Big Things Have Small Beginnings

Lawrence of Arabia may be the most influential epic in Hollywood history. Considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made. When I decided to watch every Best Picture winner, I knew Lawrence of Arabia would be the most daunting. I already watched Gone with the Wind when I was younger, but I took my time with Lawrence of Arabia. Even though it was one of the last critically acclaimed classics I still hadn’t seen. My parents would often bring up how long the movie is. At around 3 hours & 42 minutes, Lawrence of Arabia is the longest Best Picture winner of all time.

Though Gone with the Wind is just about equal in runtime, I knew I was more guaranteed to be invested in the story. For years I thought Lawrence of Arabia would be boring, but I was fully invested from beginning to end. Lawrence of Arabia was a major influence for some of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood. It’s iconic desert setting was the basis for many action, adventure, fantasy, and/or science fiction stories. Much like his previous epic The Bridge on the River Kwai, British director David Lean took a lesser known historical conflict and gave it a massive scale…

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence readies Ali, Auda, and his Arab army for battle

Lawrence of Arabia is based on the life of T. E. Lawrence. A British Army officer known for joining the Arab Revolt during World War I. Most of the movie is based on his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Except for his death in a motorcycle accident shown at the very beginning of the film. Which goes to show that even a man who takes part in a devastating conflict can die an ordinary death. Lawrence of Arabia has often been called a masterpiece, but I know Lawrence’s life story isn’t entirely accurate. Regardless of how they portray him, Lawrence of Arabia is meant to be a larger than life epic that emphasizes its production value.

Lawrence of Arabia is shot in crisp technicolor with Super Panavision 70 cinematography and a powerful score composed by Maurice Jarre. It’s the music you think of when exploring the desert by camel. Speaking of desert, a big reason for the massive runtime are several lingering shots of sand that are beautiful especially when the sun starts to set. Lawrence of Arabia also includes an overture, intermission, and exit music. The first half recounts Lawrence’s life before his untimely death. I was already familiar with his early days in Cairo since the movie Prometheus features the famous lines: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts” and “Big things have small beginnings.”

The cast is not so surprisingly boys only without a single speaking part for women. Since there’s no romance, some people think there’s overt gay subtext, but I don’t really see it that way. The all-male cast is brilliant no matter how much screen time they’re given. Screen legend Peter O’Toole got his big break playing T. E. Lawrence. His blonde hair and piercing blue eyes contrast his mostly Arab comrades. Lawrence thinks his Arabian assignment to find Prince Faisal will be fun, but he soon finds himself drawn into their war against the Turks. O’Toole is great at portraying Lawrence’s heroism, aversion to violence, and conflicting ideologies. The movie leans into Islamic territory, but there are Christian themes as well.

After winning an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Sir Alec Guinness played the Arabian prince as convincingly as he could. He doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but he makes an impact whenever he does appear. Faisal’s viewpoints directly contrast with Lawrence’s British superior General Allenby played by Jack Hawkins. Anthony Quayle assists Lawrence later in the film as Colonel Harry Brighton, and an aging Claude Rains represents the more political side of the conflict as Mr. Dryden. Lawrence’s most complex relationship is with Arab leader Sherif Ali. Omar Sharif made a major impression as one of the only Egyptians in the main cast. Ali’s entrance is iconic as he very slowly approaches Lawrence and his guide at a well. The scene is excellent at building tension.

Lawrence and Ali have many ups and downs, but they remain loyal to one another. They first earn each other’s respect when Lawrence risks his life to save a fallen comrade. Lawrence also gains two young Arab servants who follow them on their journey. Hispanic actor Anthony Quinn also convincingly plays Auda Abu Tayi, leader of a rival Arab tribe who’s mostly in it for money. When they eventually seize Aqaba, Lawrence seeks weapons and assistance from the British. Unaware that they plan to take over the country when the war ends. Lawrence slowly acclimates to the Arabian lifestyle by wearing the traditional robes and headdress, but it’s in the second half that he truly shifts allegiances. Arthur Kennedy plays an American journalist tasked with turning Lawrence into a hero of the war. He photographs an epic train attack against the Turks that ends badly for some of Lawrence’s men.

Lawrence and Ali get to know their enemy better when they find the Turkish Bey played by José Ferrer in a small but memorable role. As the revolt continues, Lawrence becomes more and more disillusioned. He finally ends up on a road to Damascus where he leads a massive Arab army. Lawrence goes too far in an iconic scene where he cries out for “No prisoners!” and proceeds to slaughter most of the fleeing Turks. It’s an impressive battle that gets surprisingly bloody. They form an Arab council in Damascus, but it doesn’t last. The movie finally ends with Lawrence returning home and seeing a motorcycle that foreshadows his eventual fate. Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Actor for O’Toole, Supporting Actor for Sharif, and Adapted Screenplay. Winning 7 Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Music Score, and Sound. Lawrence of Arabia left an impact on cinema.

Lawrence of Arabia 2

Ali slowly approaches Lawrence and his guide

Crimes Against Humanity

Judgment at Nuremberg is a riveting courtroom drama. Even at 3 hours long, I was invested in every word of the historic trial. The film centers around the 1948 Military Tribunal for German judges affiliated with Nazi crimes against humanity. Stanley Kramer is the right director for the job. Judgment at Nuremberg was nominated for Best Picture and Director, but it was Abby Mann who won for Best Adapted Screenplay. Similar to Marty, Judgment at Nuremberg is an extended adaptation of a Playhouse 90 episode. Some actors reprise their roles, but the movie also gained an all-star cast. Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, and a pre-Star Trek William Shatner all have a role.

Shatner plays a different kind of captain with a small role in the trial. An older Tracy leads the court as Chief Judge Dan Haywood. In between court sessions, Haywood explores Nuremberg trying to understand how the war affected its citizens. He develops a short-lived romance with the German Frau Bertholt played by Dietrich. Richard Widmark strongly opposes the ex-Nazi defendants as an American prosecutor, but it’s Maximilian Schell who stands out as German defense counsel Hans Rolfe. His conflicted attitude towards his country and the crimes committed won him the Oscar for Best Actor. Lancaster is just as passionate as the mostly silent defendant Ernst Janning who finally speaks up near the end.

Garland gives what may be her final great performance as German woman Irene Hoffmann who breaks down at the witness stand. Clift similarly breaks down playing another German victim named Rudolph Peterson. Judgment at Nuremberg touches on several heavy themes. We hear about sexual sterilization, the fallout of a Jewish-Gentile relationship, Nazi torture methods, and of course Concentration Camps. Although released in 1961, the movie doesn’t shy away from actual Holocaust footage. While not an easy watch both for its subject matter and the fact that it’s almost impossible to find, Judgment at Nuremberg benefits from showing both sides of a difficult discussion.

Judgment at Nuremberg

Hans Rolfe pleads his case

I’m Spartacus!

Spartacus is an inspirational historical epic. One year after Ben-Hur, Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas sought a similar project to make up for losing the title role. Spartacus is also a hero who stood against the Roman Empire, but the Howard Fast novel and Stanley Kubrick film both take place Before Christ. Although he was relatively unknown at the time, Kubrick was given a massive budget on par with Ben-Hur. Even though Kubrick didn’t have full creative control, his meticulous style made the movie what it is. More violent and/or sexual scenes had to be restored years late.

Spartacus is also responsible for ending the controversial Hollywood blacklist. Since Douglas openly supported blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. Many of the movie’s themes can be interpreted that way. Spartacus is another 3 hour epic that held my attention from beginning to end. Spartacus is a rebellious slave trained as a gladiator before inciting an uprising that made him the leader of a gladiatorial army. Douglas barely says a word, but his intense dedication speaks for itself. Spartacus falls in love with a fellow slave named Varnina played by the lovely Jean Simmons. Varnina’s struggles are just as intense as her husband. Tony Curtis plays a young slave who forms a bond with the hero.

Laurence Olivier is just as commanding as Spartacus’ sworn Roman enemy Crassus. The Roman Senate tries to stop Spartacus, but only Crassus takes it personally. Charles Laughton plays one of the more reasonable members of the Senate, while John Gavin plays the more well known Julius Caesar. Out of all these respected actors, only Peter Ustinov managed to win Best Supporting Actor as a bumbling slave trader. Spartacus wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but it did win Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Costume Design. Of course Spartacus is more remembered for the pivotal line “I’m Spartacus!” where his men refuse to give him up. It’s a powerful moment that doesn’t ensure a happy ending, but Spartacus will continue to live on.

Spartacus

Spartacus leads his army

Glory for Me

The Best Years of Our Lives is as relevant today as it was in 1946. After Mrs. Miniver, director William Wyler focused on a different side of the war. When World War II ended, a big question was how its veterans would adjust to civilian life? The Best Years of Our Lives is a near masterpiece that just about swept the Academy Awards. Its 7 wins include Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score. The source material Glory for Me is only a novella since the war ended a few short months ago. The movie on the other hand, is nearly 3 hours long, but I barely noticed since the story is so captivating. 

The Best Years of Our Lives centers around three distinctly different WWII veterans of varying branches, ranks, and backgrounds all struggling to re-adjust. Dealing with PTSD in a frank and honest manner. Fredric March won his second Oscar as Army Sergeant Al Stephenson. Al has a traditional all-American family to go home to. Myrna Loy plays his loving wife Milly, Oscar winner Teresa Wright plays his responsible older daughter Peggy, and he also as a teenage son named Rob who’s barely around. Al gets blind drunk at first, but he soon finds comfort in helping fellow veterans at the bank. Dana Andrews wasn’t nominated for his portrayal of Air Force Captain Fred Derry. Even though Fred is in the sadly relatable situation of returning to a wife who no longer loves him and the same crappy drug store soda jerk job he had when he left. Virginia Mayo is the perfect wrench playing Fred’s wife Marie who uses him for his money and uniform.

Producers worked closely with real life veterans, but nothing could top casting real life WWII veteran Harold Russell as Navy Officer Homer Parrish. Russell actually lost his hands in the war, so Homer’s hook hands were very real. So is his raw performance that made him the first non-professional actor to win an Oscar. He also received an Honorary Oscar as a thank you for his service. Homer’s greatest struggle is trying to feel normal upon returning to his parents, sister, and the girl next door. Homer’s girlfriend is played by the equally inexperienced Cathy O’Donnell. Al, Fred, and Homer become fast friends, but their stories only converge when they reunite at Homer’s Uncle Butch’s bar. Homer makes an impression, but he isn’t given the same amount of attention as Al or Fred. They’re together more often since Fred falls in love with Al’s daughter Peggy. It’s a sweet romance that brings hope to Fred’s difficult re-adjustment. The Best Years of Our Lives gives veterans the respect they deserve.

The Best Years of Our Lives

Al, Fred, and Homer reunite with their families

A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody

The Great Ziegfeld is a lavish production filled with glitz and glamour. Such was the taste of the man the movie is based around. The Great Ziegfeld is the first biopic to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It tells the life story of the great Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Even if you don’t know the name, chances are you’ve seen the impact of his extravagant shows. The Great Ziegfeld is so larger than life that it took 3 hours to tell. Making it the longest Hollywood sound picture made at the time. Although Ziegfeld passed away in 1932, his widow Billie Burke sold the rights to make a film almost immediately.

A lot of money went into the massive sets and flashy costumes. Making fellow musical The Broadway Melody look almost pedestrian by comparison. I fully understand why The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture, but a lot of its strengths become weaknesses overtime. We see Ziegfeld’s life as a struggling producer scouting for talent wherever he can find it. A great deal of it is exaggerated and not entirely historically accurate. Ziegfeld first promotes a strongman named Sandow, he later meets Polish performer Anna Held, he gets the idea for Ziegfeld Follies, and produces multiple Broadway shows. All while competing with his friendly producer rival Jack Billings.

William Powell captures Ziegfeld’s determination and passionate love of women. Including his desire to give them expensive jewels and show them off in his Follies. Luise Rainer deserves her Best Actress win for playing his first wife Anna Held. Although Burke was a working actress at the time, her role went to Myrna Loy instead. Ray Bolger does play himself during an extended tap dance. The Great Ziegfeld may be excessive, but that’s the star attraction (and the main reason why it’s so long). The “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” sequence is the best that classic Hollywood has to offer. Earning a now outdated Oscar for Best Dance Direction. There are so many performers and the “Wedding Cake” set is simply astounding. The Great Ziegfeld is showy in the best way.

The Great Ziegfeld

The Wedding Cake

Time Marches On

Cavalcade is another decade spanning epic worthy of winning Best Picture. Cimarron seemed to set the precedence for movies like this. Cavalcade was the last film to win the Academy Award when 2 release years were eligible. After awhile it made more sense to stick to 1 year. As the second to last pre-Code winner, Cavalcade might have inspired stricter Hollywood guidelines. The film has some scandal, but it was mostly light swearing like “damn” and “hell.” Cavalcade is based on a play that covers three decades of a British families life until it reaches modern day. Starting with the turn of the century in 1900.

A cavalcade of soldiers march in the background as a metaphor for time marching on. A big reason why the movie also won Best Art Direction and Best Director for Frank Lloyd. Important historic events include the Second Boer War in South Africa, the death of Queen Victoria, the tragic sinking of the Titanic, and the devastation of World War I. Of course these events mostly play out in the background and only affect the main characters to increase drama. Cavalcade is more slice of life from the perspective of the wealthy Marryot family and their less fortunate servants the Bridges.

Jane and Robert are well off, but they aren’t snobs. They love their sons Edward and Joey and respect those who work for them. Their equally wealthy friend Margaret Harris and her daughter Edith are also important to their story. Ellen and Alfred have their own problems, but their daughter Fanny ends up doing pretty well for herself. It’s sentimental, but tragedy comes when you least expect it. Diana Wynyard earned a Best Actress nomination since Jane goes through a lot as a wife and mother. Cavalcade is full of hardship, but it makes sure to highlight hopeful moments at the same time.

Cavalcade

Jane and Robert celebrate New Years

Terrific as All Creation

Cimarron is the first western to win Best Picture. Surprisingly, it was the only western to win until Dances with Wolves won nearly 6 decades later. Westerns are such a big part of early Hollywood that I guess I figured there were more. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, Cimarron is based on a 1929 novel and is epic in scope. RKO risked the success of a big budget western in the midst of the Great Depression and it mostly paid off. Cimarron was nominated for every eligible Oscar including Best Director, Actor, Actress, and Cinematography.

I understand why it won Best Picture, Writing, and Art Direction, but it’s another product of its time. One of the young black servants is a definite stereotype and the Indians aren’t treated much better. The opening Oklahoma land rush is the most ambitious and impressive scene in the movie. Cimarron is all about the settlers who came to the unoccupied territory to purchase land. Don’t let the poster fool you, Yancey Cravat may be quick on the draw, but he’s no rugged cowboy action hero. He wears many white hats that include being a lawyer, newspaper editor, and even preacher.

Yancey drags his wife Sabra to Osage, but she’s the one who ends up carrying the movie in the end. Richard Dix was nominated too, but it’s Irene Dunne who goes from timid housewife to powerful business woman when her husband abandons her twice. Cimarron spans 40 years in Osage, Oklahoma. A lot of the movie reminded me of Giant, since the attention shifts to oil and an interracial marriage with an Indian woman. Just as much attention is given to the Carvat’s children and an unliked town prostitute. Objectively speaking, Cimarron captures early western creation rather well.

Cimarron

Yancey and Sabra in Osage

From the Playground to the Battleground

All Quiet on the Western Front is a timeless anti-war message. It was the first sound war film to win Best Picture after the silent Wings. All Quiet on the Western Front is also the first (but far from the last) Best Picture winner based on a novel. The 1929 book of the same name was almost immediately followed by the Hollywood adaptation. I read the book in school and watched the movie, but I completely forgot that it was from the perspective of German soldiers. It’s hard to tell considering the American accents. Bare in mind this was World War I. The book and movie’s anti-war themes got it banned and/or burned a decade after Nazis rose to power.

All Quiet on the Western Front is all about the loss of innocence affected by the war. A school professor convinces a class full of impressionable youths to join the Army with what can only be called propaganda. It’s all fun and games at first, but reality hits them as soon as the first bombs start to fall. As a pre-Code 1930 movie, All Quiet on the Western Front doesn’t hold back on depicting the very real tragedy of war. Thanks to the direction of Lewis Milestone who won the Oscar for Best Director. Young soldiers are blinded, blown up, shot, and amputated on.

They’re forced to fight in dangerous trenches while dealing with giant rats and mustard gas. The only fleeting moments of levity are the soldiers getting back at their drill instructor, getting double food rations, and seducing French dames. As the 2nd Company starts to die out, Paul is one of the few who survives. He really starts to question the war when he fatally wounds an enemy soldier who’s no different than him. Things come full circle when Paul returns home, only to realize the front was all he had left to live for. There is a follow up book and movie called The Road Back, but it’s not as well known or acclaimed. All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the best war movies ever put to film.

All Quiet on the Western Front

The 2nd Company in the trenches

My Lord and Savior

King of Kings is an epic worthy of praise. Happy Easter everyone! After The Ten Commandments, MGM searched for their next Biblical epic. The story of Jesus Christ will forever be the greatest story ever told. And I’m not just saying that as a Christian. There have been so many portrayals of Jesus, but they weren’t as common in major Hollywood productions. Save for a few silent films, Jesus was mostly kept off camera à la Ben-Hur. King of Kings put Jesus front and center with future Star Trek actor Jeffrey Hunter in the role. My parents often referred to him as the “pretty” Jesus, because of his piercing blue eyes and long flowing hair.

Nevertheless, Hunter is strongly dedicated to playing the messiah in the most respectful way possible. King of Kings begins with the end of the Old Testament, but mostly covers the first four books of the Holy Bible. We witness the birth of Christ, Jesus preaching the Gospel, performing miracles, the Sermon on the Mount, gathering his disciples, the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension to Heaven. Although King of Kings is nearly 3 hours long, it helps that I know the story by heart. Even the script is an almost word for word translation of the King James Bible. I was mostly curious to see an older interpretation of Biblical events. All told with a glorious large scale and a prominent cast that I wasn’t too familiar with.

With the exception of Orson Welles as the narrator or a young Rip Torn as Judas. Jesus is the main character, but all other important figures are given just as much attention. Including Mary, Joseph, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, Peter, and Barabbas. As well as Romans like King Herod, Pontius Pilate, Lucius of Cyrene, and Salome. I knew even a tame version of the crucifixion would make me emotional, but I didn’t officially weep until Jesus forgave the thief on the cross. Mary Magdalene finding my risen savior made me cry as well. King of Kings was a blessing to watch.

King of Kings

Jesus faces judgement

The Voyage of Jack Aubrey

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is an underrated return to seafaring epics. I mostly knew about it, because my mom was such a big fan of Russell Crowe in the 2000’s. My parents actually saw Master and Commander in theaters while my brother and I were in school. It’s a strong follow up to A Beautiful Mind that also happens to co-star Paul Bettany. Master and Commander was a modest success, but Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl overshadowed it as a more fantasy based sailing adventure. Although based on a series of novels by the late Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander failed to start a franchise.

It was however nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, but The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King overshadowed it by winning nearly every category it was nominated in. Billy Boyd ironically appears in both films. Best Cinematography and Best Sound Editing were the only Oscar wins it could secure. They’re rightful wins since Master and Commander is very cinematic with a realistically immersive ship right out of the 1800’s. The HMS Surprise was a real boat, but Captain Jack Aubrey is entirely fictional. Crowe is a tough, but dignified British master and commander tasked with hunting down the French Acheron during the Napoleonic Wars.

Bettany plays Stephen, the ship’s surgeon and friend to Jack with a Charles Darwin-like desire to explore the Galápagos Islands. Both Crowe and Bettany learned to play classical instruments for their parts. The Naval crew is just as authentic with many children, teenagers, and seniors in command. There is music and merriment, but Captain Aubrey grows obsessed with capturing his prey. Violent storms and the threat of mutiny aren’t enough to stop him. The enemy is mostly kept in the shadows until the very end. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World brought much needed realism to a once thriving genre.

Master and Commander The Far Side of the World

Jack Aubrey sets sail