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I have viewed and written on Lawrence of Arabia since it came out in 1962. I taught to my classes then and later. I did see it on the big screen when it came out twice, and many times after on laser disc, DVD, and the Blu-ray package that came out recently. I am wring this review to remind viewers the LOA has more relevance now than it did then. The concern then, 1962, was the Cold War. Today, it is the disastrous conditions on the locations where David Lean discovered the tracks of trains T.E. Lawrence blew up during his campaign, exactly 100 years ago. Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson authored the script, but is was Lean's direction that created one of the greatest films of all time. The film should be honored now for its prescience. Lawrence wanted to united the Arab tribes. There is no need to remind the current viewer who might take a look at the film and make the appropriate and illuminating comparisons.
"What's your favourite film, then ?" A dread unsettling question. But
if harried by the Turks, say, I'd probably have to admit to this one -
while agonisingly conscious of all the other favourite films being
elbowed aside. And I write as one not overly enthused about Lean's
other epic ventures. RIVER KWAI I find offensive for its wilful neglect
of real p.o.w. horror in favour of smugly cooked-up ironies and
hack-platitudes. ZHIVAGO is undermined by hollow leads chosen only for
their beauty, RYAN'S DAUGHTER is insanely overblown soap-opera while A
PASSAGE TO India collapses halfway through when the thread snaps and
we're just watching the actors tread water. But LAWRENCE, for me, is
the real deal, a bewitching tapestry so successful at what it sets out
to achieve it's almost incredible. Gobsmacking to watch and a delight
to listen to it makes you feel thrilled that movies were invented.
Sure, it plays games with history. "It's not the real Lawrence, of course," Lean admitted on the box. Quite so. The real Lawrence would require a mini-series or, at the end, a chamber-drama like Anglia's excellent TV film of the Nineties with Ralph Fiennes. The massive river of events, intrigues and personnel as recorded by Lawrence himself (though questioned in some quarters) has been simplified here, channelled into a tributary of pertinent moments and symbols, a loner's odyssey, with key support figures marginalised strategically along its banks. The true extent of Lawrence's role as an Imperialist agent did not begin to be disclosed, officially, until the end of the Sixties. To suit the film's left-wing leanings and better engage with the mass blockbuster audience he's depicted initially as politically naive, an amusingly bumptious misfit with a classical education packed off into the desert, via a wily politico, partly to get him out of the hair of his C.O. who has little faith in him or his mission to foster Arab unity against their Turkish overlords ("A sideshow of a sideshow !"). That celebrated cut from the blowing-out of a match to sunrise on the desert sweeps us literally into a new world (and still does). Lean's staging, Young's photography and Jarre's surging music combine to breathtaking effect. The winsome weirdo who enjoys preening himself and teasing his own flesh is tested against lethal tribal-rivalry but fires them with a bold vision - the taking of Akaba, a sea-port undefended on its landward side. During the long trek to this objective one of his men is lost in the desert. Lawrence goes out of his way to reclaim him, earning the respect of all and they clothe him in the robes of an Arab chieftain. (In real life this was a more pragmatic suggestion from the Brits). A further rite of leadership arises when he takes it upon himself to execute a man for murder, preventing an inter-tribal war. The man he kills is the man he saved (a deft juxtaposition of two separate incidents in real life involving different people). Lawrence is later to confess to his new C.O. that he enjoyed the experience.
Akaba is successfully taken (in a stunning panning-shot) and Lawrence begins to make a name for himself. He gets promoted and becomes a guerrilla-leader in assaults on the Turkish railway. But a turning-point comes when he's captured by the Turks on a reconnaissance, is flogged and (possibly) raped before being released. His bodily integrity shattered he's further disillusioned to discover (in the film) that the promise of independence he's been peddling to the Arabs is a stitch-up to conceal the colonial interests of Britain and France. The self-hurting he once indulged in now penetrates too deeply and the self-image become abhorrent. His request to stand down is refused, he's too important now, and in bitterness and despair takes part in a revenge-massacre of retreating Turkish troops. When Allied victory is secured he's sent home, leaving the politicians to sort things out. While this makes for a fine symbolical end to the drama it also constitutes the film's biggest distortion of history. Prince Feisal effects to dismiss him in the movie while in real life Feisal needed him more than ever in the battle for nation-rights at the Versailles Peace Conference. Feisal, the real fall-guy, was treated very badly by the Europeans and only Lawrence's active intervention as his spokesman won him concessions. It's good that we now have the Ralph Fiennes film which rectifies the record.
Robert Bolt's quirky brilliant dialogue, for Lean, tends to short-change some of the characters, reducing the stature of Allenby and Sheik Auda in a generally cynical view of motives which spurred their descendants to seek redress from the film-makers. At the same time it's all wonderfully entertaining and impeccably played by a sterling cast. Omar Sharif showed potential he never has since. And though Lawrence was never really an 'innocent' Peter O'Toole riding the whirlwind with his piercing charisma (and newly-sculpted nose) has an iconic power that will live in movie-history forever - like Sir David's film the likes of which cannot be replicated now that computers have taken over much of the adventure and the excitement. One last thought - the real T.E. archaeologist and map-maker was involved in re-drawing the map of the Middle East with all its volatile consequences through the 20th century and beyond. The final irony indeed.
I watched this for the first time in widescreen. I found Alec Guinness distracting, as he is obviously not an Arab; and there is nary a word of Arabic spoken in the entire film beyond names and places. Omar Sharif may remind of you Wes Bently who starred in a similar epic, "The Four Feathers".
The film is more art than entertainment. It is long and a bit languid at times, but the photography is like nothing seen since, the score is beautiful (though a bit intrusive at times, as was the style for the era), the production is flawless (observe the city of Akahba).
The unpretentious, direct, sweeping story characterized the film for me.
Apart the incredible scope and quality of this great movie, is one of the great ironies that I have encountered, the fact that this crazy man Lawrence lives through everything a man could go through, his eventual demise is on a joyride on a motorcycle.
The film's cumulative impact is substantial. Sometimes it still feels extremely modern - like the famous cut from the match to the red sky, or in the detailed study of Lawrence's psychological disintegration, or just in the vivid depiction of the moments of darkness and brooding at the heart of his grand achievement. Then at other times it tends to descend into men talking in rooms or to the over-mannered portrayals of the likes of Guinness, although the theme of the young impetuous leader contrasted with the weighty cynical calculations of the true ruling class is powerful. O'Toole provides a subtle, bravura picture of Lawrence as a man tormented by his own desire for achievement and grandstanding, yet barely able to bear his weaknesses and fears and also increasingly haunted by very real and dark demons. The movie is of course a visual splendor and a great feat of coordination and assembly - every scene is constructed like a paining or a great tableau, sometimes other-worldly ghostly or strange, sometimes sheerly magnificent, always attuned to the grand contrast between the messy culture of the Arabs and the clipped, calculating British - a line that Lean himself walked quite eloquently and fluidly in this film. It sometimes strikes me as lying too much on the side of hero-worship, but no matter.
The first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia was in 1963 and I wanted not to like it, since Peter O'Toole had been so vaunted as the shoe-in Oscar winner for that year and I wanted Burt Lancaster to win for Birdman of Alcatraz. I came away from that movie very much impressed by its physical beauty but even more captivated by Lawrence himself. With all the grandeur of the scenes, for me the story of a man so complicated and full of mystery was what I took away from it driving home from the theater. I went right to my local library to get T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" and even read most of its thousand-plus pages. For me, amidst the spectacle and sweep of the movie, the idea of this conflicted man who thought he was godlike and was humbled, not only by his physical nature but also by his ability to betray that which he thought he loved, made Lawrence of Arabia unique. I'd never seen an epic movie quite like that before or since ... and it also made me become a Peter O'Toole fan forever! I saw "Lawrence" one other time in big-screen and probably about ten more times on tv, and I never tire of it. It deserves its reputation as a classic portrayal of the mystery of personality amidst the chaos and hypocrisy of a "great war."
In terms of direction, acting and cinematography, this has got to be one of the finest films ever made. From its desert sweeping camera shots, this is a very detailed and well thought out biography of Colonel T.E. Lawrence, who in his 3 years in Arabia during the First World War, succeeded in uniting the Arab Tribes against the Turks. The cast is that one of the finest ever assembled for the film. Peter O'Toole is well cast as Lawrence, Omar Sharif is a great Sheriff Ali, and I.S. Johar plays a wonderfully human Gasim. Winner of seven academy awards, this is a film that everyone should see.
As others have commented, the visual aspect of Lawrence is indeed almost overwhelming, but another aspect stands out too. The love theme. As was pointed out, Lawrence is a film with no women. Despite that it is the love tension which feeds the whole plot from beginning to end. That Lawrence himself was homosexual, is alluded to throughout the film, but the deeper love for the land and the people, is the one that carries him mercilessly onwards. The tragedy is that Lawrence is continually rejected, both physically and ultimately spiritually. The film is one of a few which manages to show the reality of love in both its pain and it's glory.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ten it is and well deserved. I have seen this several times and always
find something to dwell on. Of course, Peter O'Toole was superb, but so
was his supporting cast.
Anthony Quinn looks more Arabic than Arabs. And Anthony Quayle always has been a favorite of mine and Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guiness, and Jose Ferrar were splendid. The latter was appropriately dissolute as the Turkish officer who captured Lawrence
The photography was spectacular, the skyline, deserts, and battle scenes. There were just enough of the fighting. The opening air bombing, the attack on the train, the massacre of the Turkish column, and the final raid.
What also was impressive was the relationship between Lawrence and the two Arab boys. All in all, a marvelous production that no one should miss.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I am not one of the guys who can sit and watch a 3 hrs epic film just like that. I have to be in a proper mood and have to be willing to get on a journey or an adventure, if you will, to another place and time. Happily, the conditions were right for me to watch an epic and I did watch Lawrence. A lot of things were intriguing about that film: The amazing cinematography, the framing of shots, the impeccable crowd control, and, you know, all the technical stuff. Although not as good as Lawrence's, these qualities are present in other epics as well. What really drew me into the film was T.E Lawrence's character in the film. Usually in epics, the characters take a back seat for the sake of the action or events. But here we see this intimate personal story of a man who, for some reason, challenges and tests himself: Burning his hand with the matchstick, standing in front of a man firing bullets towards him and almost killing him, and constantly going to dangerous battles with the Arabs. For what? He's not doing it for his country and most probably not for the Arabs. He is trying to prove something to himself about himself. He is a deeply self-destructive character and to have such small exquisite story of a man within the epic canvas of the wars and the desert is just extraordinary. I can't believe that Sam Spiegel really took a chance on this madly genius (and very risky) film. I give credit to him, to Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson for the amazing screenplay, to the terrific Peter O Toole and Omar Sharif and , of course, to the man himself, one of cinema's greatest filmmaking artists, Mr. David Lean.
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