Sunday, May 5, 2013
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
(December 1962, U.S.)
Steven Speilberg has repeated said that before he begins shooting a new film, he makes it a point to watch David Lean's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, citing it as his favorite film and the one that convinced him to become a filmmaker. Now why would that be? Is it because in the history of cinema, no person ever filmed the vastness and desolation of the desert like David Lean did? Here's a sample...
Is it because the striking visuals, the dramatic music by Maurice Jarre, the highly-literate screenplay and superb performance by Peter O'Toole have all been common points of acclaim and the film as a whole is widely considered one of the greatest films ever made? Is it because its visual style has influenced not only himself, but other directors as George Lucas, Sam Peckinpah, and Martin Scorsese, as well? It's all valed, but one truly hasn't experienced LAWRENCE OF ARABIA until they've had the opportunity to experience it on a great big screeen. That, thank goodness, is what revival movie theaters are for!
Like many biops, the film begins with the death of the protaganist. Beginning in 1935, T.E. Lawrence (O'Toole) is killed in a motorcycle accident. From there we jump back in time to the first World War when Lawrence is simply a misfit British Army lieutenant stationed in Cairo, notable for his worldly knowledge and his insolence. He is chosen to be sent by Mr. Dryden (played by Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal (played by David Lean regular Alec Guinness) in his revolt against the Turks. On his journey, he encounters not only the beauty and perils of the desert, but friends and enemies, as well, including Sherif Ali (played by Omar Sharif) and Auda abu Tayi (played by Anthony Quinn), the leader of the powerful local Howeitat tribe, whom he persuades to turn against the Turks. Lawrence and his team launch a guerrilla war, blowing up trains and harassing the Turks at every turn. An American war correspondent Jackson Bentley (played by Arthur Kennedy) publicises his exploits, making him world famous. He eventually recruits an army, mainly killers, mercenaries, and cutthroats motivated by money, rather than the Arab cause. They encounter retreating Turkish soldiers who have just slaughtered the people of the village of Tafas. One of Lawrence's men from the village demands, "No prisoners!" When Lawrence hesitates, the man charges the Turks alone and is killed. Lawrence takes up the dead man's cry, resulting in a massacre in which Lawrence himself participates with relish, though he inevitably realises the horrible consequences of what he's done. By the end of the film, the great exploits and contributions of T.E. Lawrence are reduced to a useless finish as he exits the screen feeling dejected, somehow making his motorcycle fate rather fitting, in an uneventful manner.
An unknown at the time, it's this great film that made Peter O'Toole shine as an actor and a performer and paved the way for his illustrious film career. As for the absolute historical accuracy of the film and particularly its portrayal of Lawrence himself, it's been called into question by numerous scholars. Most of the film's characters are either real or based on real characters to varying degrees. The events depicted in the film are largely based on accepted historical fact and Lawrence's own writing about events, though they have various degrees of romanticisation for the purpose of Hollywood flamboyance. Lawrence's behaviour, however, has caused much more debate among historians, in particular, his sexual orientation. Although the film does show that Lawrence could speak and read Arabic, could quote the Quran, and was reasonably knowledgeable about the region, it barely mentions his archaeological travels from 1911 to 1914 in Syria and Arabia, and ignores his espionage work, including a pre-war topographical survey of the Sinai Peninsula and his attempts to negotiate the release of British prisoners at Kut in Mesopotamia in 1916. But when you truly consider just how much of a man's real life can be contained in a film of just over three hours, you learn to accept the material you're given and truly take in a motion picture for it's greater achievement.
Would you believe the first time I ever got even a remote taste of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA was in the James Bond film THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977)? The main musical title of the film was used in the scene where Roger Moore and Barbara Bach's characters have to wander through the desert after their van breaks down. This was done as a joke by one of the editors who liked to play music from the film during the daily rushes. By the time I got around to seeing the actual epic (on video) for the first time, I could still remember that little Bond homage. It was about ten or so years ago that I had the opportunity to see the film on the big screen for a one night revival. My wife went with me, and although she appreciated the film, its length was going well past midnight and she was becoming quite impatient about getting enough sleep that night. Oh, the price one must pay for the education and experience of quality cinema!
Favorite line or dialogue:
T.E. Lawrence: "I killed two people. One was...yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was...well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn't like."
General Allenby: "That's to be expected."
Lawrence: "No, something else."
Allenby: "Well, then let it be a lesson."
Lawrence: "No...something else."
Allenby: "What then?"
Lawrence: "I enjoyed it."