What Were We Thinking? 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Lists are great. They help you remember your groceries, keep your priorities straight, and organize your tasks. But as evinced by a 1963 Crimson review of “Lawrence of Arabia” by Anthony Hiss ’63, a list might not be the best way to lambast one of the most critically acclaimed films of the last century. Hiss relentlessly blasts the 1962 masterpiece— which was digitally restored and re-released in theaters Thursday to mark its 50th anniversary—but his condemnation is not quite convincing, mostly because he just unwinds a list of things he does not like about the film rather than arguing a single point.

First of all, a little dose of straightforward diction never hurt anyone. Maybe this is just how they talked in the ’60s, but Hiss drops words like “pentateuchal” and “gallimaufry” without batting an eyelash, and the phrase “unvarying facade of quivering neurasthenia-cum-whimsy” is almost breathtaking in its impenetrability.

Hiss’ neatly ordered, six-item list would not necessarily be an issue—there is no reason a numbered list cannot evaluate the excellence of a work of art. But here, neither does Hiss present a broad case against the film outside its being dull and long, nor do the individual critiques themselves stand up to much scrutiny.

For instance, in item two, Hiss attempts to criticize Lawrence’s characterization but supports his argument with evidence that contradicts his claim. He writes, “[Lawrence] begins as a simple pacifist pan-Arab fanatic, and through a hilarious concatenation of Grade B events (he is forced to shoot two intimate friends and watch a third sink smoothly into quicksand)”—wait. Isn’t that scene pretty tragic? At least, isn’t it a bit cynical to describe the deaths of Lawrence’s friends as “a hilarious concatenation of Grade B events”?

And his final point as to why the movie is bad is simply, “David Lean, who will win an Oscar for this movie, was its director.” Never mind that British director Lean had already shot a small film called “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and would go on to direct “Doctor Zhivago.” If you’re going to bash “Lawrence,” it seems counterproductive to mention that it will definitely win an Oscar.

—Staff writer Matthew J. Watson can be reached at matthewwatson@college.harvard.edu.

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