written and starts reproducing it for himself. Himesh Patel has a face that conveys defeat and frustration at every turn. His failure to connect with an audience outside his circle of friends is sapping his spirit and draining the passion he has for music. The chance to make a success out of his life by claiming the music of the Beatles as his own offers him a conflict that we as an audience can sympathize with. He becomes the greatest plagiarist in history, but he does so in the most guileless way imaginable. He just wants to play the songs. Success is great but he knows he is riding on the work of someone else, but those people will never be able to produce the material themselves.

Jack’s school chum Ellie, has been his manager for all of the time he was not a success, and she steps aside for his career to advance because she can’t really represent him effectively, without altering her life too much. Lily James plays Ellie and she is lovely and sweet and as a secondary character asks on multiple occasions, why have the two of them never gotten together.  Much like a time travel story, “Yesterday” wants us to think about the opportunities that we missed along the line and ponder why circumstances end up as they do. Jack and Ellie seem perfect for each other but after years in the “friends” zone, they are making choices that are fall back positions. Ellie withdraws to a new relationship and Jack pursues fame and fortune with the Beatles songs.

The music is of course terrific, we can thank Lennon and McCartney for that. Patel performs the songs with passion, and although he has a good voice, it is clear why he never made it on his own. The songs he writes are not bad, they simply lack the magic that came from the musical genius of the fab four. When people hear the tunes and the lyrics, they are captivated by the music, not the musician.  Success feels hollow for Jack because he has lost his friend and the songs are not his own. There is a building plot point that concerns whether he will be revealed as a fraud, and in fact he has a nightmare about that possibility. The resolution to this plot line is a good twist and it has one of the most satisfying “what if” scenes that a film like this wants us to speculate on.

It is interesting to think about the way the world might be different if the music of the Beatles did not exist. There are references to some contemporary artists who certainly were influenced by the Beatles but they seem to be unaffected by the disappearance of  John, Paul, George and Ringo. While this might make a logical movie feel off completely, this is a fantasy, and the story gets by simply by acknowledging one influence that would be altered, instead of making it as widespread as it clearly would be. That reference was my biggest laugh in the film, it also opens up another line on music for Jack to take advantage of if he keeps going.

The music business is also lampooned a great deal. Kate McKinnon arrives to manage Jack’s career and make him rich, but mostly make the record company richer. Her greed based, heartless music executive is a stereotype that we will recognize, but she also knows how to manipulate Jack by using his own momentary short comings to guilt him into her way of thinking. Ed Sheeran plays himself, and he cheerfully goes along with sending up his own image. In fact, he may be a little too brutal on himself for comfort.

Screenwriter Richard Curtis takes a premise he created with another writer and makes some magic that will be very recognizable to fans of “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.  It is possible that he is mining the same material from his own film from 2013, “About Time“, which has many of the same fantasy elements and dilemmas. This movie is directed by Danny Boyle, who will not be doing James Bond but still can end up on an anticipated list of movies that I want to see. “Yesterday” is a good sized hit for the kind of movie that it is. I think it plays to an older audience because of the Beatles connection, but the young stars probably have added to it’s appeal for a younger audience. If the Beatles music means nothing to you, feel free to skip this movie. But if you are a part of the population with the good sense to know how important that music is, I suspect you will enjoy the film in spite of some flaws along the way.

Lambcast 1989 Film Draft

Please take a moment to go to the poll on the LAMB site and vote for my slate of films.

While I did not get my first choice, I think I have the most solid collection of films of any people on the podcast.

  • Field of Dreams, the Kevin Costner male weepy is a classic and has some terrific actors in it.
  • Licence to Kill, Timothy Dalton’s second and last outing as James Bond. A Great villain and some tortured 007 personality.
  • When Harry Met Sally, even if you don’t like Romantic comedies, you will like this movie that was the template for the 1990s romantic comedies that followed. Nora Ephron was awesome.
  • Glory, IMHO the Best Film of 1989.
  • UHF, a silly comedy but it stars “Weird” Al Yankovic.
Click the picture or this link and vote today. The alternatives are just too sad to accept.

Lawrence Of Arabia [Again] 2019 Visit

As is tradition on this site and in our house, when “Lawrence of Arabia” is available on the big screen, we are available to see it. Having sat through an earthquake the previous night to watch “Jaws”, nothing was likely to disturb us from spending time with David Lean’s masterpiece.

I have written about this film a number of times. There is a link here to a video blog for a screening in 2013. Here is a link to a screening at the Cinerama Dome. At this spot you can read about our visit two years ago, seeing the print that was run on Saturday. Finally, there was a post I did on the many versions of Lawrence that I own on home video and some other tidbits.

The term Fan is derived from the word fanatic, so maybe this is an apt description of us and our love for this movie. For this post, I thought I’d try a perspective suggested by the author of the beautiful coffee table book that came with the blu ray package. Jeremy Arnold was at our screening, and he was there previously when the American Cinematique introduced the 70mm print that they now own and lovingly care for. His introduction talked about the enigma of T.E. Lawrence but also of the film about him. He said that there are many ways to experience the movie and some people never get past the sensory. So what I will do here is approach three of those paths, and hopefully find some interesting things to highlight about the movie.

I think it is fitting to start with the sensory, since it is the major selling point of the film for most cinema fans. “Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the most visually spend id stories ever committed to celluloid.  The opening titles are shot from a static position overhead as Lawrence readies his motorbike for that last fateful trip. You might think a static shot of a mundane activity would be boring after a few seconds, but the lighting, the colors and the music make it compelling and the angle gives us enough to see what is happening but it still keeps the central figure as a mystery. Ultimately, the film is about the mystery of T.E. Lawrence and this simply foreshadows the whole point of the picture.

Everywhere you look in the rest of the movie are fascinating landscapes, revealing face profiles, and composition of shots that even an amateur like me can recognize as spectacular. The famous edit by Lean and Anne V. Coates, moving from a lighted match to a sunrise over a harsh desert, continues to inspire no matter how many times you see it. Omar Sharif’s slow reveal as a distant figure in a landscape is also iconic. Even watching Lawrence brood over a problem, under the night sky while silently being trailed by the two boys who become his servants for the crossing of the desert later, is compelling to watch. The sensory experience is added to by the music at every point. The score by Maurice Jarre is like an earworm that is soft at times and thundering in the right spot. Listening to the tentpoles in King Faisal’s tent,creak as the winds of the desert cause the tent to shift slightly, illustrate the way that sound adds to the sensory experience in subtle ways as well as the obvious explosions and thundering hoofs.

Everyone can experience these things for themselves and if you pay enough attention you will find hundreds more of those moments in the movie. The emotional reaction to the film is a second path by which to experience it, and Lawrence provides a banquet of emotional moments to satisfy all palates. Humor is everywhere in the movie, although no one would describe it as a comedy. Lawrence is introduced to us in the British Military headquarters in Cairo, referring to each of his fellow soldiers by both their first and last names, spoken in a deliberate manner meant to exaggerate his mannerisms. It is not a joke but it is a funny way to learn how he speaks and thinks without having to have exposition. There is an abundance of visual humor in the film as well. We all laugh when we realize that the reason he is admiring the knife that is part of his new regalia, is not simply that it is new and unique, it is that he can see himself in the reflection and his vanity is revealed accidentally.

Lawrence’s proximity to death is all the more tragic because of the three deaths he is most closely associated with in the film. In the screening on Saturday, Jeremy Arnold surveyed the packed house to see how many we experiencing Lawrence for the first time. Amazingly, nearly half the audience raised their hand to indicate that this was their maiden experience with the movie. I know they were not lying because when it is revealed who it is that Lawrence must execute to keep the tribes from warring with each other rather than the Turks, there was a loud collective gasp from the audience. When Daud is lost to the desert sands, there were some sobs that were audible, and when Lawrence has to end the life of his other associate after an explosives accident, the silence of shock and dread hangs in the air.

Emotional jubilation is also present in the film, as Lawrence rescues Gasim from the desert, or as a bunch of grapes from Damascus are delivered and we know that success is in his grasp. Of course all of these points have a counterpoint and the movie is never short on finding ways to emotionally evoke a response from us. We will feel disgust as the clammy hands of the Turkish Bey examine the fair skin of Lawrence when he is about to be tortured. Anger and hatred  will also come to our hearts when we see the village left behind a retreating Turkish column, or the grin in the face of the man holding Lawrence’s hands down as the beating begins. There is such an overload of emotional moments in the film that I’m sure a whole book could be composed to cover it, and you would still only scratch the surface.

The last trail suggested by Mr. Arnold’s introduction, is the intellectual/spiritual path that the film takes in telling Lawrence’s story. He was a passionate man who also knew to control that passion in pursuit of his vision of an independent Arabia. We can’t tell if he is motivated by his admiration of the Arab people or his disdain for some elements of their culture. He embraced the life of the Bedouin and rejected it simultaneously.  He was clever and boldly foolish. In other words, his life was a variety of dichotomies that make him even more enigmatic than before we have seen the film. His vision of a future for the Middle east was at variance with those of his country, but also with those whom he lead and loved.

He defied the conventional wisdom of the Arabs, “Nothing is written”, but also repeatedly proved that their fatalism was well earned. From the beginning, he was described by people at his funeral as the most extraordinary man they ever knew, but there was always a hedge statement that followed, which revealed that no one was quite certain how to classify him. The intellectual puzzle that he was is not really solved by this movie, but it’s attractiveness and magnetism is intensified by the film. Once again, I am in awe of the scope of this movie, not simply as a piece of cinema, but as an historical mediation on a figure that rode the whirlwind of history.

And let’s just add that the lead performance is responsible for much of the success that those three paths managed to get us through. Peter O’Toole makes all of it feel accurate, and real, regardless of where the truth lies.