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Alec Guinness (#110 of 3)

Lean on the Big Screen: The Bridge on the River Kwai

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Lean on the Big Screen: <em>The Bridge on the River Kwai</em>
Lean on the Big Screen: <em>The Bridge on the River Kwai</em>

These days anyone can watch a masterpiece of world cinema on their cellphone. A familiar contemporary debate frames this as either a welcome innovation or a detestable crisis. You want to see a film. Questions arise. Will it be the iPhone or the multiplex? The Criterion DVD on your laptop or the print at Film Forum? Those who unequivocally elevate the static theater screen over the wide array of portable devices have no better evidence to bolster their argument than David Lean’s magnificent epics. “Imagine watching Lawrence of Arabia on your iPod!” they tell us. “Such a reduction in size would greatly diminish the film’s superlative visual power and therefore result in a less fulfilling experience.” I personally feel ambivalent about the general issue—hell, faced with the proliferation of options, I’m just plain confused—but in Lean’s case the nature of his work automatically dictates the necessity of the theater experience. I first encountered Lawrence on the enormous screen at the Ziegfeld. I recall that when the film ended I stumbled through the sumptuous lobby in a desperate search for the water fountain, feeling as if I too had just crawled across the desert.

The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

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The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia
The Conversations: Lawrence of Arabia

Jason Bellamy: “It’s the pictures that got small.” Those words make up the second half of one of the most famous quotes in movie history. They are spoken, as any good film fan knows, by Norma Desmond in 1950’s Sunset Blvd., and yet I think of them each time I watch Lawrence of Arabia. Released in 1962, David Lean’s poetic biopic is epic by every definition of the word. It’s long—216 minutes, plus intermission. It’s grand in subject—using its title character to draw us into a historical war movie in disguise. It’s emotionally hefty—focusing on an aimless man who finds himself through great struggle, only to lose his sanity within his new identity. As if that weren’t enough, it’s held together by a sprawling Maurice Jarre score. But what best qualifies Lawrence of Arabia as “epic” in my mind is its visual enormity, pairing some of the most awe-inspiring panoramas cinema has ever provided with some equally striking closeups.

Thus far in The Conversations we’ve covered some truly modern epics (Michael Mann’s Heat comes to mind) and some modern films that evoke the spirit of epics past (The Last of the Mohicans, perhaps), but this is the first time we’ve discussed what could be called a “classic” or “traditional” epic—a film that doesn’t just represent the term but helps to define it (which isn’t to suggest that 1939’s Gone with the Wind or 1915’s Birth of a Nation didn’t get there first). For reasons I’ll describe later, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that took me a few viewings to fully appreciate, and yet I’ve been a passionate fan of it now for at least 10 years. In contrast, you hadn’t seen Lawrence of Arabia until you watched it for The Conversations.

There are numerous topics that we must cover before this discussion is over, a few of which have everything to do with when this film was made (before CGI technology was available and before adorning white actors in brownface was taboo), and picking a starting point is a bit daunting. So let’s begin here: Lawrence of Arabia is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. For what it’s worth: it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture; it was No. 5 on the American Film Institute’s initial top-100 list, released in 1998; and it’s No. 3 on the British Film Institute’s latest top-100 list. With that as a snapshot of the movie’s acclaim, I’m curious: When you watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time only recently, did it strike you as a great film, a classic and an epic? Did it live up to its reputation? Or did it leave you underwhelmed despite its enormity?

Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire on DVD

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Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire on DVD
Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire on DVD

Tough, lean and spare, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) was an epic swords and sandals picture coming fast on the heels of Ben-Hur and Cleopatra. Yet despite having its own careening version of a chariot race and the requisite legions of ornately costumed extras amidst spectacularly palatial locations, the tone is surprisingly somber. Much of the first half takes place in the dead of winter, and the performances seem pensive and cool, or manic and edgy. Anthony Mann, best known for his noirish westerns, suggests death through the autumnal season, the Roman legions marching through snowy fields and shadowy pine groves, and the candles and torches flickering ominously in dark rooms.

The oppressive mood gives depth and shading to the pomp and circumstance of ancient Rome, and an extended and potentially tiresome scene where the emperor (Alec Guinness) greets emissaries from every corner of his empire, each with different colorful flags, armor, and titles of honor, is tempered by the fact that the king of the world has a lingering pain in his lower abdomen (a close-up of the emperor’s trusted Greek adviser, Timonides (James Mason), has a gnawing, sweaty intensity, as if he is already imagining his master’s demise). Layers of snow or smoke drift over the widescreen images, obliterating any sense of David Lean’s epic cinema, and the score by Dimitri Tiomkin is frequently low-key. In many scenes, there is no score at all, but the uneasy absence of music in favor of wind or rustling leaves.