The recent passing of actor Peter O'Toole is one of those bittersweet moments in popular culture – a sad farewell to an actor whose work entertained and informed millions, but also a chance to celebrate the legacy of one of the best-respected actors in the business, whose role as T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia" easily makes most top ten lists for great movie performances.
I own "Lawrence of Arabia" on DVD and it's one of the films I'm looking forward to watching with my son when he's ready for something epic and challenging. I don't have any illusions about the inevitable consumption of cruddy, giant-robot based entertainment that will be some (or, sigh, maybe the bulk) of what he ends up watching. But I'm also excited to try to sit down and watch some classic films with him and enjoy all that they have to offer, including ...
Dialogue: Watch a classic film like "Lawrence of Arabia" (or, among my other favorites, "Judgement at Nuremberg," "Inherit the Wind," or "Twelve Angry Men") and you'll notice that the dialogue is rich, complex, and full of nuance. It twists and turns; it conveys ambiguity and paints pictures of full, well-rounded characters.
Breathing Room: One of the most beautiful aspects of "Lawrence of Arabia" is how the desert itself plays a major role in the film. The immense sense of space and emptiness, the frightful heat, and the loneliness of the desert are all conveyed through pacing, sound, and long, stark shots of the landscape – the movie unfolds at a measured, poetic, expansive pace, not as a breathless series of jump cuts.
Complicated Characters: In "Lawrence of Arabia," T.E. Lawrence was bold, courageous, and visionary – but he was also brittle, foolhardy, and extremely difficult to work with. Heroes in the best classic films weren't one-trick ponies, full of nothing but courage and charming effectiveness – they were difficult, challenging, sometimes impossible people, which made them feel far more real and made their achievements that much more interesting to watch.
A Sense of History: Modern cinema tends to be caught up in current day, or jumping, sci-fi style, into some dystopian future that justifies a massive effects budget. Even the historical dramas that we get tend to be simplistic and one-note, the feeling being that moving behind a surface representation of history would be too challenging for a modern audience.
"Lawrence of Arabia" (and other classic films) have a much fuller sense of history, conveying some of the wheels-within-wheels and differing goals and motivations that make telling and hearing the story of history so fascinating and so fulfilling.
And perhaps even more engaging than that sense of history is the sense of how one individual – guided by courage, learning, and experience – can alter the course of history by being at the right place in the right time. Lawrence's decisions – lonely, dangerous, and right – make a real impact on one of the biggest conflicts of the era. This isn't "Bourne Identity" stuff, where the only people to make a difference essentially have super powers – it's real human beings standing at the wheel of history and getting the chance to turn it.
That lesson – that what we do has consequences and that any of us, given the right effort and opportunities, can make a real difference, is a great one to learn. And it's just one of the many gifts that Peter O'Toole leaves for us in his wake.