Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), or The Meaning Of Epic

29 12 2009

Hello, all! Another day in this final week, another classic! Some movies are simply part of the vernacular of cinema. They are vibrant, wonderful, and universal in their emotional appeal. They cannot be questioned in their quality, their sterling vision, or their importance to cinema. Such films do not come around very often, but their effect is timeless on the human spirit, and it is really something special to sit down, putting away the modern accouterments and distractions, and just watch one. Lawrence of Arabia is one such movie, an epic that rivals its spiritual predecessor, The Bridge on the River Kwai, of which I did a REVIEW (link here!), in scope and grandeur. It is certainly one of the first films that pop into mind when one thinks of a historical epic, and its legend is only exceeded by the movie itself. I mean in when I say that everything you’ve ever read about this film is true.

Based loosely on the book “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, it concerns the real-life exploits of T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who served as a liaison during the Arab revolt during World War I. From his humble beginnings as a misfit Lieutenant during the conflict, we are introduced to a man with few aspirations in the military, but a very deep interest in the nomadic Arabs, known as the Bedouin. He is sent on an assignment to assess the likelihood of an Arab overthrow of the Turkish forces led by a man named Prince Faisal. Lawrence finds in Faisal’s camp to be just what he needed. He decides that the Arabs indeed have a chance against the Turks, and, more than that, he has a plan to help them succeed. He wants to help the Arabs wage war personally; it is a controversial move, one that will not go without repercussions, but Lawrence was anything if not controversial, and his destiny in the conflict will be decided by him and him alone. Outside influences from the British Army try worming their way into his ear, attempting to shove him this way and that way. But Lawrence clearly shows that he is his own man, and the conflict between the Turks and the Arabs may just be decided by the efforts of a white man who has fallen in love with the desert.

David Lean does it again!!! Lawrence of Arabia, based on the real life account of larger-than-life British soldier T.E. Lawrence, is one of the greatest British movies I have ever seen. Lean proposes the most spectacular visions as a director, his camera working like a sweeping mural of a bygone age to bring this historical drama to life. He and constant 60s cinematographer Freddie Young make an Egypt that is as regal and as proud as Mankiewicz’s Rome in the following year’s Cleopatra. The sets are lavish and awesome and the natural beauty of the desert is brought to life with plenty of long, loving shots into the unknowable distance. The visual strength of the haunting desert landscape is put to good use by Lean, who takes the time to show us that even in the midst of modernization, man is no match for the harsh mistress that is the endless sand. The movie’s visually a jaw-dropper, and it is most likely Lean’s finest-shot picture.

The story can’t be sold short for all of its majesty. It begins as merely a story about a military maverick who thinks a little differently than everybody else around him. But T.E. Lawrence was more than that as a person, and so I’m glad Lean decided to tell the more personal story of a man who was torn between his orders and a cause that he thought was genuinely worth fighting for. It’s wondrous to watch his transformation from unassuming British soldier to guerrilla warrior to full-fledged Bedouin leader in the span of 223 minutes. Most people feel that is an inordinate time to spend watching a movie, but if any film can make you feel that nearly 4 hours is not a lot of time, it is this film, I assure you. It breezes by like the wind upon the tip of a curved Arabian scimitar. Good imagery, I know…

Shall I just go ahead and say that Peter O’Toole is the man? Okay, I’ll say it; Peter O’Toole is the fucking man here! T.E. Lawrence could only have been played by an actor who was similarly larger-than-life, and O’Toole was just that. He makes the character veritably vibrate with the vitality of the age. It is a performance that will live in history books as long as they exist. But Lawrence was not an easy man to be; he is attacked, brutalized, beaten senseless by the sun, and, in one particular scene, possibly raped (!!!). There will never be a remake of Lawrence of Arabia, or any re-imagining that could compare to this version, because the blood, sweat, and toil O’Toole invests here is irreplaceable but instantly recognizable to anyone who watches it, and anybody who tries to take up this mantle in the future will look a little foolish trying to fill such large robes. Other actors impress, as well. Alec Guinness again supports David Lean’s wildly British vision as Prince Faisal, a most interesting character indeed. He is the man who entices Lawrence into this battle at the beginning of the film, and it is his character that really influences Lawrence the most. Guinness steals the show once or twice for himself, as is his wont, and gives some great lines that are still insightful and relevant today, like:

Prince Faisal: Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage, and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution.

Anthony Quinn is Auda abu Tayi, a ruthless Arab leader whose support become very valuable to Lawrence, and he is a great character. Quinn plays an Arab man rather stiffly, and according to some of the prevailing stereotypes of the day, but it’s not as bad as it could have been, all things considered, and I actually rather enjoyed it at times, mainly because of his rather impressive physical transformation. Omar Sharif plays an excellent supporting role as Sherif Ali, one of the men assigned to Lawrence by Faisal. He is excellent, and added some genuine spice to the mix with his smooth, leading-man presence. Jose Ferrer makes a small appearance as a Turk here, but while his role is small, it is at a terribly crucial scene, and when you see him, you’ll realize that they could not have had anyone else play the part. Great casting all around.

Like the gravitas the amazing Maurice Jarre score suggests, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that will live forever. But it will only breathe deeply if more people take the time to see it. It is a real gem, a classic by which other classics are judged. There is not another film like it, not that I have seen, and it is simply a unique, risky epic that would rather focus on quality than on any preconceived notions of structure or character development.  I have nary met another person in my life who has seen it as well, and I doubt I will meet anyone anytime soon who treasures it like I do. But, perhaps, if you take my advice and check it out, you’ll see what I mean when I speak of its undeniable quality and will not be reticent to give it a full recommendation of your own! I give Lawrence of Arabia 10 Pillars of Wisdom out of 10! My highest recommendation!!!

Tomorrow I discuss what is most likely the greatest film of all time. I think we’re all aware of what I’m talking about. That’s right; you, me, Citizen Kane, tomorrow!