Posts Tagged ‘Alec Guinness’

A Silver Screen showing (with, of course, free biscuits) is still probably the best ticket in town when it comes to value for money, but second place is definitely a proper full-scale revival of a mid-period David Lean movie, complete with overture, interval, and entr’acte, all of which usually work together to push the running time to somewhere well over three and a half hours. Lean’s films seem to have been conceived as grand spectacles as much as actual stories, with a level of ambition it’s hard to find amongst serious modern film-makers (one might also suggest that modern movie studies aren’t big fans of providing that much value for money, either).

Latest recipient of the full revival treatment is Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, his famously lengthy epic of love and death in the midst of the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Zhivago is currently enjoying its golden anniversary, which probably explains why it’s being given a run-out – it seems to be that this film has never quite enjoyed the same critical acclaim as Lawrence of Arabia, but it retains a certain reputation, not to mention its place on the list of the top ten most-watched movies in history.


This being a Lean movie, it’s a fairly long time before we meet Dr Zhivago himself properly, and the film opens with a framing sequence in which Zhivago’s brother (Alec Guinness), a Red Army general, interviews a young female worker from one of the USSR’s engineering projects (this scene is presumably set in the late 1940s or early 1950s), trying to establish if she is in fact his late brother’s daughter. And of course he ends up telling her Zhivago’s life story.

(A bit of a digression here – and it’s not as if Doctor Zhivago doesn’t digress itself – but I am currently engaged in the cultural education of a young person, which has mainly involved our watching the Star Wars movies and various other old classics. I was a bit disappointed, therefore, when we watched Kind Hearts and Coronets and my charge completely failed to recognise Obi-Wan Kenobi even though he plays about eight different characters. So when we went to see Zhivago, I actually made it clear that Guinness would be in this film and I was expecting to have him pointed out to me. It’s not the most demanding challenge ever set: the very first shot after the credits, pretty much, is a very nice portrait of Alec Guinness more or less facing the camera. But was there a little thrill of recognition at the sight of old Obi-Wan? Regrettably not. My work continues.)

Orphaned at a young age somewhere out on the endless Russian steppe, the young Yuri Zhivago is adopted by a wealthy Muscovite family and grows up to become a happy, well-educated, and only vaguely Egyptian young man (he is of course played by Omar Sharif, in a piece of casting that we take for granted now). He is kept busy with his medical studies (duh) and with being a poet, which is why the first act of the film is much more about the beautiful young Lara (Julie Christie), a young woman attracting the unwelcome attention of well-connected but cynical man-about-town Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), while actually having a thing for dedicated young revolutionary Antipov (Tom Courtenay).

Well, apart from someone nearly getting shot, not very much happens in the first act of the film, plot-wise, but eventually the First World War kicks off with the Russian Revolution following close behind. This being a film set in Russia, what follows is mainly a chronicle of people making very long journeys (usually in the snow), losing touch with each other, disappearing, reappearing unexpectedly, snatching moments of happiness, falling foul of the government – you know the sort of thing. In the end… well, I suppose spoilers are still a potential problem, even for a fifty-year-old movie, plus there is the issue of…

Well, here’s the thing: Doctor Zhivago is an example of film-making on a genuinely epic, lavish scale, with some marvellous set pieces and your actual cast of thousands on display. Freddie Young’s cinematography is sumptuous, Maurice Jarre’s score is beautiful, and David Lean marshals the whole proceedings with his usual masterly touch. You are never really doubt that, in some way, you are watching one of the great films of all time. (It’s also hard to shake the suspicion that Lean would have been the first to agree with you – the opening, with an orphan being taken in by relatives, perhaps inevitably recalls that of Citizen Kane, and one could argue that Zhivago’s balalaika serves a similar narrative role as Kane’s sledge, so maybe Lean had set his sights on supplanting Welles.)

It’s not as if there aren’t some lovely performances in the movie, either. Sharif is perhaps a touch too hello-clouds-hello-sky to really be an engaging protagonist, and one does wonder quite why it was Tom Courtenay who snagged an Oscar nomination when he’s not actually in the film that much, but you also have Ralph Richardson working his magic as Zhivago’s adoptive father and a really heavy-duty turn by Rod Steiger, turning a character who could just have been a bully into someone rather more complex and charismatic. Guinness himself only has a handful of scenes, but he also gets the voice-over, and uses them to deliver a typically memorable turn, with the benefit of some of the best lines in the movie.

But, one has to ask, what’s it all actually in aid of? All these characters appear and (more importantly) disappear from the movie, seemingly at random. The story stays fixated on Zhivago and Lara and their various comings together and movings apart, and in the end it all climaxes in… what? Not much of anything. There’s no real big finish, no resolution of the film’s themes or big idea. It doesn’t climax so much as phut.

Then again, this isn’t really a film about big ideas, it’s a film about trying to stay out of their way – Zhivago says as much, that he’s only interested in making the best of the life he has now (his name is derived from the Russian zhivoy, meaning living), and this is what the film is about, not a conflict between ideologies (although this does inevitably comprise much of the backdrop to the film) but a conflict between an ideological world-view and a simpler, more personal one. Which is fine, but it does just mean that Zhivago and Lara just wander through the film while more interesting things seem to be happening to other characters off-camera. It’s an epic movie about a man trying to live a small life, which is an odd proposition from the start.

Perhaps it’s also a problem that this is a film about a famous poet, yet we never hear any of his actual poetry, which strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. Having said that, Lean has a hell of a good go at bringing Zhivago’s poetic sensibility to the screen in a few extraordinary sequences – during the funeral at the start of the film, there’s a sequence intercutting the young boy’s face, leaves swirling in the wind, actual shots of the body inside the buried coffin, and all the time the music swelling to let you know that something significant is happening… and rather than being just a bit too overblown to take seriously, it’s very nearly breathtaking. But too often the film doesn’t achieve this level of intensity, and you’re left with everyone wandering about and a pleasant, if not really gripping, romance.

I can’t help wondering to what extent the actual details of the Russian Revolution are strictly germane to the plot, either. Inevitably the film ultimately comes out as disapproving towards Communism, but if it had the slightest intention of illuminating this period of history it doesn’t really achieve it – everyone talks about the Red Guards and the White Guards and the Bolsheviks and the Far Eastern Republic, but how it all hangs together in any kind of coherent historical context I’ve no idea. If the turmoil in Russia is just here as a backdrop to a romance, I can’t help but think that’s a missed opportunity, not to mention a bit glib. I don’t know.

I went to see Lawrence of Arabia three years ago, when that got a golden anniversary re-release, and emerged with my understanding and appreciation of the film greatly strengthened – but this time round, I don’t know. This is a film stuffed with great things of all kinds, but somehow they never completely gel together into a totally satisfying whole – the film almost feels not quite finished, or as though key sequences have been accidentally excised at the editing stage. This is still a very fine film of a kind that they simply don’t make any more, and I did enjoy watching it, even if only for its technical virtuosity and the performances. But the story isn’t quite compelling enough for it to be a genuine masterpiece, or the timeless classic it obviously would like to be.


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Well, here we are again: another year is about to drag its sorry carcass offstage, and the mind inevitably turns to the end-of-year best list, which it is surely morally incumbent upon all critics to produce, even amateur pretend ones. That said, I haven’t given it a great deal of thought yet, and there isn’t an overwhelmingly obvious candidate from amongst the films I’ve seen this year.

Candidates obviously have to be new films, which is probably just as well, or there’s a very good chance my top movie of 2012 would be one of the revivals I’ve seen this year, all of which have been good, and in a couple of cases revelatory. One should take a moment to feel grateful for the opportunity to see films like Touch of Evil, RoboCop, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp back on the big screen where they belong – and, to round the year off in majestic style, we have the golden anniversary re-release of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.


The 50th anniversary print is being displayed in the same format as the original release, with an overture, intermission, entr’acte (although to me this just sounded like the overture again), and so on. Thankfully there were no adverts, but even so I laid in a supply of iron rations and informed my next of kin of where I would be before setting out for what promised to be, if nothing else, one of the best value-for-money cinema experiences of the year.

The film opens with a brief overview of the questionable handling characteristics of the Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle, then begins in earnest in Cairo during the First World War. Here we meet Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a junior officer in the British Army. Something of an outsider, awkward and distant, Lawrence’s superiors are fairly happy to lend him to the Arab Bureau for an extended secondment: he is to travel into the heart of Arabia and make contact with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), an Arab leader engaged in a revolt against the Ottoman Turks in the region.

But Lawrence’s loyalties seem to be in question – is he there to serve British Imperial interests, or those of the Arab tribesmen he finds an immediate rapport with? Or is the furtherance of his own personal agenda – whether that be a thirst for a glory, or to sate darker appetites – really his driving objective? Whichever: his plan to outflank the Turks through a forced march across the most hellish part of the desert seems like the creation of a driven man…

For a film which concerns itself with a peculiarly national and historical subject, Lawrence of Arabia seems to have branded itself deep in the heart of global cinema. One gets a sense of generations of films being made in its shadow, by even the most American of directors, all trying to capture the magic that dwells here. But it some ways it’s not just the subject matter – a hero of the British Empire, and the politics of empire-building – but the very style of the thing that makes this so unusual: there are all sorts of reasons why Lawrence of Arabia wouldn’t get made in this form today, but one of the most obvious is that there isn’t a single speaking part for a woman in it, and women generally are a marginal presence throughout the film.

Including the intermission, this restored version of the film clocks in at a hefty four hours in duration, but you notice the length much less while watching it in a theatre. The intermission itself occurs about two-thirds of the way through, and – in addition to helping alleviate some of the stress placed on all-too-mortal flesh – does the film a great service by dividing it into two quite distinct parts. This split obviously isn’t there when you watch it in any other format, and possibly as a result I’ve found this film slightly unsatisfying on previous occasions.

The first two and a bit hours of Lawrence of Arabia comprise one of cinema’s greatest adventures: Lawrence’s first journey into the desert, his initial encounter with ambitious Arab leader Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), his decision to march on Aqaba and the perils of the attack itself. Is there a more overwhelming sequence in all of film than the initial scenes of the desert, miraculous cinematography in perfect harmony with Maurice Jarre’s soaring, passionate score? One has to keep reminding oneself that this was made the hard way – no digitally enhanced crowd scenes or backdrops back in 1962. Simply as a logistical achievement, this film is breathtaking.

There are so many memorable moments – Sharif’s first appearance, Lawrence risking his life to save a man who he later has to execute to save his plan, the first sight of the Suez Canal. And yet it is much funnier than I remembered, too – ‘This club is for  British officers,’ Lawrence is told when he and an Arab companion, fresh from the desert, try to get a drink. ‘That’s all right, we’re not particular,’ Lawrence replies.

This section almost works as a self-contained narrative in its own right, beginning with Lawrence leaving Cairo as a despised fool, only to return in triumph as a hero. It’s much more focussed in terms of story than the second section, but even here the question of Lawrence’s own character is repeatedly raised – does he have a death wish? Does he have spiritual delusions? He does not want servants but worshippers, someone observes.

The second part of the film is darker and much less of a straightforward action movie, dealing with both Lawrence’s burgeoning legend and the realities of war, both personal and political. The narrative is not quite so strong here and knowledge of the period is perhaps more necessary. The contradictions in Lawrence’s character again come to the fore, but the film – perhaps understandably – shies away from any sort of definitive answer, content to let O’Toole’s transcendent performance do the work, and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. Certainly, this is not a hagiography: there is a massacre towards the end of the film which Lawrence is depicted as fully participating in, while his attempt to ensure independence for the Arabs is also shown as a dismal failure. The infighting and squabbling attendant upon this attempt to make the Middle East democratic seem darkly prescient today, almost ringing down the ages to us now.

You can probably take issue with the overall historical accuracy of Lawrence of Arabia, and many people have, but this seems to me to be a film about the myth of the man as much as the reality – about how such myths get started, why we need them, and their effects upon the people they are based on. That it is blessed with a thoughtful, quotable script, magnificent direction and cinematography, superb performances from practically the entire cast, and  – of course – that score almost goes without saying. Lawrence himself remains an enigma at the heart of the film, but then again that is surely the point. They don’t make them like this any more – but then, they hardly ever did.

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