Given the evidence of Star Wars, it shouldn't take too much to convince one that a film featuring Alec Guinness in the desert clad in a brown cloak is going to satisfy audiences. Even so, Lawrence of Arabia exceeds all expectations, and provides a fascinating look into one of the British Empire's most famous figures- T. E. Lawrence.
It's the War to End All Wars, and on the Arabian peninsula, the scheming Brits intend to overthrow the ailing Ottoman Empire by uniting the various squabbling Arab tribes. Granted, compared to the epic slugfest going on in central Europe, it's a distinctly second-tier affair. Guinness plays the Arab leader Prince Feisal, and Peter O'Toole plays Lawrence, an Englishman with conflicting feelings of identity. Lawrence is fey , and indeed there was some mild controversy at the time over the interpretation of his portrayal of Lawrence as being homosexual. His superiors don't quite trust him, but before you can say 'the Judland wastes are not travelled lightly', Lawrence has recruited Feisal and other chiefs, and sent them on their merry way to raid that hive of Turkish scum and villainy, Aquaba. The Arab Revolt is underway!
This film gets everything right. It's epic without ever being boring or ponderous, and that's a tough line to straddle. Not many four-hour long movies achieve it. The first half of the movie is especially stirring- watching Lawrence whip his rough-and-ready camel commandos into shape as they score some early victories is thrilling. Like djinns, they appear out of the desert leaving the Turkish guns at Aquaba pointing uselessly out to sea. Huzzah! The second half focuses more on political machinations, as Lawrence begins to wonder exactly what the British have planned for the Arabs after the war. Things do slow down a bit here, but it's still fascinating viewing.
The film is similarly rough-and-ready with history. There are inaccuracies and plot holes large enough to march the 11th Hussars through, but it all makes for a better movie. In particular, the cinematic Lawrence is made more sympathetic by his ignorance of the Sykes-Pycot agreement to annex Arabia, which in real life he was well aware of. Such discrepancies rankle less than they might- often simplifying a complex situation allows a movie to flow better, though of course some may have issues with this.
In terms of sheer cinematic craft the film is unmatched. When Lawrence first announces his excitement at being sent to Arabia, there's a jump-cut from a lit match to the first burning rays of the rising desert sun that rivals the bone/spacecraft cut from 2001: A Space Odyssey for sheer pretentiousness. In fact, much of the movie is very like Kubrick's classic in feel. Like 2001, much is hinted at rather than explicitly stated in long, lazy scenes. As for the score, Maurice Jarre's lush, stirring theme has since become almost synonymous with a certain kind of Orientalism that simply isn't kosher these days. Of course, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was still considered acceptable to portray Eastern cultures as exotic and alien, and it's this attitude that the score harks back to. The sweeping strings seem to conjure up a mythical land where death and adventure await courageous men around every dune.
And on that note, it must be said that the most powerful character in the movie is the desert itself, portrayed with stark beauty by director David Lean. The visions of impossibly remote and desolate dune-scapes are awe-inspiring. It's a harsh, unforgiving and inscrutable world of mirages and quicksand, sandstorms and vicious bedouins. Somebody once called the Arabian campaign 'the last picturesque war'- a somewhat thoughtless but fitting epiphet, given the evidence of this movie.
In an early scene, Lawrence journeys alone through the desert to meet his British contacts, and sings that old music-hall classic 'I'm the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo' to keep his spirits up. He's singing to himself, but the song echoes off the rocks and is reflected back to him. It's a bit like staring into the abyss, and having the abyss stare back- this inhospitable environment will mirror aspects of a man's character back at him that he didn't know were there. Indeed, Lawrence finds his life's worth in the desert. In many ways it's the old colonial fantasy of the white man who leaves his starched-collar world behind and lives as a native in a more primitive environment where men can be 'real' men. It's an idea that still has resonance today.
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