Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Great Movies: "Lawrence of Arabia"

Lawrence of Arabia
David Lean, 1962

Previous Contact: I watched Lawrence of Arabia about sixteen years ago and remembered it as an interminable series of shots of the desert landscape, broken by a couple of violent train wrecks. But then again, I had just had an outpatient procedure and was pretty heavily sedated.


It turns out my previous impression, if not precisely wrong, was a bit limited. In truth, Lawrence of Arabia is a pretty amazing film. The interminable shots of the desert, for starters, are quite lovely, conveying the immensity of the Arabian landscape and illuminating the mindset of the characters, whose actions are always informed by the harsh natural environment.

The film does startlingly well with its anthropology and political history. The Arabs are shown, not especially flatteringly, as a people hopelessly divided on tribal lines, undisciplined and disorganized in public life. The British are shown, not especially flatteringly, as a bunch of mannered dilettantes engaging in endless, pointless military ritual in their opulent Cairo headquarters. Both shoes fit reasonably well, really.

In telling the story of how the British schnookered the Arabs into fighting on their behalf against the Ottoman Empire, the film is not without a rich historical sense of irony. “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people,” Lawrence tells an Arab man – which is a pretty rich thing for a European military officer to say in 1917. The eventual summary comment of a secondary character, the head of Britain’s Arab Bureau, could really be applied to the entirety of the British colonial adventure in the Middle East: “On the whole, I wish I'd stayed in Tunbridge Wells.”

But the real subject of the film is of course T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia himself, and he is here a character of downright Shakespearian proportions. Wildly eccentric, insanely brave but riven by self-doubt, moralistic but occasionally bloodthirsty, suave but chronically awkward, he is a deliciously complex character. He is compelling in that is simultaneously larger than life but also a bit of the boy next door. His eventual descent into something much like madness is tragic in moral terms for Lawrence himself as well as in immediate practical terms for virtually everyone else in the movie.

Plot: Bored of a desk job, a dashing young British officer gets himself posted as a liaison to rebel Arab tribes in the Ottoman Empire. When his risky military advice keeps paying off, he becomes something of a messiah figure among the Arabs. Things get a little weird when he joins his own cult of personality.

Visuals: Stupendous, even on the modest computer screen which serves as HomeTheater5000. It must be astonishing on the big screen. The desert is filmed with loving attention and is always beautiful, even on the frequent occasions when people are dying horribly in it.

Dialog: A touch stagy, the dialog does a terrific job of explaining motivations and situations within a complex historical scenario without becoming bluntly expository. Often highly witty, especially when priggish Brits are hoisting themselves on their own petards.

Prognosis: A genuinely great movie! But, at 3 ½ hours that include many slow, panning shots of desolate landscapes, it’s not going to be the best pick for someone who needs a violent thrill every minute. No, the violent thrills come at roughly twenty-minute intervals. Block out a chunk of time and be braced for the long haul, and you ought to really enjoy this one.


Yankee in England said...

L of A falls into the same category as Dr. Zivago(sp?) for me. Really great movie if you have the time and the patience for the long assedness of it. The quote about Tunbridge Wells makes me laugh having been there before, it is kind of a shit hole.

As usual your review was full of exciting words that I want to run out and find a way of using in the coming week. Sadly Xenodiplomatic was a little hard to slip into casual conversation last week.

Elaine said...

I think the remastered (rescued) copy is longer than the original. BTW, sales of soft drinks soared during the scenes of the desert search-and-rescue segment. Peter O'Toole made his reputation with that movie, though now it is painful to see how he's changed. (I, of course, have hardly aged at all in the intervening 45 years....)

fingerstothebone said...

One of my most favorite movies of all times!

mrs.5000 said...

It's one of my very very favorite movies also, so it was a great relief to see M5K enjoying it this time around. I was braced for a little marital turbulence if he couldn't stand it.

Sarah Nopp said...

I got to see this at the Olympia Film Society a couple years ago. It has been one of my favorites for Years. And the big screen was, as you guess, delicious. You might check the small film companies to see who plays it this summer... Maybe OFS will do again.