Thursday, July 2, 2015

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean                                        Writers: Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson
Film Score: Maurice Jarre                                Cinematography: Freddie Young
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Claude Rains

There’s a fascinating parallel between the lives of T.H. Lawrence and George S. Patton. Both were military men who fought in world wars and both died in traffic accidents when the war was over. Patton was paralyzed at the end of World War Two when he jeep was riding in was hit, and he died a few days later in Germany. Lawrence of Arabia begins with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident in England fifteen years after the end of World War One. At the funeral reporters ask those who served with him about the man, but no one really has an answer. Thus the film proceeds to document the last years of his life fighting in the Middle East during The Great War. And the choice of director for the project was as inspired as the story he was telling. David Lean was certainly one of the most confident of directors in the medium of the epic. Having already won an Oscar for the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai, he went on to earn another in Lawrence of Arabia as well as being nominated for both Doctor Zhivago in 1965 and A Passage to India in 1984. The scope of the story and visuals on the screen are impressive for the time and have continued to enthrall audiences and critics alike since it was first released, winning the Academy Award for best picture, one of seven the film would win overall.

When the story flashes back it is to Cairo, with Peter O’Toole as Lawrence making maps. He’s a problem soldier, as he doesn’t work well with others, especially officers. Even though the general in Egypt, Donald Wolfit, hates him, when the head of the Arab Bureau, Claude Rains, wants him sent to Arabia Wolfit balks on principal. Certain Arab tribes have mounted a revolt against their Turkish occupiers, and the British have no interest in it thinking any expenditure of manpower and money will be a waste as the Bedouin tribes hate the Turks only marginally more than they hate each other. But Rains wins the day and O’Toole is sent east. Omar Sharif takes him to the general in Arabia, Anthony Quayle, who tells him to simply meet with Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and report back. What he does instead is to attempt to unite the Arab tribes against the Turks and take the seaport of Aqaba, a major advantage to the British in the region. The first challenge is the desert, which they miraculously are able to cross. The next obstacle is an enemy tribe run by Anthony Quinn, who is only convinced to go along with the attack with the promise of keeping all the money he can find in Aqaba. The surprise attack works, though there is not money, but O’Toole promises to get it for him, as well as munitions for the rest of the Arabs, but must get back before the coalition falls apart.

After the intermission it’s four months later and O’Toole and the Arab confederation are winning victories all over the peninsula, destroying railroads and looting. American newspaper reporter Edward Kennedy attaches himself to O’Toole to gains support for the Allies. But once the military victories are over, the real conflict begins, with the Arabs among themselves. The film is certainly long, at over three hours, but the lengthy scenes of crossing the desert need that kind of time to accurately convey the action on the screen. It takes more than beautiful scenery to make a classic, though. Peter O’Toole gives a highly stylized performance as Lawrence, but in retrospect he’s simply being himself and to a certain degree all of his performances carry the burden of his own personality. The real surprise is the presence of an aging Claude Rains. But while he makes a real go of it, he’s a shell of his former, commanding presence onscreen, and would die just a few years later. Jack Hawkins, as the head of the entire Middle East theater, also looks quite frail, especially after his bravura performance in River Kwai five years earlier. José Ferrer has only one brief scene and is effectively wasted--though to be fair, much of that scene was cut in the original release. Alec Guinness is difficult to swallow as the Arab leader, as is Anthony Quinn, but their casting is part and parcel of the time that even a solid performance by Omar Sharif can’t overcome.

Michael Wilmington’s essay in The A List is surprisingly refreshing. He’s states right at the beginning something I’ve been saying for a long time. To those who criticize the historical inaccuracy of the events and of Lawrence, he says, “if we want history, we can always read Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the rest of the source material. Lean's film gives us something different: high adventure wedded to stunning visual beauty, esthetic excitement married to bloody danger, suave irony coupled with chaos and futility.” And the rest of the review emphasizes those images, whether close-ups of O’Toole, or the landscape, as well as the futility experienced by all involved in attempting to forge an Arab state. He also makes a fascinating observation about Lean’s vision, that in the middle of the desert the audience doesn’t feel the heat. “Lean’s chilly precision cools the desert off, kisses some of the blood off Lawrence’s hands.” But he also wants to focus on the idea of male bonding. And there is that to be sure, but it’s not the kind that easily fits the buddy-picture trope. If it’s there--and I would argue that it’s not a certainly--it’s extremely subtle, as O’Toole has much more on his mind than relationships. Though Lawrence of Arabia is not one of my favorite films, it certainly deserves respect for the immense effort by David Lean as well as the artistry of the end result.

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