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Lawrence of Arabia Review

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Despite the huge canvas and the multitude of players, this is unequivocally the tale and legacy of Lawrence.

by Chris McEneany Sep 21, 2012

  • Movies review


    Lawrence of Arabia Review

    “Lawrence, only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert: Bedouins and gods, and you're neither. Take it from me. For ordinary men, it's a burning fiery furnace.”

    “No, Dryden … it’s going to be fun.”

    David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the sort of film that absolutely devours every superlative in the book and then challenges you to think up new ones for it to chew on spit back out. As a historical biography of one of war-time’s most ephemeral, inspirational and controversial figures, it is both highly stylised in character and scope, and clinically psychological, at once sumptuously epic, visually splendid and recreated against one of the most immense and chaotic of backdrops, but also strongly intimate and intelligently structured …and yet also curiously meandering in its painstaking longeurs. And it is in these perplexing contradictions that the 1962 cineaste’s dream truly excels.

    With The Bridge On The River Kwai already bagging Oscar glory by the bucketload, and the likes of Hobson’s Choice, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit all courting popular and critical acclaim (and a few more gongs to boot), the eminently regarded Lean once again pounced upon a sweeping, literate and emotional subject that would combine colourful ensemble performances with immensely vivid action and evocative settings, and produce an opinion-baiting diagnosis of staunch morals and ferocious individualism. But this time, he would also unleash a ferociously individual leading man upon audiences who, to this day, still marvel at such comprehensive film and story ownership from one unique and decidedly lightning-in-a-bottle screen persona.

    The extraordinary exploits of the British officer, Thomas Edward Lawrence, who fought tirelessly to unite the rankled, disarrayed and forever-feuding tribes of Arabia and evict the Turkish host during the endless chess-game of the First World War, was taken from the soldier/crusader’s own immaculately composed words in his chronicle of the desert campaign, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lean and regular producer/writer Sam Spiegel enlisted the playwright Robert Bolt to fashion a screenplay out of Lawrence’s memoirs, and all three would then work on adapting the enigmatic character of this unusual hero into a story that could capture the might, mystery and magnetism of his often miraculous odyssey in the desert. But there was a fourth writer involved, and someone who made a significant contribution though didn’t receive any credit for his efforts at the time. Michael Wilson, who had also served on Bridge On The River Kwai had been blacklisted, but his skilful adaptation of the epic political ramifications of these unexpected desert victories made a brilliant contrast to the more intimate follies and dynamic thrust of Lawrence’s story that Bolt concentrated upon, and, together, the bigger and smaller pictures are anchored by a strong narrative glue that guides this unfeasibly gargantuan movie towards its beguiling conclusion. Cunningly, Lean actually commences the film with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident back in England, the whole story then playing out like a blazing epitaph for a fallen hero-cum-political-wildcard. It could be argued that the final shot in the movie, of a sort of stunned Lawrence being driven out of his beloved desert and being sent back home, is the real death of the character.

    But then, as we see throughout several epic and momentous hours of the most ravishing movie-making … what a life he led.

    In a film that boasts the Western introduction of Omar Sharif as the chief ally, friend and mentor to Lawrence, Sherif Ali, the two Anthony Q’s – Quayle and Quinn – as, respectively, the arch and starched British officer, Col. Brighton, observing the unruly Bedouin tribes and trying to keep a lid on their volatility, and the raging, egotistical warrior, Auda, whose loyal army and insane valour could prove the decisive factor in any campaign, if he can just be steered in the right direction, and Alec Guinness as the courtly, gracious and deliciously savvy Prince Feisal who seems able to cut through any amount of aristocratic subterfuge like a knife through warm butter even if he still believes his fight aeroplanes with his sword, as well as Jack Hawkins as the arrogant English commander-in-chief, General Allenby, who sets a man on an impossible mission and is then unable to keep up with his nonstop successes, David Lean lookalike Claude Rains as Dryden, the courtly advisor whose increasingly wary whispers in the ear have far more control and influence than any of the fighting men, and Arthur Kennedy as the American reporter, Bentley, out to catch the story of a lifetime, but finds that he is swept up in a saga of obsession and unlikely deification, it is quite something that a relative newcomer like Aryan pretty-boy Peter O’ Toole, as the vainglorious, semi-Messianic Lawrence – map-reader and translator in the British Army turned epochal Arab crusader – can come to completely dominate it with such long-lasting panache.

    As Lawrence, O’ Toole simply excels in the best role of his career. That it also came so early in that career is both a blessing and a curse. Coming straight from the Royal Shakespearean Company, where he had been playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, he was equipped with the energy to throw caution to the wind and to chew up the scenery as though it was all his own personal banquet, and the ability to hone a screen presence that you cannot tear your eyes away from, developing a character that goes through crucial and often excruciatingly intimate developments that never cease to manifest themselves with absolute sincerity within the those piercingly blue eyes. Yet, as detailed and as complex as he allows these developments to be, we are no closer at the end of the film to penetrating the undulating veil that lies over the ever-struggling, always alluring spirit of T.E. Lawrence. Marlon Brando had dropped out of the project, as had Albert Finney, and although either would have brought something just as wild and eccentric to the role as O’ Toole, it is doubtful that we would still be celebrating as beguiling or compelling a performance.

    “Are you badly hurt?”

    “I’m not hurt at all. Didn’t you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet.”

    Despite the huge canvas and the multitude of players, this is unequivocally the tale and legacy of Lawrence.

    Here was a man who was elusive, mesmeric and gloriously, ideologically devoted to a goal that would seem to alter with the very shifting of the sands, themselves. The film is woven entirely around this character, a leviathan production that spans the turmoil of his initially selfless, though ultimately narcissistic rite of passage in an adoptive land that, no matter how vast, still couldn’t contain him.

    But if audiences expected a grand spectacle of rousing warfare and jingoistic sabre-rattling, they would be taken through a far more convoluted and miasmic landscape by David Lean who, despite his outstanding later work on Doctor Zhivago and Gandhi, was at the absolute pinnacle of his genius here with Lawrence.

    The dialogue is stunningly economical, even sparse at times, yet incredibly lyrical throughout even the most evasive of passages. Exchanges can take on a something of a hesitantly hypnotic pentameter, swirling around the crux of the matter yet still managing to remain incisive and direct. Such paradoxes make for a Machiavellian display of character, and not just from Lawrence, who is about as circuitous as a man could be, but from the strong-willed Arab leaders, especially Prince Feisal, who see in this bizarre saviour both a prophet and a scapegoat. This curling, mysterious attitude also takes the narrative on a mischievous stroll into the desert, breaking down an enormously complicated and demanding scenario into a flowing whirlwind of decorative yet impassioned vignettes that flit over you like scuttling dust-devils, never settling for long but always heading towards one shimmering, fateful point on the horizon. And at the centre of this desert storm is always the impulsive, impetuous, profoundly vain and determinedly enigmatic performance from Peter O’ Toole as Lawrence, smitten fool and visionary crusader in a conflict that few can understand, and even fewer could possibly profit from.

    War-film, exotic adventure, cultural observation, personal drama of a stranger in a strange land and kaleidoscopic character dissection of somebody who has evenless chance of understanding himself than we do, Lawrence of Arabia is all of these things and much more. There is romance here too, and one that carries all the desire and lust and rage of even the most torrid of love affairs. For the desert holds all who enter it in its thrall, and leaves nobody untouched by its bewitching beauty and hunger for adoration. Lawrence is forever betrothed to it, his heart broken by his inability to remain impartial to its infinite variations. The argumentative Sherif Ali and Auda both see it as their wife and their harlot, and as a harsh mistress to whom they are forever beholden and accursed by. Prince Feisal and the British High Command, perhaps, in their dark wisdom and perpetual connivance, see it for what it really is – a vast tract of tactical emptiness, and a necessary evil in empire-building, but still something that cannot and will not be ignored. Those caught up in-between, the followers, the servants, the soldiers, tribesmen and disciples, don’t really see it at all. They see only their leaders and the effect that it has upon them, and the shining glory of Lawrence– or what they believe he represents, which is a goal that is always as indistinct as a horizon-melting mirage. They don’t see the sand, itself, until it closes over their heads or greedily drinks their blood. But the film is about the desert as much as it is about Lawrence, because the two become almost one and the same … at least for a while.

    However, two such powerful and resolute beings cannot occupy the same space for long. One of them has to break, and capitulate to the other. And the sands of time can only trickle back into the desert from whence they came.

    David Lean, Peter O’ Toole and cameraman Freddie Young seduce the sand dunes, literally fawning over the scorching red deserts of Jebel Tubeiq, near the Saudi Arabian frontier, painting enormity and transcendental temptation across the widest screen vistas you can imagine. Ridley Scott may have transported us to a hostile world in Alien, and back in time to ancient Rome with Gladiator, and James Cameron may have immersed us deep beneath the oceans in The Abyss and then within the lush bioluminescent environment of Pandora in Avatar, but Lean is so amazingly in-depth and visually infatuated with the sweltering beauty of his exquisite Arabia that we can truly believe that we are there. Much of the visuals – including the almost surreal moment when a dust-caked Lawrence arrives at a deserted, war-torn outpost after an epic traversing of the Sahara – were adopted by the Spaghetti Westerns. A swift zoom here, the daring deep focus compositions there, and the often naturalistic soundmix that decorates the quieter sequences. Even Sergio Leone learned a thing or two from Lean.

    It seems silly now to mention that Ridley Scott paid his respects to this colossally influential film by having his android, David, in the rather wretched letdown of 2012’s Prometheus (and played with the sort of sublime brilliance that the movie, itself, did not deserve, by Michael Fassbender), become obsessed with the character and image of Lawrence and attempt to emulate his look. Yet this single element of one of SF’s biggest disappointments is, quite possibly, its greatest ingredient.

    Over two years in the making, the production – or “grand adventure” as Lean so tellingly christened it – would travel through Jordan, Spain and Morocco on a dust-choked journey of discovery for all those involved. It may have been a trial by fire and an arduous ordeal for some, but it was also an endless opportunity for unchecked innovation – the deep-focus lens that Young created specifically for just one shot, and O’ Toole’s roaring trade in supplying rubber-mats for everyone, especially the real-life Bedouin, to make riding camels that bit more comfortable – and the sort of building of a surrogate international family of friends and associates that can clearly be discerned in the very atmosphere that the film gives off. When you watch Lawrence, you are watching lifelong relationships being forged ... and witnessing the very catalyst that would create filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese.

    “We took them prisoners; the entire garrison. No, that's not true. We killed some; too many really. I'll manage it better next time. There's been a lot of killing, one way or another.”

    There are so many standout sequences and moments of visual and intellectual splendour that if you lit them up they would rival the glittering stars in the sky of a desert night. The classic scene transition from a close-up shot of a burning match to vastness of the sunrise over a sea of endless dunes – something that shaped how Kubrick would make the visual leap of eons in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    The classic and electrifying moment when we first meet Omar Sharif, an example of deep-focus, real-time filmic history in-the-making – even though Lean lost his nerve and cut the scene down from a sensuously indulgent nine minutes to just over three. Lawrence bestowing his Bedouin guide the gift of his service revolver, and the fateful changing of hands that it then goes on when Sherif Ali emerges from that quixotic mirage to punish those that are not welcome at his well. The Tattooine-like canyon that inspires Lawrence to “Rum-te-tum-te-tummm!” at the top of his voice in a deliriously inviting evocation of the joy of sheer freedom. A subtext of the film is that a man is never truly free … as Lawrence will discover both literally and metaphorically.

    Lawrence going back into the dreaded Nefud desert to rescue Gasim (I. S. Johar), who has fallen behind and become lost in the Sun’s Anvil, and his subsequent return, victorious, with a man who should have died under the remorseless glare of the sun to receive his true acceptance by Sherif Ali and his tribe for the type of selfless bravery that they, themselves, could never call upon. The agonising moment when, in a despicable twist of fate, a murderer in the combined Arab ranks is revealed to be none other than Gasim, and Lawrence, using that same service revolver that has changed hands already, saves the freshly mustered force from further inter-tribal angst and performs the necessary execution of his friend, himself. The look on his face when he hurls the pistol away and Arabs from different tribes descend upon it like vultures is so telling and poignant – perhaps the most pivotal moment when he really sees the people he is trying so gallantly to unite as one in their true and unchangeable colours.

    The passion and zeal of Lawrence when he rides off into an area that he thinks is totally secluded, so that he can revel in the regal finery of his new sheik’s attire … only to be embarrassed with the sudden appearance of Auda, who has been watching this queer Englishman’s prancing all along. Notice, also, how Lawrence (in a spot of inspired improvisation from O’ Toole) admires his reflection in the curved Arabian dagger – something that so impressed Lean he had the gesture marvellously repeated at a far more shocking juncture of self-appreciation in which the image reflected will not be quite so pretty.

    The sudden, surreal sight of a steamship chugging along above the crest of a range of sun-choked dunes that are then revealed as being the border of the Suez Canal. Lawrence and Farraj (Michael Ray) having made the epic journey to Cairo and, still in their grit-covered robes, demanding a drink of lemonade in the Officers’ Bar, much to the consternation of the stuffy soldiery and the Military Policemen who surround them with utter disdain. The scene plays out like the flipside of that classic lager-swilling finale to Ice Cold In Alex, until you see Lawrence’s deep shame at the attitudes of his own people exhibited, raw and seething, in those crystalline and challenging pale blue eyes. “This is a bar for British officers!” counters the terrified Egyptian bartender. To which Lawrence wickedly replies, “That’s all right. We’re not particular.”

    Perhaps my favourite scene of all comes early on when Lawrence strides out over the dunes into the twilight to sit in silent, life-changing, nation-building contemplation of how best to unite the Arabs and attack the Turkish guns at Akaba. This is brooding and mad, intense and darkly fantastical – almost an operatic fugue in which the swirling sand, looming shadows and mystified observation of his two devoted servants, both former outcasts to whom the confirmed eccentric and misfit feels a certain sort of affinity, who cannot fathom just what El Aurens is doing out here by himself, work towards creating an eerily powerful moment of internalised choice made miraculous. This is also aided beautifully by Jarre’s dark and ominous music which, in the absence of cartoon thought-bubbles or an audible narration, perfectly depicts the irrevocable and peculiar madness that Lawrence is slowly coming to accept as being his destiny – all the more amazing when you consider that we don’t see Lawrence’s face until the very end of the scene when his startling solution finally presents itself. It is wonderful stuff that works on so many levels, though the main abiding concept is one of epiphany.

    There are battles too.

    The first great attack upon a Turkish train, with the elegant image of the long-line of track, the parallel ranks of hidden Arab warriors and the locomotive derailed and scything into the dirt, is a knockout. It actually looks like something out of a Spaghetti Western set amidst the Mexican Revolution. Lawrence, bedecked in the white robes of a Caucasian sheik of Arabie, leading the charge and then strutting, God-like, along the roof of the slain train only to take a bullet in the arm. This is the stuff of legend. And then there is the earlier grand cavalry charge that rolls in on the sleeping coastal town of Turkish-held Akaba – Young’s cameras either galloping alongside the warriors (reminiscent of the more Americanised Western action of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven) or panning serenely from a vantage-point poised up high on a ridge overlooking the entire grand spectacle – that plays more like an extravagant cavalcade than a roaring typhoon of destruction. The momentum is seamless, graceful and devastating.

    Like Kubrick’s Spartacus – still my favourite of all these afternoon-swallowing Silver Age movie-monoliths – the full version of Lawrence (which we have here, of course) flirts with the controversial nature of Man’s sexual tendencies, flowering the grim reality of empowerment. In Spartacus there was the infamous “Snails and Oysters” sequence – a brilliant piece of almost hypnotic suggestion that clearly instilled the fact that Laurence Olivier’s Roman senator had the hots for Tony Curtis’ pretty-boy singer-slave – and from Lean we have the distinctly unpleasant capture and beating of the white Arab chieftain after he foolishly allows himself to fall into the hands of Jose Ferrer’s infatuated Turkish Governor of Deraa. This sequence – stunningly heightened with the determinedly unflinching eyes of Lawrence, the sadistic leer of the Turkish soldier who is holding his arms tightly out before him, and the peeping through the doorway of Ferrer’s clearly aroused official – was trimmed for television and some other presentations but, as unpleasant as it is, is hugely important to understanding the dreadful conflict of duty, conscience and self-pity that Lawrence then undergoes.

    Which naturally leads into another amazing and bravura sequence - the psychological turning-point when Lawrence urges his Arab brothers after the retreating Turkish column at Tafas with the sadistic, vengeful cry of “No prisoners!” and then reveals his own ghastly propensity for wanton barbarity. “Ohhhh, you rotten man,” condemns Kennedy’s awe-struck and sickened journalist, “here, let me take your rotten bloody picture … for the rotten bloody newspaper.” But this is only half the story – the real gut-punch of such merciless destruction can be seen raging like a furnace in Lawrence’s own eyes, the man having now witnessed the depths that he, himself, with all of his lofty ideals, can sink to in the frenzy of escalating and aimless bloodlust. This was the campaign’s Mai Lai massacre, or its Wounded Knee – a terrible footnote in the history of armed conflict that saw supposedly justified battle turn into a day and night-long catalogue of hideous cruelty that left no survivors among the Turks. Not even their animals were spared. The film, however, spares us the grisliest of details, but the impact is definitely well-wrought and deeply affecting. Interestingly, O‘ Toole would go on to play the arrogant and blundering strategist of Lord Chelmsford, whose refusal to give credence to in-the-field intelligence led to the catastrophic massacre of the entire British camp at Isandlwhana at the spear-tips of the Zulus in the terrific blood ‘n’ thunder war film Zulu Dawn. At the end of the movie, Chelmsford moves through the shocking carnage of the aftermath, which is mercifully hidden by the fall of night but still provocatively lit by flickering fires. The look of sorrow, regret, pain and guilt on his face is the same as he displays so magnificently, and at such a younger and less-experienced age, at this juncture inLawrence. Even in the otherwise lousy Supergirl the actor, who is playing Zaltar, Krypton’s leading scientist, provides another beautifully haunted character that becomes lost amid the crushed dreams of a reality possibly envious of his own boundless creativity. When he is banished to the blighted wasteland of the Phantom Zone for narratively buffoonish reasons that we won’t go into here, there is something of Lawrence’s childlike eccentricity and waspish self-loathing about his odd acceptance of Fate’s trickery.

    “No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees. There is nothing in the desert … and no man needs nothing.”

    The famous score reflects the rolling beauty of the desert and its irresistible effect upon the souls of the men who venture into it. The innovative and experimental Maurice Jarre was little known in America or the UK at the time, but his monumental and possibly immortal music for Lean’s huge undertaking would place him proudly at the forefront of the world’s stage. Bringing with him the exotic-sounding Ondes Martinot – an electronic keyboard variation upon the SF-beloved Theremin – as well as other weird and wonderful instrument of elecronica, he set about crafting a score that would not only encapsulate the soul of such a wild and beautiful landscape, but also the indefinable personality of Lawrence, himself, and the troubled, turgid and titanic love affair that these two entities have. The main theme, itself, is as renowned and instantly recognisable as those glorious fanfares from John Williams or Elmer Bernstein (who would, himself, go on to incorporate the Ondes Martinot in several of his scores), or the pop-cultural crossovers of John Barry’s Bond scores, or any of the Spaghetti Western music of Ennio Morricone. The phrase “timeless” is used to gag-making excess in filmic hyperbole – most often by Disney – but it is absolutely perfect for describing Jarre’s beautiful, unusual and often esoteric score for Lawrence. I’ve already mentioned the sequence when Lawrence contemplates his fate and that of the Arab tribes, but there are many other classic examples of his rich, strongly written yet delicately performed music. Pomp and ceremony befits the regal Arab legions, deft, immense and colourful as they move en masse from their encampments, and this is smartly transformed into the rousing traditionally empirical march of boots and epaulettes for the smug gentry of the British Army. Yet Jarre is most adept at sliding Lawrence’s silken personality through the layers of burning red desert ambience, linking the two in body and soul. His themes are deep and swooning, and tinged with happy madness. In fact, the best visual analogy of his music would be that curious look on Elijah Wood’s face when, as Frodo, he nods his final farewell to his Hobbit friends and sails away to the Grey Havens during one of the many endings to The Return of the King. Precocious, mischievous and semi-mocking, yet amazingly honest and sincere, just the same – it twirls inside the mind, teasing with a motif that you can never quite fathom. The eloquent main theme even makes a playful cameo-appearance in The Spy Who Loved Me.

    Truly timeless, then.

    The immensity of the desert and its spellbinding effect upon the senses has affected other composers in a similar way. Jerry Goldsmith certainly played about with a similar theme for his outstanding scores for The Wind and The Lion and Masada, and perhaps even more so for Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy. Michael Giacchino did so for John Carter. Jarre, himself, would revisit this epic, windblown wilderness of destiny and sweeping majesty in his barnstorming score for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a film that took many other elements from Lean’s sprawling epic, as well.

    “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.”

    There are downsides to the film, of course. But they are slight and easily overlooked in the sheer scale of the enterprise. For one thing, as brilliant as Alec Guinness is as Prince Feisal, delivering a veritable desert-caravan of nuances, foibles and layers, he just does not convince as an Arab. He is far too refined, too measured, too …well, English. But in many ways this just adds to the character of someone striving to keep his heritage but also richly enamoured with a foreign culture and what he can gain from it. Perhaps not at all surprising, considering his integrity and resolute Englishness, Guinness had actually played the part of Lawrence already in Terence Rattigan’s play, Ross, but was now too old to tackle the character for Lean. A filmed version of Ross was planned, amid several other celluloid interpretations of Lawrence’s story, but never came to fruition, and you get the impression that Guinness looks upon O’ Toole with envious eyes. The master of character and disguise really sinks his teeth into the role of the intuitive Prince, but no amount of dark makeup can supply him with any ethnic authenticity. And that wax nose appliance that Quinn wears to sharpen his features as the tempestuous chieftain is often quite embarrassing. I keep waiting for it to melt in the sun and begin to drip from his face.

    It is also a little bit too trite and contrived to have the depiction of how the Arab tribes can never be fully unified because of all the centuries they’ve endured of in-fighting, rivalries and blood-feuds in the highly staged scene in which the victors in the town hall of Damascus argue over which particular faction will control which particular utility. How convenient that a fire breaks out in one sector of the city, which then leads to the perfect metaphor for inter-tribal agitation as the Arabs can’t then decide who is in charge of the fire-brigade and who manages the water-pumping station. This makes for a final act that, had it not been populated by the likes of the argumentative Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn and the sullen realisation of O’ Toole, might have been something of a clichéd letdown after all that has gone before. It is great how Sherif Ali vanishes into the shadows and leaves Auda shouting after him - a staunch reflection of the twain shall never meet for these people.

    But these minor issues are but grains of sand compared to the overall quality of David Lean’s fabulous conveyance of one man’s grand effect upon many. Although the first part of this leviathan movie is still possibly the best – it is far more rewarding in terms of power, mystery, excitement and sheer sensory overload – it is impossible not be swept away by such a romantically engulfing story that paints a sensitive portrait of a maverick champion and warrior who fell head-over-heels in love with his own legend, and with a place that would never surrender even to someone like him, who respected it most.

    Unmistakably one of the greatest films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia is an essential part of anybody’s collection

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