Film #16 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies
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When Bosley Crowther reviewed Lawrence of Arabia after it’s opening in New York City in December of 1962, he was little impressed with the film that the AFI ranks at number seven on its list of the one hundred greatest American films of all time.
In his review, Crowther wrote: “…sadly, this bold Sam Spiegel picture lacks the personal magnetism, the haunting strain of mysticism and poetry that we’ve been thinking all these years would be dominant when a film about Lawrence the mystic and the poet was made. It reduces a legendary figure to conventional movie-hero size amidst magnificent and exotic scenery but a conventional lot of action-film cliches…It is, in the last analysis, just a huge, thundering camel-opera that tends to run down rather badly as it rolls on into its third hour and gets involved with sullen disillusion and political deceit.”
Ouch. Rough assessment of a film that won seven Oscars (Film, Director, Cinematography, Original Musical Score, Film Editing, Production Design, and Sound Mixing), and influenced such directors as Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg.
A true epic of cinema, the nearly four-hour film is based on T.E. Lawrence’s memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, written about the Arab Revolt against the Turkish Empire, and his role in it, during World War I. Without a love interest, a throng of big-name movie stars, tons of action scenes, or even much dialogue, Lawrence of Arabia is hardly a typical blockbuster film about War. What it is, however, is a masterpiece of cinematography with a confounding, mesmerizing anti-hero and, intended or not, a jaded look at the dull political mechanisms that drive war.
I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the first time when I was ten years old, at a long-gone theater in Ft. Worth that specialized in classic films. Filmed in 70mm, it had the same effect on me as it did everyone else who’s ever seen it. You cannot help but be awed by the scope of the scenery, the play of light, the manipulation of imagery. And it’s a film whose very scope and detail require viewing on the expanse of a theater screen. Television screens just don’t do it justice. Originally intended to be filmed almost entirely in Jordan, director David Lean ended up shooting in Morocco and Spain as well. DP Freddie (F.A.) Young takes advantage of the landscape and light of each locale, creating surreal, almost unearthly scenery that is not so much a backdrop to the story as it is another character within it. It is his mastery of camera and light that allows for Lean’s vision—one based in the emotional pull of imagery—to draw the viewer in to what is an adventure almost without action.
Take the scene in which we meet Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif): Lawrence and his Bedouin guide, trekking through the brutal heat of desert and desperate for water, come upon a well, from which they drink. Upon the wavy heat of the horizon, we see a black dot slowly taking shape. It seems forever until the image becomes clear: an armed man, fully cloaked, upon a camel. The viewer might as well be Lawrence: Trepidation, mixed with the foggy-mindedness of dehydration, mixed with the insecurity of being lost in a vast and brutal desert add up to near-desperation and apprehension as Ali draws near…and shoots the Bedouin, but spares Lawrence. From something that is visually and emotionally muddled with uncertainty comes shocking clarity.
Of course, the camera also makes full use of Peter O’Toole’s (Lawrence) intensely blue eyes, moppish blond hair, and lanky gait. Lean needed an unconventionally attractive and uninhibited actor to portray the title character. After all, it’s T.E. Lawrence’s rebellious streak and somewhat masochistic tendencies that spur him to reject prevailing ideals of British imperialism and embrace a wild desert and an almost theatrical Arab culture. Together with screenwriter Robert Bolt, Lean and O’Toole created a character, charismatic-bordering-on-insane, who drives the entire plot of the film. Had Lawrence not been the social and military nonconformist that he was, he’d not have been able to organize a loose conglomerate of Arab elite to willingly—and eagerly—follow him in a march of rebellion across an entire desert to engage a larger, stronger army. Credit must also be given to Bolt’s economy with words when writing dialogue, especially between Lawrence and these mysterious desert leaders. Conversations between them contain a sort of poetic logic that appeals to common sense rather than the emotion that Lean uses to tell his story.
On with the story: Lawrence has met and made allies of the Arabs, and now it is time for them to act. A series of successful guerilla-style attacks puts Lawrence in the sites of the Turks, who eventually capture and take him to the Turkish bey (Jose Ferrer). For his part in the rebellion, Lawrence is stripped, tortured and (alluded to off-camera) raped. After something of a recovery period in British Cairo and Jerusalem, Lawrence is sent back for the final military push on Damascus. It is here, with an Arab army that is no longer motivated by the idea of freedom but by the lure of money and weapons, that Lawrence betrays even himself by participating in a bloody slaughter of retreating Turkish soldiers.
When Lawrence leaves Damascus for England, disheartened and unnecessary, the audience is left with the same weariness we see in his eyes. A grand and glorious revolution ending in inefficiency and submission to a greater power that calls itself an ally.
Lawrence of Arabia is not without its flaws. Primarily, it suffers from the same sin as most historical dramas: that of historical inaccuracy. Whereas in the film the Arab Council almost immediately capitulated to the British, in reality it was pretty much still in power until 1920. An action highlight of the film, the attack on Aqaba, is greatly fictionalized. Nor did Lawrence’s Arab army abandon him so completely as is portrayed in the second half of the film as they marched further and further north. Taking these liberties is probably forgivable, since Lawrence had already become a legend in the land he fell in love with long before the film was made.
I’ll leave you with a few words from Roger Ebert, who possibly loves this film more than I do:
“I’ve noticed that when people remember “Lawrence of Arabia,” they don’t talk about the details of the plot. They get a certain look in their eye, as if they are remembering the whole experience, and have never quite been able to put it into words. Although it seems to be a traditional narrative film–like “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which Lean made just before it, or “Doctor Zhivago,” which he made just after–it actually has more in common with such essentially visual epics as Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky.” It is spectacle and experience, and its ideas are about things you can see or feel, not things you can say. Much of its appeal is based on the fact that it does not contain a complex story with a lot of dialogue; we remember the quiet, empty passages, the sun rising across the desert, the intricate lines traced by the wind in the sand.”