Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Three that will always Be

Three days ago on December 14th, 2013, Peter O'Toole passed away at the age of 81. One of the true giants in a world of giants, O'Toole is still best remembered for one role: that of T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia.

It is not enough to call this film a classic; it is far more than that, in my not-so-humble opinion. It is a big, beautiful, and bold work of art that does more than just tell a story. It captures a moment of history, reveals how tragic and lonely the human condition can be, and beyond and above everything else, Lawrence of Arabia reminds us that Fate is nether kind nor gentle, but often cruel.

And while one can point to the greatness of the film's cinematography, of its direction, script, and score, it was Peter O'Toole who made all of this matter, who breathed life into a role and commanded the attention of all who watched him, from the beginning to theend. This is a feat of artistic greatness rarely--if ever--equaled. Put it all together and what you get is a film routinely recognized as one of the greatest ever made. In 2007, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranked it as the seventh greatest film of all time, behind Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Casablanca, Raging Bull, Singin' in the Rain, and Gone with the Wind. In 1998, it had been ranked number five, but somehow fell down two spots in favor of Singin' in the Rain (number ten in 1998) and Raging Bull (number twenty-four in 1998).

Personally, I think both lists are wrong. I think Lawrence of Arabia is one of the three greatest movies ever made and I cannot--in good conscience--rank it above or below the other two in this group. What are the other two? Well, none of them are in AFI's top ten, or even the top fifty. As of 2007, one of them comes in at number one hundred on that list, the other is not there at all. The three greatest movies of all times, in no particular order:
Lawrence of Arabia (1962), directed by David Lean and starring Peter O'Toole
Ben-Hur (1959), directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston
The Magnificent Seven (1960), directed by John Sturges and starring Yul Brynner
No doubt, my top three will not sit well with many, many people. I have no Casablanca, no Citizen Kane, and no Gone with the Wind, it is true. And all three of these other movies are exceptional, no doubt. But they fail to move me, to the extent that my chosen three do. It's really not even close, in this regard. For if I had to go deeper, to pick a fourth or fifth, I would be hard-pressed to not include The Searchers (the 1956 western starring John Wayne and directed by John Ford) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (from 1957, starring William Holden and also directed by David Lean). Such is the way with movies, I guess, everyone has their own preferences and opinions.

Still, I cannot fathom how the greatness of Lawrence can be so obviously seen by some who apparently close their minds when watching Ben-Hur and The Magnificent Seven. For like Lawrence of Arabia, these other two films are big and bold, to say the least. I think they are beautiful as well, though I fear the beauty of the American West is lost on far too many "experts" here.

More importantly, all three films allow for the primacy of Fate, despite the heroic actions by characters within. All three conclude with less then glorious moments, if not quite tragic ones. Watching these films, we have heroes to cheer for, to bring us to our collective feet, yet are forced to sit as quickly as we had risen when reality rushes back in the very next scene.

Then of course there is the acting. O'Toole's greatness here is again indisputable. But then, so is Heston's in Ben-Hur and Brynner's in The Magnificent Seven (with Steve McQueen keeping pace, no doubt). It is no accident that these three films appeared so close in time, either. For the three starring actors are of that golden age of when acting was both a vocation and an artistic pursuit for its own sake (to be fair, there are still such people today, but too few of them in my opinion).

I understand of course that The Magnificent Seven was a remake of another film, one fully incredible in its own right. But I'm going to be stubborn here, even somewhat Americentric. I love Seven Samurai, but it does not move me the way The Magnificent Seven does, no doubt partly because of the language barrier. So if one wants to add a caveat to my list, the three greatest English language movies of all time, I'm okay with that. Interestingly, The Magnificent Seven was something of a flop when it was released. But over time, it has become one of the most shown and most watched (on television) movies of all times, second only to Gone with the Wind.

As to Ben-Hur, it is also a remake. The story had been told twice before, in 1907 and 1925 (both silent films). But never on the scale of the 1959 film. There is no reason whatsoever to consider this version the inferior of the three, but rather exactly the opposite in contrast to the general rule regarding remakes (where the first is always the best).

The point of all of this? Peter O'Toole is dead. So is Charlton Heston (who passed away in 2008) and Yul Brynner (who died back in 1985). All three men were born before World War II: Brynner in 1920, Heston in 1923, O'Toole in 1932. And all three are iconic figures in the history of the cinema. Yet, their paths to stardom were very, very different. Each is also of a different nationality, though World War II had an impact on all three lives in different ways.

But in watching these three movies, none of that matters. All that does is their presence on the screen, the way they carried themselves and the movies forward. I was born several years after the last--Lawrence of Arabia--made its debut; I very much wish I could have seen each one in a theater, on one of those massive matinee screens that are all too rare today. For even on the much smaller TV screens that now serve as my viewing medium, these three films remain larger than life, these three actors help make this so.

People like to play games of the sort "if you were trapped on a desert island and could have only one movie to watch (never mind how that would happen), what would it be?" Me, I couldn't choose. I'd need three. I could forego all the others, though, if I had these three.

Cheers, all.

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