Friday, August 9, 2013

Classic Movie Review From My Collection: Lawrence of Arabia

When I look at a movie like Lawrence of Arabia I see a lot of similarities between it and any number of big studio films made in the modern era. It’s epic in scope and in length. It’s filled with awe inspiring visual and big action sequences. It is historically based, but not particularly deep, insistent on keeping viewers on a short leash so as not to turn anyone off. Perhaps some of that last observation would not have been true for audiences fifty years ago. Maybe the ways in which Lawrence of Arabia is presented as a difficult and not entirely honorable character were especially complex in 1962. At the time his possible homosexuality and masochism could only be subtly alluded to.

But even with such similarities to the way movies are made today I’m truly struck by the differences. How far Hollywood has fallen! Consider that Lawrence of Arabia is a historical film, yes, but about a man virtually unknown at least to American audiences. It may have been a British production with a British director and mostly British cast, but Columbia Pictures was American and producer Sam Spiegel made pictures with American audiences in mind. A movie this big would have to play well on both sides of the ocean. Also it wasn’t uncommon at the time for big films to be written by real writers. Robert Bolt was an accomplished playwright by the time he penned Lawrence. So the dialogue is meaningful, it builds character and helps drive the plot rather than serve as a series of truncated sound bites designed to explain or comment on the action taking place on screen. Remember when movie characters knew how to speak literately? Here’s the proof.

And oh how I long for the days before CGI when filmmakers had to use sets, locations, and practical effects to achieve their vision on screen. Take for example not only the famous attack on Aqaba sequence that used a massive reconstruction of the city and hundreds of extras on actual horse and camelback in a sweeping wide shot that shows the extent of the battle, but also something as seemingly insignificant as Auda releasing dozens of horses from train cargo holds which becomes extraordinary with the use of live animals as opposed to a designer’s rendition of what a horse looks like as it leaps to the ground and runs free. Watch the scene closely to notice one horse tumbling onto its back, a detail that one would never think to include in a computer simulation, but which adds unique individuality to the film.

Lawrence of Arabia is cut from the mold of “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” This is because it’s from a time when cinema was still finding its footing. Widescreen formats were still very new and used almost exclusively for epic films made on location providing audiences something they couldn’t get at home on TV. It was a way to show off the amazing vistas. And the images here are truly spectacular. The desert looks amazing first as Lawrence travels with a guide to meet Prince Faisal and later as he and his army cross the impossible to traverse Nefud. Director David Lean reportedly used John Ford’s The Searchers as a template for filming vast expanses of open space. He uses the wide screen 70mm format to illustrate the insignificance of one man in the enormous expanse of the desert. One of the greatest shots in the film, and one of the most famous in film history, is that of Lawrence appearing on the horizon as a tiny black speck and gradually growing larger as he approaches the camera. The only way to truly see this film is on the big screen. I had the great pleasure to do just that several years ago for the centennial celebration of Lean’s birth at the Seville European Film Festival (unfortunately the reels weren’t spliced together so there were breaks about every 12 minutes for reel changes – you have no idea how frustrating that gets through a nearly 4 hour movie).

Movies at the time – the epics at least – were constantly trying to recreate the feeling of going to the theater rather than being content to be their own medium with their own conventions. So Lawrence opens with a prologue highlighting the major themes of Maurice Jarre’s beautiful score – a score that is now synonymous with the desert. Then the film is broken into two parts with an intermission and a musical entr’acte before the second half begins. There’s something truly special about a cinematic experience like that. The only modern version I can think of is Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet from 1996, which had an intermission.

It was a remarkable stroke of luck for Peter O’Toole to land this part. It was essentially his first film role with the exception of a few bit parts. He was virtually unknown and untested, but his physical resemblance to the real T.E. Lawrence is unbelievable and his name became forever synonymous with this film and this role, defining him for a career. He has those unbelievable bright blue eyes that pierce you through the screen. He makes the role much more physical than another actor might have by expressing Lawrence’s gentleness and slight femininity through delicate gestures and a light gait. It’s a physicality belied by the turn the character takes in the second half when he learns a thirst for bloodlust and leads the charge in a savage massacre of Turkish troops midway through the second half.

As for the rest of the cast, it’s easy today to look at it and scoff at the severe lack of Arab actors portraying Arab characters. Omar Sharif, as Lawrence’s closest friend and confidante in the campaign Sherif Ali, is just about the only one. Unfortunately, fifty years ago professional Arab actors were probably hard to come by. And so the other key roles are filled by Alec Guinness as the elder statesman Prince Faisal and the Mexican Anthony Quinn as Auda, the leader of the Howeitat tribe, a man whose thirst for reaches is masked by a veneer of fighting for honor and adventure. Puerto Rico-born Jose Ferrer played the brief but key role of the Turkish Bey who metes out Lawrence’s punishment when he is captured.

Lean used location almost as a character itself. The gorgeous wide shots depicting the desert landscapes, beautifully photographed by Freddie Young, are not ends in themselves. They suggest a sense of losing oneself in the desert, which is exactly what happens to Lawrence as he changes from a man of honor interested only in uniting the tribes of Arabia for the purposes of self-governance to a man only sated through the act of killing. Seeing the film on an HD TV is the only suitable substitute for the big screen experience. It’s still not quite as thrillingly fulfilling, but given Blu-Ray as the only option in most cases, it suffices. 

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