Today’s cinema adventure: Lawrence of Arabia, the 1962 epic about the controversial military hero who led a successful rebellion by the Arabs as part of the British campaign against their Turkish occupiers during WWI. It’s a film that won 7 Academy Awards, made a star of Peter O’Toole, and is widely proclaimed as the masterwork of its director, David Lean. It’s also my favorite movie. Indeed, my love for it is so deeply rooted that it would be laughable for me to attempt anything like an objective review. However, it would also be unthinkable for me to have a blog dedicated to my passion for movies and not to write about my all-time favorite film; so today’s cinema adventure will be a list of the five reasons why Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest movie ever made. Forgive me in advance: I may gush.
1. The cinematography. The process of making Lawrence of Arabia took place over a grueling three-year period on location in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain. The conditions were punishing, with the cast and crew enduring the extremity of the elements for a longer period than was taken by the historical events depicted in the film. Nevertheless, cinematographer Freddie Young, using the massive and unwieldy cameras required for the film’s 70mm CinemaScope presentation, was able to capture the beauty and majesty of the desert setting to an extent unequalled before or since. The full character of the land is here to see: from the intricate rivulets of blowing sand that make the pristine dunes into a tapestry of constantly changing patterns, to the vast scope of a landscape that seemingly transforms an army of mounted warriors to the size and significance of ants, to the myriad of colors and textures that exist within the deceptively monotonous veneer. By transferring all these subtle details to the screen, Young successfully allows the desert to serve as far more than the mere backdrop it might have been in a lesser film; it plays a full-fledged role in the drama, with the constant assertion of its presence and its ever-shifting mood exerting a continual influence on the actions and the fate of the characters. In a way, Lawrence of Arabia could be characterized as a love story between its eponymous hero and the desert itself; thanks to Freddie Young, the chemistry between them is palpable.
2. The music. French composer Maurice Jarre was not the first choice for the task of creating musical accompaniment for Lean’s epic; he was virtually unknown at the time and was only approached when William Walton (elder statesman of British film composers) and Malcolm Arnold (who had worked with Lean on the highly successful Bridge on the River Kwai) were unavailable. To say he rose to the challenge is an understatement. His sweeping symphonic score is haunting and multi-faceted, from the magisterial strains of the now-familiar main theme to the rousing military marches interpolated throughout, providing the perfect complement to the enigmatic figure at the center of the story and the diverse, turbulent situation that surrounds him. Jarre’s accomplishment was made even more remarkable by the fact that he was only given two weeks to write the entire score; he also reportedly took over leading the orchestra for most of the recording sessions when credited conductor Adrian Boult was unable to coordinate his timing with the cues required by the film’s editing. It was not only the beginning of a long and prolific career as a prominent film composer, but also of a continuing work relationship with Lean that lasted for the rest of the director’s life.
3. The screenplay. Producer Sam Spiegel talked Lawrence’s younger brother into selling him the rights to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence’s own published memoir, to use as the basis for the film. A screenplay was written by Michael Wilson that centered on the political and military aspects of the story, but Lean was unhappy with that focus. Playwright Robert Bolt was brought in to rewrite the script instead as an examination of Lawrence himself. The result is a layered and intelligent portrait of one of the century’s most controversial heroes, presenting him as a contradictory figure- an egotist plagued by self-doubt, torn between loyalty to his country and love for the Arab cause, uncomfortable with his own people, haunted by his ignoble origins, and determined to write his own destiny. Bold for its time, the script overtly implies his homosexuality, depicts his torture and presumptive rape at the hands of a sadistic Turkish commander, portrays his sadomasochistic tendencies and includes his eager participation in the bloody massacre of a retreating enemy column. Yet despite this in-depth treatment, and though he is described variously by other characters throughout as everything from a “monster” to a “genius,” he remains as much a mystery at the end as he is at the beginning- and the film’s most urgent question, as voiced to Lawrence across the Suez Canal by a stranger in black near the end of its first act, remains unanswered- “Who are you?” Don’t assume, however, that this microscopic attention to its central character means that Lawrence of Arabia avoids the other subjects that factor into his story; not content to take a simple us-against-them perspective about war, the film presents a shrewdly cynical picture of the complicated agendas being shaped by both the British and their Arabian allies-of-convenience, offering insight on a historical period that laid the foundation for a complex and volatile Middle Eastern political arena that still exists today. Its treatment of the realities of warfare reveals the horror and tragedy that lie beneath the illusion of excitement and glory. Within its sweeping scope, it explores the larger theme of destiny vs. self-determination, not with lofty philosophical discourse, but through the course of events that arise in its story- calling into question whether history is shaped by men whose actions determine it, or whether the men are in fact shaped by the events which determine their actions, indeed whether they ultimately have any more significance or influence than pawns on a cosmic chessboard. In short, Lawrence of Arabia is an epic of the largest stature, encompassing important ideas, momentous events and literally thousands of people- but it is also the intimate, personal story of a single man and his journey of self-discovery. Thanks to the brilliantly literate and insightful work of Mr. Bolt, it works on both levels.
4. The performances. For the leading role, Lean’s first choice was Albert Finney, then a relatively unknown actor, and producer Spiegel wanted Marlon Brando. Both declined, and another unknown actor was eventually chosen- Peter O’Toole. It was the perfect match of actor and role. O’Toole completely owns Lawrence, commanding the screen with his flamboyant charisma and his piercing intensity. He conveys all the complexities discussed above without softening any of it for the sake of audience sympathy, and yet by virtue of his sheer honesty and commitment, his deliciously ironic humor, and- perhaps most of all- his underlying humanity, he makes this maddening, difficult, arrogant man into someone we can admire, pity, identify with, and yes, even like. He is surrounded by a superb all-star cast of international actors, all delivering some of the best performances of their careers. Alec Guinness, one of Lean’s favorite collaborators, plays Prince Feisal, leader of the Arab rebel forces and heir presumptive to their throne, who transitions from warrior to diplomat over the course of the film, and shows us the qualities of both in each. Every word he utters is laden with significance and layered with multiple meanings, and not one of them seems contrived or forced. Anthony Quinn embodies a lion of the desert as Auda abu Tayi, a shrewd and ferocious chieftain who initially allies himself with Lawrence’s rebel army primarily for personal profit, but whose loyalty and support are unwavering. He, too, captures the multiple facets of a potentially despicable character and makes them beautiful, turning Auda into both a lovable rogue and a force to be reckoned with. Omar Sharif, also then an unknown, at least outside of his native Egypt, is magnetic as Sherif Ali, another tribal leader, who clashes with Lawrence early on only to become his trusted comrade and closest friend- and perhaps more. Sleekly handsome, his intelligence and sensitivity make Ali an ideal counterpoint to the earthiness of Auda, and the chemistry he displays with O’Toole is tangible, clearly establishing the subtext that makes their characters’ relationship feel unmistakably like the film’s romantic subplot. Jack Hawkins is deceptively straightforward as General Allenby, the chief commander of British forces in the Arabian campaign, making his bemused, stiff-upper-lip demeanor an effective mask for the calculated, strategic thinking with which he manipulates Lawrence- as well as a shield against the uncomfortable moral implications of his Machiavellian tactics. Veteran character actor Claude Rains delivers one of the film’s most delightful and memorable performances as Mr. Dryden, a composite figure designed to represent the diplomatic forces at work behind the scenes and to serve as a sort of mentor to the younger Lawrence; oozing with mischievous charm, he wears the obvious duplicity of his role in the proceedings like a comfortable shroud, providing contrast with Allenby, and giving the impression of an expert puppet-master proudly enjoying his handiwork. As Col. Brighton, the liaison between the British military authority and the Arab forces, Anthony Quayle gives us the stolid presence of a career soldier, honorable, loyal, brave and more than a little dull- though not unintelligent; he makes an excellent foil for Lawrence’s dazzling shine, and provides a necessary and refreshing flavor of the ordinary. Arthur Kennedy brings a distinctively American perspective to the tale as Jackson Bentley, a cynical Chicago news reporter who documents Lawrence’s campaigns and makes him an international hero- and also serves as a kind of Greek chorus, providing a more objective viewpoint to the action and giving voice to the outrage evoked by the perspective of an outsider. Jose Ferrer makes a brief but unforgettable contribution as the sadistic Turkish Bey who interrogates and tortures Lawrence, exuding an oily, jaded dissipation as he gradually makes it clear that his intentions are not military but sexual in nature; somehow, even this dark character elicits a glimmer of sympathetic humanity as Ferrer embodies him with the full weight of his circumstance, making us feel the frustration and dehumanizing detachment that arise from his duties and his isolation. I could continue down the list of actors, all the way to the extras who provide stunning impressions in their few seconds of screen time, but you get the idea.
5. The direction. By the time he made Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean was already respected for both his technical skill and his aesthetic vision, but this film would elevate him to the ranks of a genuine master, eventually to be held in the same esteem as auteurs like Hitchcock, Fellini and Kurosawa. It’s easy to understand why. Lean constructs his film with a keen instinct for visual storytelling, establishing complicated situations, relationships, and thematic elements, packing an entire scene’s worth of exposition into a single, elegantly composed shot. He makes every location an integral part of the action, whether it is the powerful, ever-changing desert landscape, the interior of a tent swaying uneasily in the breeze, or the austere and museum-like halls of the military headquarters. His command of the imagery is not just limited to artful composition; with the abilities derived from working as an editor throughout his early film career (a role which he continued to personally undertake when he moved into the director’s chair), he meticulously pieces together all of his remarkable footage to create this epic true-life adventure in a way that conveys all the subtleties of both the global and personal levels of the story even when he is painting in broad strokes, and never feels slow for a second, despite the film’s notorious running time of nearly 4 hours. It’s no wonder, then, that Lawrence of Arabia has provided an inspirational blueprint for directors ranging from Stephen Spielberg to David Lynch; Lean’s perfectionism is obvious in every frame, and with it he crafts a movie of dazzling complexity out of simple, economical building blocks put together in just the right way. It’s a textbook example of great filmmaking, and even if Lawrence had been Lean’s only great film (which it certainly was not) it would be enough to ensure his place on the short list of the greatest directors of the 20th Century.
It’s only fair to point out that the movie has had its detractors over the years. Lawrence’s brother deeply regretted selling the rights to the story after seeing the film, protesting that the man portrayed in Lean’s vision bore no resemblance to the one he knew in life (though others who knew Lawrence said the film’s depiction was accurate, if somewhat exaggerated); in addition, the family of chieftain Auda abu Tayi pursued legal action against Columbia Studios over the movie’s representation of him as driven by a desire for personal gain, and the family of General Allenby also lodged formal complaints. Newsman Lowell Thomas (whose coverage of Lawrence and his desert campaign were responsible for making him and his exploits famous) called the movie “pretentious and false,” disparaging its accuracy, and many historians have taken exception to its mixture of fact and fiction; real people are mixed together with fictional composites, events are chronologically rearranged for dramatic purposes, some important occurrences are omitted entirely while complete fabrications are given pivotal significance, and some of the true politics surrounding this important chapter in world history have been significantly altered in order to facilitate Lean’s storytelling agenda. These criticisms are all undeniably valid, from a certain perspective- after all, a movie which purports to offer a true presentation of historical facts would do well to stick to those facts with a minimum of artistic license. However, Lawrence of Arabia is not such a movie. It’s not a documentary, nor is it really even a biographical drama; it is a work of fiction, based on a true story, yes, but not merely a regurgitation of documented information. Lean and screenwriter Bolt are more interested in exploring the personal and political facets of human experience than in offering a retrospective of facts, and they follow in the footsteps of many other artists- Shakespeare among them- by altering the historical truth in order to get at the more intangible truths inside it. It may not offer up a fair portrait of its hero- or any of its other characters, real or imagined, and it may not be a reliable document of what really happened on the Arabian Peninsula in 1917-18, but it is a compelling study of human strength and frailty, an insightful commentary on political and social interaction, and a gripping saga of high adventure in an exotic time and place. Criticizing it for being inaccurate is the equivalent of criticizing a painting for not being a photograph.
Of course, there are those who dislike Lawrence of Arabia for reasons other than its historical inaccuracies. Those too young to remember when movies were shown with an intermission may quail at its length- even theater owners of its time protested, prompting the unfortunate cutting of several scenes, only some of which have since been able to be restored. Others have criticized it as male-centric, citing its lack of feminine presence (no women have speaking roles, and indeed, few females appear onscreen at all); and many have protested, variously, its perceived negative portrayal of native Arabs and its use of western actors in most of the major Arab roles- even Omar Sharif, an Egyptian, was an objectionable choice in many parts of the Middle East. Some have called the film “shallow” (an unbelievable criticism, in my view) or “Imperialist” (equally ludicrous), and still others have simply dismissed it as the outdated product of a bygone era. To these opinions, I can only say that everyone is entitled to their personal tastes, though for those who see the film as having an anti-Arab bias I would have to point out that its portrayal of westerners is hardly complementary, either. For those of us who love Lawrence of Arabia, however, its heartening to know we are in good company- its a film that consistently places in the top ten of most lists of the greatest movies of all time, and the contributions of almost all of its participants is widely considered among the finest work in their respective careers.
If you are among those who have yet to see Lawrence of Arabia, there couldn’t be a better time than now. In honor of the film’s 50th anniversary, a painstaking digital restoration has been prepared, returning it to a level of beauty that reportedly even surpasses its pristine, original magnificence. This new version has been screened at several major film festivals and will enjoy a one-day-only theatrical release today (October 4, 2012). If you are lucky enough to be able to get to one of these big-screen presentations, I guarantee you will enjoy an unforgettable cinematic experience. If you can’t make it, though, take heart; it will be released on BluRay for home viewing soon (its already available in the UK), and given the film’s enduring popularity and reputation, you can be assured it will make frequent returns to the big screen- where it was truly meant to be seen and where its full power reveals itself in ways unimaginable in your living room, no matter how sophisticated your equipment may be- for many years to come. If you are anything like me (and if you are reading this, odds are good that you probably are) you will jump at the chance to see it this way, whenever possible. If nothing else, it will remind you that movies, which all too often serve as mere distractions for us in this era of easy access and rapid downloads, are at their best when they are an event- and there are few films more deserving to be treated as an event than Lawrence of Arabia.