peter o’toole

Worst Best Picture: Is Lawrence of Arabia Better or Worse Than Crash?

lawrence of arabia

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1962 winner Lawrence of Arabia. Is it better than Crash?

The day before watching Lawrence of Arabia, a friend of mine told me that it was her favorite movie of all time. That’s really high praise, and she said it immediately. If you ever want to ask someone a hard question, ask them their favorite movie. For whatever reason, no one has that at the ready, so when she said it just like that, I got my hopes up.

The thing is, Lawrence of Arabia is just shy of four hours long. Excluding director’s cuts, only Gone with the Wind is longer. I went into this with a “long movies can be good, they just have more to say” attitude, but after several three-hour movies from the 80s that were all about mostly nothing, my patience has waned. I need every movie to be 90 minutes long, now.

That’s mostly a joke, but it’s really hard to press play on a four-hour movie, even one with the pedigree that Lawrence of Arabia has. When do you have four uninterrupted hours that you can spend focusing on a masterpiece? But Lawrence of Arabia is an all-timer (shouldn’t they all be, since they’re “Best?”) and I wanted to focus on this one. I wanted to see if Peter O’Toole was really the genius they say he is, because up to this point my Peter O’Toole experience was watching him sleepwalk through The Last Emperor.

It always feels strange to watch a great actor and “evaluate” them for the first time. Peter O’Toole’s legacy does not need me. If I think Charlton Heston is a weird, almost bad actor (and I do) or Clint Eastwood is reasonably good in everything (he is) those things don’t matter. History has decided who we like and who we don’t already in those regards, and Peter O’Toole will be fine. I’ll say it anyway: Peter O’Toole gives one of the all-time great performances here.

He plays T.E. Lawrence, a British lieutenant tasked with organizing forces in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I. The film is split into two parts, which is more important here than in most of the longer films. Many of them are split with an intermission between them, but none of them make use of this split better than Lawrence of Arabia. In part one, Lawrence attempts to earn the trust of the men he is organizing, and in part two he has to figure out what to do with the trust he’s earned. It’s the two big pieces of leading men: gathering them and knowing what to do with them once you’ve done so.

Lawrence turns out to be pretty damn good at this whole thing, and he earns his robes from the people after saving a life at the cost of his own. He burns his British uniform and dons the robes in a fairly obvious transformation scene that would feel cheap in another movie, but it works here because the actual transformation is more subtle. It’s not when he dons the robes that he transforms, it’s several scenes later when he’s asked to make a decision between his principles and the mission. Even Lawrence himself is surprised at what he’s capable of — and I mean that in both ways — and he becomes deified among the people.

There are easy Patton comparisons here. Both movies are about men who are superhuman in some respects, but incapable of living with who they are in others. Both have powerful supporting casts, but they’re really one-man shows. Neither film has any women (Lawrence has exactly zero lines for women in the entire movie) and neither film approaches the topic of romantic love at all. They are both stories of being consumed and what we’re willing to give up to become more than man. The real war is how you die to yourself, and though that may sound ridiculous, it’s more terrifying than anything anyone can do to you on the battlefield.

I’m a bigger fan of the first half of Lawrence, because watching the slow build of the man’s humanity seeping away is more interesting to me than the second half’s wandering, lost sensation, but they’re both necessary. They function as halves of a whole, with the second half focused on Lawrence’s identity in question: does he need to wield his tremendous power for his own purposes or does he need to reevaluate the entire notion of wielding power at all? Lawrence raises more questions than it answers, and it will definitely leave you feeling lost in the way that great art can.

The Best Part: This has to be O’Toole’s performance, despite it not ending in an Oscar. He was up against Gregory Peck from To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a shame because you can’t really hope to defeat that. O’Toole’s descent into madness is exceptional, especially the final 20 minutes before the end of part one. There are some tight closeups on him where his entire personality drifts and it’s just the face of a man capable of anything, for any reason.

The Worst Part: Like every “true” story on the list, people are mad as hell about the inaccuracies. I think those discussions are important, but I’m less interested in them than I am in the actual film in this case. It takes a long time to get going, and the choice to open on the motorcycle accident that eventually killed Lawrence isn’t one I necessarily love, though this is really reaching for something to not like.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The sweeping, beautiful shots of the desert in Lawrence of Arabia are beautiful. It’s a movie that’s just as much about scenery and tone as it is about character, which is nearly impossible to accomplish. There are shots where nothing is happening that are better than the highest dramatic moments of Crash. This is a truly unfair comparison, and I don’t see any reason to discuss it further. People might try to discuss race in Lawrence within the lens of Crash, but I think I would rather watch Crash again than do that.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient| Lawrence of Arabia

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Last Emperor Better or Worse Than Crash?


Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1987 winner The Last Emperor. Is it better than Crash?

If you need to know what kind of year 1987 was, it was the year that Throw Mama from the Train earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Anne Ramsey (who played Danny DeVito’s horrible, angry mother) lost the award to Michael Dukakis’ cousin, who was in a movie with Cher.

That’s what the world was watching in 1987, when The Last Emperor beat Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck for the Oscar for Best Picture.

The Last Emperor is a true story, more or less, and you watch a true story differently than the average movie. The film is set in a difficult time for Asia that Western audiences will never understand the entirety of, but the basics are simple: China dethrones the Emperor (Pu Yi, the titular last Emperor), Japan invades part of China and sets up a puppet government led by the ousted emperor Pu Yi, and China throws him out again after Japan loses the war. World War II is in many ways a more complicated time in history than “good” and “bad” and thankfully, the movie doesn’t do much to paint anyone as necessarily any better than anyone else.

It’s not a movie about rightness or goodness; it’s just a movie about Pu Yi. He is born into his ruling life in the Forbidden City and sees no reason to question that he’s in charge. He grows up untroubled by the country he supposedly leads until he finds out that he’s not actually as in charge as he’s been told. He senses that the end is coming far before it does, and the movie is about the development of the kind of person who ruled everyone he’d ever met into… well, a regular person.

He learns much of the world outside of the Forbidden City through his tutor (Peter O’Toole). O’Toole gives a surreal performance as he rides a bike around and talks about tennis and manhood. This tutor apparently existed for the real Pu Yi, but while it’s nice that the film wanted to nail this bit of accuracy it’s just a really odd performance. O’Toole has the gravitas to not ruin the tone of the epic itself, but his performance is so rushed and spotty that it seems like he feels like he has a more important movie to be in at times.

Pu Yi learns, he marries (two women at the same time), and he leaves. The army throws him out and he wanders Asia for a bit before returning to a form of his throne during a Japanese invasion. Once the Japanese are expelled by Russian troops, Pu Yi is captured and forced to tell his life story as part of his war criminal rehab. The movie uses this life story retelling as a structure for “why” we see all of Pu Yi’s life. It’s an effective technique, but the movie aims to include so damn much of his life in this telling that it ends up being something they would definitely cut into pieces in 2014. It’s a really full movie — I would like to go into his wives and opium and pregnancy, but that part of the movie drags a bit — and it can be tough to watch as a result. The payoff is good, but the movie could have benefited by being more judicious with the editing.

There’s no spoiling the end of a true story, especially a biography. Pu Yi lives to see Mao’s rise and Maoists in the streets. He is just another gardener by the end of the movie, and it’s hard to determine if he minds having lost his royal roots. China has changed. He is both better and worse off. He won’t be part of the Great Leap Forward, but he also knows what it’s like to be a real man. Such is the cost of progress.

As far as Crash is concerned, I’ve talked a ton about a particular scene where Terrence Howard’s character is carjacked. In the scene, Howard turns the attempted carjacking into a police chase through the suburbs and eventually gets into a standoff with the LAPD. The short of it is that he is disrespected earlier in the movie (a few times, once by the cops) and the scene is meant to show that he has reached his breaking point. He needs to exert control over the universe to feel like he is still the arbiter of his world. Pu Yi has the same impulse when he makes a power play as the puppet ruler of Manchukuo during the Japanese occupation.

The easy difference here is that one happened and one didn’t, but even treating them both as elements of fiction they are stark. Howard’s character risks his life to feel in control of anything in his life, even something this risky. Pu Yi sides against his home country to rule his home state, risking his life if the Chinese take the state back. Howard risks his life because his wife yelled at him. Pu Yi risks his life because his ancestral homeland has been stolen from him by the march of time. The stakes are different, which is always going to be true, but it takes some real work to understand Howard’s motivation — and I picked the best damn character in Crash. Pick anyone else and that sounds even dumber.

The Best Part: The final hour. It’s the developed arc of the life of Pu Yi. Usually a journey is more fun to watch than a result in a movie, but not this time. The first hour drags impossibly and the narrative technique of flashing back to present-day Pu Yi telling his story to an interrogator works to weave multiple parts of his life together but it does not work to make the movie feel fluid. The connective tissue feeling ends for the last hour and the film’s ambiance really takes hold. It’s immensely satisfying as a viewer when it pays off. 

The Worst Part: A lot of critical response judges the length — it’s almost three hours long — but this has to go to Peter O’Toole. In my review of 12 Years a Slave I judged Brad Pitt for his accent, but whoa. The single worst performance in a movie on this list so far has to go to the legendary Peter O’Toole in this one. He’s so clearly cashing a paycheck that he often seems to have just read from a cue card and told them “use that take or don’t, why would I care?”

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better, but it’s different entirely. They are both arcs of development, but in Crash the development is for the worse. People essentially look at the camera to say what they’ve learned by interacting with other races and classes, and what they’ve learned is that they hated people that are different for good reason. The Last Emperor is about one man’s journey through a life he never really controls. He is born into a world he cannot change. He is neutered even when he becomes Emperor again. He lives his life and the world changes around him. His arc is his own and the arc of China, the real story of the movie, is changed with him, not by him.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a Slave |

 Image credit: AFI