Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 7
Year: 1962
Writer: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Director: David Lean
Star: Peter O’Toole, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif

I have spent the last 220-odd minutes with “Lawrence of Arabia,” and yet I don’t feel like I’ve really seen it. If there was ever a movie that did everything but reach out of your television, shake you and insist “You really should be watching me on a big screen,” this is it. There are images here that impress on the television, but you can only get their full impact if you see it up on a huge movie screen. I was bummed to see there were no revivals in Los Angeles anytime soon (to see this onscreen at the Egyptian Theatre must be quite an experience), and yet seeing it as I did helped me to appreciate many of the more subtle gestures in a film known for its grand ones.

The movie opens with, in my opinion, a misstep. T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) rides his motorcycle at dangerous speeds through the English countryside, swerves to miss pedestrians, crashes and dies. We then flash back to his being stationed in Arabia to, essentially, observe and report on Prince Faisal (Alex Guinness). He ends up leading a major section of Faisal’s army to battle against the Turks, first with cooperation of the British Army and later notsomuch. I was genuinely unaware of Lawrence and all of the events that happened here when I saw the film, so knowing he survived everything hurt the element of surprise and suspense, particularly in the second half.

That said, so much of the writing here is brilliant and, despite the sometimes confusing and intricate histories of Arabian sects and the British military’s motives, the film never feels like it is talking down to its audience. Lawrence is given two young men who would be nothing more than two-dimensional sidekicks in a lesser film, but here co-writers Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson find ways to use the characters (and their fates) to enhance Lawrence’s emotional journey. Two other characters are introduced (played by Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif) and, subtly, become the two halves of Lawrence’s conscience and the closest thing he has to friends.

Of course, all of this would be of little use if the central character was not someone we wanted to spend 220 minutes with. There are many reasons why I cannot believe that this movie, on this scale, got produced, but centering the film on someone like T.E. Lawrence is right at the top of the list. He’s genuinely eccentric in just about every way, develops a horrifying bloodlust, is severely egotistical…and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Just imagine if you had a token, stiff-jawed, shirt-torn action figure at the center of this story. He would be metaphorically eaten up by the desert locations around him by the end of the first half-hour. But, as majestic as Arabia is (and we’ll get to that in a paragraph or two), Lawrence is the real reason we remain engaged. O’Toole’s performance is stunning—we care about him but are a little afraid of him. He can pull off a magnificent scene where he must kill the man whose life he almost died saving and sell a scene where he humorously dances around in his new wardrobe with the same verve and energy. At no point in the film do we really “know” Lawrence, and that only adds to how fascinating he is. It’s astonishing…almost unbelievable…that he got away with so much and accomplished so many things, and yet the reality is that he did. Well, some version of reality. As with every other film on the top 100, I went out of my way to avoid historical context and other critical discussions until after finishing this writing, so I don’t know how true the film is to his real journey.

I think it’s safe to say that there has never been a movie that has eclipsed “Lawrence of Arabia” in terms of scope and epic nature, with apologies to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Avatar.” The locations, specifically in the first half of the movie, are so astoundingly created and shot that half the fun is wondering how they could realistically have been made. There are many scenes where a character (or a character on his camel) will walk into an untouched sea of desert, leaving a single line of tracks behind him. How could they have possibly set up for multiple takes? Other scenes involve the characters walking or riding through intense dust storms. How did the cameras continue to function, even with protection, through all of it? Everything here is just jaw-dropping, with images the viewer will never forget, which allow the movie to function as a poetic journey as much as a cerebral one.

There is little action, but when it happens, it really counts. Director David Lean stages a crackerjack train crash at the beginning of the second half where you convince yourself the train must be a miniature…until an army of Arabs race over dunes of sand and interact with it. It turns out Lean is a little fetishistic about trains. Here, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “Summertime,” “Brief Encounter”…I’m sure there are more.

With O’Toole giving a performance for the ages, it’s only logical that the rest of the cast doesn’t quite live up to him. Sharif comes off best, and his exit from the film is an emotionally highlight. Quinn and Guinness struggle under some horrible make-up (Quinn in particular), while excellent character actor Claude Rains seems to have taken sedatives before every take. There’s also a journalist character (Arthur Kennedy) introduced in the second half who is superfluous, only serving as a way to get the main characters to say exposition in a fairly natural way.

And yet, even as I complain about “Lawrence of Arabia’s” shortcomings, I feel like they are mere quibbles in the scheme of things. This movie accomplishes more in one of its almost-four hours than most movies do in their entire running time. It’s the thinking man’s epic film, stands up on multiple viewings and making sure to fill every one of its 220 minutes with something fascinating. I only wish I could have seen it up on a big screen.

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

No comments: