Sunday, March 23, 2014


I had never seen Lawrence of Arabia until viewing it for this blog, despite being well aware of this film ever since I was a kid. My grandma had a copy of it on VHS, spread across three videotapes, due to its mammoth length. Needless to say, as a kid I chose to watch Ninja Turtles and Pound Puppies instead. As for later on in life, I’m not quite sure why I never got around to watching Lawrence of Arabia. There’s been nothing but ebullient praise uttered on its magnificent behalf. Adjectives such as epic, masterpiece and stunning have all become permanent fixtures in hailing descriptions of this desert adventure. Given the fact that I haven’t watched it until now has resulted in a lot of built up expectation for me over the years that this film was going to be the cinematic equivalent of riding the lightening. After becoming familiar with David Lean’s previous Best Picture winning effort, Bridge on the River Kwai, I was expecting Lawrence of Arabia to be that much more of a thunder punch of awesomeness. 

So imagine my disappointment when the film turned out to be just OK for me. I know that sounds incredibly snotty to say, bitchy even. But it’s true, and I’m not going to deliver a bunch of canned praise that isn’t sincere and genuine just because everyone else seemingly loves this film. Actually, truth be told, Lawrence of Arabia’s first act had my complete and full attention. But as the film wore on, my interest in the story and lack of connection to the characters and their plight increasingly waned until my mind basically checked into the classy establishment known as the “I Couldn’t Give A Rat’s Ass” hotel. But I beg you, old sport, don’t misinterpret my sentiment to be a confession that I detested the work in its entirety; quite the contrary. There is a lot to admire about Lawrence of Arabia, and it is an unquestionable achievement. But if a film delivers the razzle dazzle on all of the senses save the heart, then it never truly delivers, which is the dilemma Lawrence and I encountered together. 

Directed by the terrific David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia is toplined by Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif and the prodigiously talented Peter O’Toole. Incredibly, the role heralded O’Toole’s film debut, essentially making him an overnight sensation. The film also caused a sensation among Academy voters, who wrapped the film in Oscar glory with 10 nominations, and seven eventual victories, including Best Picture in 1962. In terms of Oscar trivia, Omar Sharif’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor marked the first acting nomination given to an actor from the Middle East (Sharif is from Egypt). Additionally, the film marked the first of eight acting nominations for Peter O’Toole, who, wickedly, was never awarded a competitive Oscar. Although, the Academy did their best to make amends for this travesty by presenting O’Toole with an Honorary Oscar in 2003.

Lawrence of Arabia follows an important chapter in the military career of T. E. Lawrence, an enigmatic misfit lieutenant in the British Army stationed in Cairo during WWI. Anxious to get out into the field, Lawrence is offered an assignment to go and assess the prospects of Prince Faisal in Arabia, and his campaign to put on his shit-kickers and revolt against the Turks. This assignment marks the beginning of Lawrence’s later success in boldly uniting the heretofore contentious tribes of Arabia in their struggle to finally oust the Turks from their land. 

Due to experiences in leading the guerilla campaign assaults on the Turks, Lawrence gradually becomes a changed man, after waging and suffering atrocities. He’s like the proverbial Jedi Knight who feels assured of his place on solid ground, only to lose his footing and stumble into the realm of the Dark Side. But what unnerves Lawrence the most is that he fearfully discovers that he isn’t repulsed by unchaining his darker impulses. In fact, he even relishes them to a degree. In the end, Lawrence is hailed a hero for leading the liberation of Arabia from Turkey. However, the situation’s resolution also signals the termination of Lawrence usefulness, and he is ordered to return home in a state of dejection.

As I hinted at before, Lawrence of Arabia has many striking features that make it difficult to refuse. The most salient component is the cinematography. Stuh-ning. All of the desert vistas and rippling sandscapes are latitudinous in scope and size. The scenes where Lawrence and his band cross the Nefad desert is like an issue of National Geographic magazine’s greatest desert hits come to life. I’ve never seen desert landscapes presented on film in such a domineering and crushingly beautiful fashion. It truly created such an uncommon and unfamiliar looking backdrop to the story that it produced the effect of being otherworldly, as though David Lean had transported his entire cast and crew to another planet. I’m conscious of the fact that it sounds like I’m over hyping the visual splendor of this film, old sport, but I assure you that is not possible. It’s a marvel and provides great merit to the film.

The other aspect pertaining to Lawrence of Arabia that ignited my senses was the film’s score, composed by the brilliant Maurice Jarre. I’ve loved so many of his other scores, such as Ghost and Doctor Zhivago, but in my estimation, Lawrence of Arabia places as the crown jewel of Jarre’s career. It’s exquisite and lush, with an elegant quality that swells in its sonic capabilities. It all felt like a cool drink of water to the senses, particularly during the sustained scenes in the desert. Thus far, I would rank it second only behind Max Steiner’s work in Gone with the Wind on the list of those most accomplished Best Picture scores. It adds so much emotion to the film, preventing it from stumbling during the portions lacking in humanity and depth.

But as I said earlier, a film can charm the senses, but if it fails in its effort to capture the heart, then it doesn’t truly succeed. I found this to be my dilemma with Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a great paradox: The film fired on all cylinders, yet failed to kindle an investment of feeling in the characters, particularly in the man himself: T.E. Lawrence. By the time the final credits unexpectedly roll, I felt as though I was meagerly any more attuned to understanding the character of Lawrence than when the film began. I get that he was an enigmatic character, I really do. But it seemed only thin strands of light filtered through to reveal his character, and in a film running nearly four hours long that is inexcusable. I felt as though the film hit all the right points in moving us through Lawrence’s adventure as it unfurled. But what of his disposition to join the tribes? The genesis to strike out into the desert to unite them? The origin of his short-lived streak of sadism? These questions and more rooted in the flesh of Lawrence’s character never really produce answers that can create any satisfactory dimension.

Clearly, Lawrence is a self-tortured man, but the complex parts working in concert to produce his drives is never fully brought to bear. One reason owing to this lack of illustration is that the film spends too much time pulled back, showcasing the story on a more macro level. How can an audience be expected to appreciate someone’s character when the story is more wrapped up in sprawling scenery, exploding trains and arguments with commanding officers? The simple answer is that they can’t. I’m convinced even the largest personalities can’t compete against such entertaining splendor that the film projects up there on screen, and T.E. Lawrence proves he isn’t up to the task, either. The irony is that Lawrence of Arabia is, to a certain degree, a character study, only except for the fact that no character is being fully studied. In the end, it isn’t sufficiently moving, which left me feeling somewhat like our hero, despondent in wondering what it was all for in the first place.

Favorite Line: In speaking to Lawrence of his work with the Arabs and whether the British are dealing openly and squarely with them, Mr. Dryden, his superior, tells him, “If we've been telling lies, you've been telling half-lies. A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

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