by Elizabeth Esten & Haley GoetzLawrence of Arabia (Lean, 1962)
David Lean crafts one of the most compelling cinematic epics of all time in Lawrence of Arabia. From sprawling Arabian vistas to the homey confines of Dorset, every shot in the film is highly deliberate. In the role of Thomas Edward Lawrence, Peter O’Toole provides us with a multifaceted view of a well-respected British colonel who rose to prominence during the first World War. Topping this off is Anne Coates’s superb editing, which delivers one of the most famous cuts in all of cinematic history. A shot of Lawrence blowing out a match becomes an establishing shot of dusky Middle Eastern sands. What makes this cut so important is the fact that it turns an act as insignificant as blowing out a match into something far more grand than one could previously fathom. This basically describes the film itself, in a way. What makes Lawrence of Arabia stand out as such a cinematic epic is the overall scope of it.
The storyline covers a lot of ground and by unfurling it in a linear manner, screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson allow the grandiose qualities of the film to shine. Spanning nearly three and a half hours in length, Lawrence of Arabia follows the character of T.E. Lawrence for several years of his life. This is useful in a practical sense, for it lets the viewer understand the man as both a leader and a human being. The only film that really compares to Lawrence of Arabia is Gandhi, which also languidly yet beautifully depicts the lifetime of a very different type of historical figure.
Overall, Lawrence of Arabia remains a very important film. It shows the true power of cinema and sets a benchmark for how to tell long-winded stories. Classifying Lawrence of Arabia as a cinematic epic is an understatement. Lawrence of Arabia is THE cinematic epic.
John Carter (Stanton, 2012)
Since the opening of Star Wars in ’77, the modern American blockbuster has only gotten bigger. John Carter has the ambition to be the next great blockbuster, but it fails in almost every way.
Directed by Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, John Carter tells the story of the titular Carter (Taylor Kitsch), a Virginia-born general in the Confederate Army. After renouncing war as too violent, Carter comes across a medallion in a cave that transports him to the planet Mars. He then ends up helping a resistance group in a war against the villainous Martians, led by the cruel Sab Than (Dominic West).
While Arabia is a brilliant portrayal of a larger-than-life person, John Carter struggles to even get close. Despite the film not working as a whole, it’s clear that the filmmakers are trying to make a solid product. You can really see the effort in the production design, costumes and even certain elements of the universe itself. The script also has potential but fails due to bland performances (especially Kitsch’s). Kitsch has shown that he has the ability to be charismatic in the past (e.g. Friday Night Lights and even X-Men Origins: Wolverine) but his performance here has very little personality to it. He’s trying, but the writing and direction gives him very little to work with. This type of problem is one that permeates the entire film.
On the surface, these two films seem to be very different, but they’re similar in many ways. For one, Carter is desperately attempting to realize a grand, sweeping action-adventure story that future generations will remember for years to come. However, it suffers because of its pacing, dull action and lack of any plot coherence. It wants to be the catalyst for Disney’s next money-making franchise as well as a great film in its own right. From the majestic score to its action set pieces, at no point does the film feel like just another cash in, but the palpable effort ultimately produces a middling space action movie. It’s closest point of comparison for me is Pirates of the Caribbean, with its otherworldly setting and concentration on action rather than character development. While the Pirates movies work in their own way largely thanks to their vibrant characters, score and aesthetic, Carter feels too overworked, fake and contrived to pull it off.
Overall, this is the most disappointing Disney production I’ve sat through. It has all the pieces to be a fantastic adventure for the whole family, but somehow doesn’t follow through. The end product is more reminiscent of a Syfy channel original movie with bigger talent and better-looking CGI. John Carter will never be THE next cinematic epic, but I respect that it wants to be and that it tries. To quote everyone’s discontented mother, “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed.”
Creating a great epic adventure film can be an arduous task, but it’s rewarding in the end to know that all the work you’ve done has resulted in an experience that audiences cherish for generations. It is especially important to remember that it’s not the individual elements of the feature, but the combined talents of everyone involved that makes a film capable of sticking with the viewer long after the first watch. Lawrence of Arabia is one of the medium’s greatest epics, strengthened by outstanding performances and some of cinema’s most unforgettable moments. On the other hand, John Carter fails to be as memorable as it could have been and leaves your brain as soon as the credits role.