An Immortal Legacy

T. E. Lawrence is one of the more famous alumni of Oxford University. A large portrait of him looks out upon the dining hall at Jesus College where he was an undergraduate. That portrait bears an uncanny resemblance to Peter O’Toole, the actor who portrayed Lawrence in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. O’Toole, who died several days ago, was considerably taller than Lawrence, but their facial features were similar. So were their personas.

Lawrence was O’Toole’s first major role in film acting, but he made the title character his own and went on to be a popularly, and often critically, acclaimed movie star. Nominated for best actor eight times, he never won an Oscar. Perhaps the competition was too steep during the years he was nominated for, the roles he played were not in vogue, or the voting members of the Academy didn’t particularly like him for one reason or another. It hardly matters. O’Toole is a film legend anyway.

O’Toole played leading roles, particularly of when portraying historical figures, with astounding force and depth. Unlike many actors, he actually made his characters. There are also many that critics panned some of his work, though I can’t opine on those that I have not seen. The three most memorable to me were Lawrence of course, the four-part made-for-television Masada, and The Lion in Winter.

The now fifty-year-old Lawrence movie chronicled the role of the Oxford educated archaeologist and British Army officer in the Middle East front of World War I. Within the past few years it has been re-released in a enhanced director’s cut on DVD, and is worth seeing more than once. There’s little question that it was one of the finest epic films ever made. At four hours, it certainly was one of the longest.

Two of O’Toole’s most memorable lines were from that film, lines that define the meaning of courage and determination. Early in the plot, Lawrence snuffs out a match with his bare fingers without flinching. Another officer tries to do the same thing and painfully asks what is the trick. Lawrence replies “Of course it hurts, the trick is not minding that it hurts.” Later, when an Arab falls off his camel in the middle of a fiercely hot section of desert, Lawrence determines to go back to rescue the man. Prince Faisal tries to dissuade him saying “Gasim’s time has come, Lawrence. It is written.” To which Lawrence replies: “Nothing is written.” When he returns with Gasim, he, even more sonorously repeats those words.

Masada is a fictional account of the remnants of the Jewish nation’s last stand against the Romans before the Diaspora. Challenged by the leader of the Jews Eleazar ben Yair to try and find and kill the rest of then. O’Toole’s character General Cornelius Flavius Silva replies: “You invite me to try? Your country is one long and narrow graveyard already; your cities are flatter than your deserts, your temple has been destroyed and most of the survivors are slaves, all for seven years of our ‘trying’. Give us our due, man, we know how to kill.” Yes, Silva’s legions knew how to kill, but after conquering the fortress at Masada and finding the defenders have all committed suicide, Silva realizes what he really accomplished. “A victory? What have we won? We’ve won a rock in the middle of a wasteland, on the shores of a poisoned sea.”

My favorite film of all time, The Lion and Winter, featured O’Toole as the leader of a synergistic cast including Katherine Hepburn, Timothy Dalton, and Anthony Hopkins in his debut. It was the second time he played King Henry II (the first was opposite Richard Burton in Becket). The real King Henry was a significant historical figure, and without a doubt one of the most effective leaders England/Britain ever had. His wife, Eleanore of Aquitaine, was every bit his equal. And his mother Matilda was named as King Henry I’s heir to the throne, spent 18 years fighting a civil war in an attempt to claim it after the barons refused to accept her, and finally won it for her son. The Lion’s plot centers around a Christmas gathering at Chinon in France in the year 1183 where Henry II and Eleanore argued bitterly over which of their sons was to be named heir apparent. “The sky is pocked with stars. What eyes the wise men must have had to see a new one in so many,” Henry marvels on the Eve of the Nativity. Other memorable quotes are too numerous to recount, but Henry’s last words in the movie were particularly stirring, especially now for O’Toole. As Eleanore is leaving Chinon on her barge, Henry calls after her “I hope we never die. Do you think there’s any chance of it?”

No one else could have delivered those lines, and all the others quoted her, with the impact he did. I think there’s a good chance that Peter O’Toole’s legacy will never die.

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