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Roger L. Simon

‘Nothing Is Written’ — Thoughts on the Death of Peter O’Toole

December 15th, 2013 - 8:05 pm

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For people of my generation who went into film as writers, directors or practically anything else, no movie was of deeper import, of greater inspiration, than Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Before that was Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and simultaneously Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962) and then later The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974), but an argument can be made that Lawrence was the greatest of all.

Nothing of recent vintage approaches any of these.  Cinema is in decline for a variety of reasons.  And now Peter O’Toole, the last of the trio with director David Lean and writer Robert Bolt — make that quartet with cinematographer Freddie Young — who made that masterpiece, has died. (A fifth party, Omar Sharif, who played the charismatic Sharif Ali, is still with us.) Yet Lawrence remains as evocative as ever.  Why?

The film has remarkable resonance, since it was based (rather loosely) on the book  by T. E. Lawrence, which had, as its core subject, the West’s relationship with what, until Edward Said wagged his angry finger, was called the Orient.  We are living through the continuing conundrum of that relationship more than ever now and will be, we can assume, for years to come.  So moments in Lawrence could not seem more contemporary, as when Lawrence, via Bolt, Lean and O’Toole, says:

 Sherif Ali! So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people. Greedy, barbarous and cruel, as you are.

Tribe against tribe?  Where have we heard all that before? Back in 1962, who among us knew about Sunni versus Shiite (or the Howitat and the others, for that matter)? In 2013, who among us doesn’t?

Well, a lot of low-information voters, but I’ll wager not too many of them are fans of Lawrence of Arabia or even know what it is. But there is a more important message in Lawrence that resonates across the ages.  It is the leitmotif about “what is written,” what is preordained by God or Allah.  Lawrence, for me, is a movie about free will with a tragic twist. Brave as Lawrence is,  at the end, and foreshadowed in the beginning, he dies by driving too fast on a motorcycle.

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Top Rated Comments   
Can't help feeling that O'Toole would be amused by all these attempts to sum him up. He was a very complex man who could talk, write and drink today's punditry under the table. He also had a genuinely refined sense of humor, which could be why.

So why the low road, why Said? Edward Said is dead and his ideas are in the ashcan. Samuel Huntington is also dead but his work lives on -- yet you choose not to mention him. Also un-named is T.E. Lawrence's timeless and very large Seven Pillars of Wisdom -- despite what you imply, the movie is actually true to its spirit and, often, factual. The book remains an epic inspiration for lotsa reasons, not least because of the majestic rant about Turks and muslims in the middle, and also because O'Toole read it closely and often.

There's room to disagree a little about the movie. The first part, two hours or more, is as timeless and majestic as its subject and interpreter; O'Toole was a giant of an actor who breathed authentic life into Lawrence. The last hour (after the intermission in the original release), not so much. FWIW, I believe The Ruling Class was his finest movie, though it's so closely observed you have to have seen and lived the life a bit.

Many years ago, when working in Britain, I saw O'Toole, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Omar Sharif boozing together, at length, in a pub in Wimbledon in SW London. Reed had a house nearby; he was the wildest of a truly wild and gifted bunch, though O'Toole and the others came close, real close. The rest of the bar went quiet, just to listen, until they closed the bar on the rest of us.

Where, you may wonder, have all the good guys gone?
This is the age of George Clooney and Matt Damon, of Oprah and cardboard-cutout presidents.
What happened?
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
O'Toole vs. Hepburn in "The Lion In Winter!" Sublime! R.I.P.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I believe it was Noel Coward who said," If Peter O'toole was any prettier they would have had to change the title to Florence of Arabia".He was a tremendously underated actor.
Only Burton could have matched his performence in,Lion of Winter.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (56)
All Comments   (56)
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Thank you for writing about Peter O'Toole's passing. I'd seen a notice, but hadn't seen much else. He was always my favorite actor ... such a joy to experience ... so vibrantly and passionately alive, brilliant and zany! He was incomparable -- unique -- a gift to all who saw him. RIP.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Saw O'Toole in a splendid, quiet movie a few years ago called Dean Spanley. His performance broke my heart and made me happy at the same time. All the actors were great and the story lives on "many levels". (See the film to get the joke.)
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've tried to watch it a couple of times but I just couldn't get past his appearance playing an Arab. It was almost comic in fact.

But I do agree with your assessment of the Godfather. I'd have to say Parts I & II were masterpieces. The third was a bomb. Each time I see them I see something which I missed.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Nonsense. The greatest movie is It's a Gift starring W.C. Fields.
Don't believe me? Watch it on YouTube.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
"he dies by driving too fast on a motorcycle."

HEY, how about a little spoiler alert warning, jeesh.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Peter O'Toole was a professional in his acting Lawrence of Arabia is a masterpiece...having read the contemporary book by the American traveling with Lawrence with pictures, the film is realistic (The other film by O'Toole is Goodbye Mr.Chips) after watching Midnight Express - the same deed -like in Hitchcock movies never shown- only hinted at and left to one's imagination. Peter O'Toole was a great actor and he will be forever recognized as Lawrence of Arabia.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I saw on PBS a version of Casanova with O'Toole playing the senior version of the caricature, it was not something I would have normally watched by he made it intriguing. Lord Jim and My favorite Year were incredibly entertaining. An interesting not is T.E. Lawrence basically owes his recognition to Lowell Thomas who found out his story and organized speaking tours and I believe gave him the title Lawrence of Arabia. RIP Mr. O'Toole and Tom Laughlin
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
I have never understood the appeal of Lawrence. It's like watching the 6 o clock news. Arabs kill each other, westerners think they can fix it, fail miserably, learn nothing, lather, rinse, repeat. All TE Lawrence needs to be completely contemporary is to say "Islam is a Religion of Peace." Boring.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
And don't get her started on the Iliad and Odyssey! A bunch of boring, repetitive war stories, followed by a sequel that's one long shaggy-dog travelogue. And the Arthurian cycles? Saxons and Celts kill each other, learn nothing; see a Grail but don't bring it home; both get taken over by the Normans in the long run anyway. She wants a refund, dammit!
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Good grief! Did you happen to notice the rather distinctive setting and sound track? The six o'clock news you watch, must be a lot better produced than ours is.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
This was most disappointing as an obit/memorial.
Rather it is a political screed--Simon is not letting any tragedy go to waste. Kind of like Obama...
O'Toolle deserves better--much better.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
Yes. For example, spelling his name correctly would be a good sign of respect.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
It's a typo, get over it....meeeoooowwww.
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
RIP, Peter O'Toole and attention should be paid. Lawrence of Arabia and much of the rest of his work, like all great art, trumps most of the political or cultural points we might try to make of it/them. "Nothing is written," essentially denies classical conservative thought, which, in turn, contains its own contradictions about time-tested principles vs. what radical new things an individual can accomplish, be he an Obama or a Lawrence. Driving fast is generally risky, and on a motorcyle, even more so. Is that a time-tested truism on which we can agree? ;-)
41 weeks ago
41 weeks ago Link To Comment
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