Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean)



After the tightly controlled and well-plotted The Bridge on the River Kwai was led to a mountain of Oscars and box office prestige, it’s only natural that famously florid and outlandish director David Lean and his far-flung team of bombastic magicians would want to engage in a bit of formal excess. Lawrence of Arabia, the long-in-gestation followup, turned out to be an even more popular film, though all these decades later when most of us are bound to experience it not in thunderous 70mm but on our letterboxed TV screens, it’s difficult to understand why. Though it makes play at a sort of macho, magazine-article intelligence, it isn’t even a bright light in the dubious genre of the Hollywood epic. Spartacus is a greater and more varied spectacle, and deeply felt to boot; Lean’s own River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago have stronger narratives; Ben-Hur has a hugeness of concept to match its visual scale; and even Fox’s Cleopatra is at least a fascinating wreck. The overwhelming takeaway from Lawrence of Arabia is boredom, and plenty of it. Boredom and desert landscapes.

The vaguely expressed but somehow overly busy story follows T.E. Lawrence (a young and pretty Peter O’Toole), the British soldier credited with uniting Arabia against Turkish rule during World War I and — so the film would have it — a circumvented crusader for Arab independence, in his brightest years as a wunderkind liaison whose purpose and dedication were invaluable. Lean seems vaguely interested in taking on Lawrence’s motives and inner life but is quickly distracted by the breadth of the setting and the opportunity for wild visual stunts that are really the only notes of passion within the entire film. Lean otherwise can’t overcome the dry and emotionless nature of all his work to allow us to know much of anything about Lawrence, and the bright spots are separated by an insurmountable number of regrettable still-life shots and aching plod. The battle scenes are particularly dire when compared to something like Spartacus, the dialogue is rote and dispassionate from start to end, and scenes that place Lawrence as the doe-eyed besieged hunk are laughable, in particular the moment that has him posing and prancing in his new robes.

Of course, the movie is technically flawless — and surprisingly untainted in this respect by its age. It looks and feels like a modern film, not one from the waning days of the studio period. Even on television, some of Lean’s visuals are breathtaking, but they’re so divorced from any particular feeling we have about the story being told that Lawrence may as well be an abstract, surrealist film. The overblown nature of much of what we’re shown becomes discomforting and oppressive after a time, as we are so far apart from any visible humanity that the chilliness grows inescapable. Even the wisps of excitement are frequently overextended; the justifiably famous entrance of Omar Sharif from afar through a mirage, for which a special lens was commissioned, is painfully drawn out long after its point is made, its purpose and lingering power assured. As a matter of fact, the strongest and most artistically vital moment in the entire film occurs in the very beginning; it’s a trick borrowed from Godard and Truffaut, when in a Charles Foster Kane moment Lawrence announces that he expects his time in Arabia to be “fun,” and his blowing out of a match sends us via jump cut directly to our first look at the dead sandscapes that are to be our home for the next three and a half hours. It’s a bit magical, and there’s nothing else here that comes close.

Even defenders of Lawrence of Arabia are known to confess that the film’s casting is ludicrous; Omar Sharif gives an enjoyable deadpan-edge to his Sheriff Ali ibi el Kharish, Anthony Quinn is quite delightful as Auda abu Tayi although he’s so over the top he nearly serves as comic relief, and it’s fun to see Claude Rains again, but everyone else is ridiculous. They’re not incompetent or even poor actors. Alec Guinness is one of the greats, but he makes no sense whatsoever as Prince Faisal (later King of Iraq), all suave glaring and stilted lines; it’s a waste. And Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is a preposterous creation, a pin-up version of a mysterious and intriguing historical figure, rendered reductive and empty by O’Toole’s frighteningly hollow expressions. There seems to be nothing behind those eyes, and all the while he reads his lines as though he’s rehearsing for the school play. I have no doubt that this is all the fault of Lean more than his cast, but it’s not something that can be ignored.

How much can you blame the performers, anyway, for the awful characterization and lazy material they’re given? We’re superficially shown that Lawrence struggles with his tendency toward violence, that he enjoys killing men, but it’s never investigated in any deep way; he’s spooked by his behavior in battle and by the growing scale of the power he seems to find in himself, but that’s only shown in bizarre comical sequences revolving around his attempts to be a “normal” soldier back in Cairo. The central unresolved conflict of the film, the thing that Lean doesn’t know what to do with, is that we’re expected to put Lawrence’s achievements on a pedestal as if he’s some supernatural hero but we’re also supposed to acknowledge and accept the innumerable flaws brought to our attention with some mealy-mouthed notion that this bloodshed and deception made him Great — the film wants it both ways, in other words, great and uncomplicated hero worship for a man whose myriad complications and flaws are carefully shown then skirted past. It prevents an already messy and vastly overlong film from having any resonance whatsoever by the time it ends with Lawrence’s blank expression toward a passing motorcycle (ah-ha, similar to the one that would kill him!) during his unheroic forced departure. Supporters compare this to Citizen Kane, but Kane had no cynical underlying agenda. This hero-walking-away is a supposedly daring non-ending designed to temper all the crowd-pleasing theatrics with something thorny, so that the silly popcorn movie can pretend to be deep and socially conscious at the end.

Without qualification, we can praise Maurice Jarre’s music; a clear throwback to the immediately recognizable overture of Gone with the Wind, it is undeniably a watershed moment in film music meant not to recede into the background but to become as flamboyant and attention-hogging as the visuals. There is a sweep and romanticism to the score that Lawrence would otherwise lack; it may owe its far-ranging success, indeed, to Jarre. It’s as difficult to imagine Lawrence of Arabia without its music as it is to do the same for Psycho and Star Wars — but in contrast to those two cases, one wonders if there would even be a movie at all without the music. Jarre provides such an injection of energy and accessibility to this often lifeless charade that it’s not unreasonable to guess that he saved David Lean’s life here.

After you endure the first two hours of a story essentially told within the first twenty minutes of narrative, it’s with a sense of desperation that you realize you’re only at the halfway point. Epic films very seldom work, largely because so few of them seem to truly need to be as long as they are. Lawrence of Arabia tells the story that’s truly required in its first half, and we then receive what amounts to an interminable, episodic third act. Lean shoehorns in ingredients like Anthony Kennedy as a loudmouthed journalist and the bizarre but apparently true-to-life (or so Lawrence said) sequence in which our hero is flogged and raped, but it’s all for naught. At least an hour and a half could have been extracted from this and it would still be “epic” enough at two and a half hours to overcharge an unsuspecting public for their tickets. They flocked in all the same and many of them probably didn’t feel as ripped off as I would have, but I can’t help feeling we’d get the same exact impact — sans some of the macho code of conduct bullshit, maybe — by buying a ticket to watch someone play Desert Bus, or to watch a still postcard projected in Cinemascope. One without Peter O’Toole on it.

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