January 5, 2012

#7: Lawrence of Arabia

We finally got to this, the last film on the list I haven't previously seen! It's shameful and strange but maybe the only real thing I knew about David Lean's 1962 sandy epic Lawrence of Arabia was that it's long. In fact, I remember a Foxtrot strip (remember that strip?) in which the kid is on the couch and the dad walks over with a chess board.

Dad: Hey Jason, wanna play chess?
Jason: I can't, Dad. I just started watching Lawrence of Arabia.
Dad: That's okay. I'll wait.

That was really it. The movie's length is the whole joke. And in a way, that's okay: it's definitely a major investment, so luckily I had delicious food and camaraderie.
Company: Elizabeth, former and future lover of Omar Sharif, owner of burlap-encased copy of this movie, opponent of saffron


Cuisine: quinoa with Moroccan winter squash and carrot stew. This required several spices I didn't own (turmeric? Hungarian sweet paprika??) and it was certainly a two-hander (I was on the quinoa, Elizabeth was on the stew). So delicious, and theme-perfect! Special note: don't worry about the saffron, it's just a fancy expensive way to add color to this already colorful plate. Also, plenty of coffee to get through the three-and-a-half-hour beast, and maybe the dregs of a bag of Christmas confections.

The film is based on the life of T. E. Lawrence (played here by Peter O'Toole, achieving his first of eight Oscar nominations), an officer in the British Army at the early part of the twentieth century who was sent into Arabia on special assignment and became a liaison for the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks between 1916 and 1918. Is this something that I knew anything about prior to watching the movie? Absolutely not. But about fifteen minutes in Peter blows out the flame in his hand and we are immediately transported to ...

... the desert. Hot. Desolate. Sprawling. Lawrence and his guide are in unfamiliar territory and the guide makes the mistake of drinking from a well that doesn't belong to him. Right on cue: here comes Sherif Ali (Oscar nominee Omar Sharif) to shoot him for his insolence. That'll teach him. And he would shoot Lawrence too, but Lawrence makes a case for himself and asks to be led to Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the leader of the Arab revolt.

Faisal has been pressured to retreat but Lawrence proposes a surprise attack on the important coastal town of Aqaba. Attacking from sea would almost certainly be expected and lead them to certain death, so Lawrence proposes attacking from the rear, which would require crossing the vast Nefud desert, considered by everyone but Lawrence to be impassable. Ali is very skeptical but a group of fifty men follow Lawrence into the desert.

Long stretches of the movie look like this.

In this cinematic world, crossing a desert on camelback is pretty much considered an action sequence. And it's a loooong action sequence. Lean is obviously keeping his audience on a camel's back with Lawrence and his troupe, asking us to journey for weeks without rest until we reach the oasis on the other side. It's not that it's not entertaining, although it really isn't, but we know the stakes are high and that keeps (some of) us engaged.

The group successfully reaches the end of their journey but Lawrence wins even more respect from his allies when, noticing that one camel has lost its passenger, he heads back into the desert to retrieve his fallen comrade, something that most would consider a suicide mission. He is crowned, hailed as a savior.


He's given traditional Arab robes to wear, and he pulls them off. (Fun fact: Noel Coward said that if Peter O'Toole had been any prettier in this movie, they would have had to call it Florence of Arabia. Catty!)

Lawrence is painted in the film as egotistical, and Lean alludes to Christ comparisons when he's hailed by his Arab allies. Not that he didn't do a lot of great things, but boy, he loves being loved. He was well-educated and was very familiar with Arab and Bedouin culture, and even tells his guide near the beginning of his journey that he's "different" than the other people in his home county of Oxfordshire. O'Toole plays him with great immediacy and wisdom. Two of my favorites quotes of his say a lot about his character: near the beginning of the film before he heads into the desert, he puts out a match with his fingers, and a friend tries to do the same.

William Potter: Ooh, that damn well hurts.
T. E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
William Potter: Well, what's the trick then?
T. E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

I love this mind-over-matter philosophy; certainly it must come in handy when crossing inhospitable terrains like he will do for the next several hours.

Oops quicksand.

The other comes when Gasim, the man Lawrence saved from the desert, kills one of Faisal's men over a dispute, and Faisal notes that he must be put to death to quell tensions between the tribes.

Prince Faisal: Gasim's time has come, Lawrence. It is written.
T.E. Lawrence: Nothing is written

Sure, you could read this arrogance and perhaps even cultural or moral superiority, but Lawrence is making the point that nothing is predestined. It is not "written," for example, that they should all perish by attempting to cross the Nefud (which none of them do). Extraordinary things happen when people have faith that they can happen. A sweet, simple lesson.

The film was awarded seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Director, as well as many deserved technical awards for cinematography, art direction, and the sweeping score by Maurice Jarre, who creates one of those themes that stays with you long after the movie's over. It reminded me of Taxi Driver, the way the theme was used so often, almost to a fault, to drill it so far into your brain that it would always bring you right back into the world of the film. Peter O'Toole lost his first of eight Oscars to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird, and I think that history has validated that. But poor poor Peter.

"He's the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey."

One thing I will say, though, is that this film ranks maybe right behind The Bridge on the River Kwai as the least American film on this list that claims to be made up of American films. I believe the producer Sam Spiegel and the screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson are all American, but outside of that, there's nothing much American about it. It's a British story, directed by an Englishman, filmed in the middle East, with a British and Arabian cast and almost certainly financed outside of America. It doesn't make it a bad inclusion on a list of great movies, but great American movies? I'd like to see some justification for this. Anyone?

ANYhow. The film follows Lawrence's fall from grace, his exploits in helping the rebellion, and his emotional journey, torn between his British imperialist roots and his new Arab comrades. Heavy, sandy stuff.

Ultimately it's a worthwhile experience and I think one that might benefit from multiple viewings if you can stomach it. It's a lot of names to keep straight, a lot of guys in dusty robes, a lot of strife. It's not my favorite story but I think if you view it as a biography of a major political figure, the ending becomes pretty remarkable. I'll need to watch this again in a few years. I have a feeling this was just a primer. Elizabeth, you in? We'll make that stew again! :)

Next up: we're making gumbo and setting fire to Atlanta! We'll never go hungry again with Gone with the Wind.

No comments:

Post a Comment