Thursday, August 30, 2012

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962): “Revolt in the Desert”

Many years ago I read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book on which the film Lawrence of Arabia is based.  The book is phenomenal, and the movie in many respects lives up to the book.
The film can be a bit showy at times.  Though Director David Lean for the most part cast established names in the major roles, the most interesting exception was the casting of Peter O’Toole to play the part of T.E. Lawrence.  It was the role that would make O’Toole famous.  Yet I’m guessing that the late Colonel Lawrence would have been disconcerted by the way that he was portrayed in the movie.  No doubt, Lawrence comes across as a brilliant military figure in the film, but he often comes off as a bit of a fruitcake as well.
Individuals under great stress often do remarkable things, but its particularly remarkable that Lawrence could have so ably negotiated with the Arabs to fight together against the Turks while at the same time keep the Arab leadership and English and American military leaders happy at the same time.  One can tell by reading his works that Lawrence was an eccentric individual, but the film portrays him as being extremely unstable as well.
I suppose it’s inevitable that moviemakers feel the need to dramatize to make the story more compelling.  To the credit of such individuals with regards to Lawrence of Arabia, we never lose interest in the character on the screen – and it is extremely rare in this film that O’Toole is not shown playing his part.  It is the first modern film biography, and virtually no biography since has lived up to this film’s standards.
I earlier mentioned the casting.  We have Alec Guinness playing the wise and understanding Prince (and later King) Feisal.  Guinness actually looks the part of Feisal, but at times he seems so otherworldly that we almost forget that he’s a human being.  Omar Sharif plays Sherif Ali, a leader of an Arab faction that has been for centuries warring with another faction.  Is he believable in the role?  To some degree he is.  He grows through the film to a semi-barbarian to one that seeks political answers and weeps over the troubles of his off and on friend, Lawrence.  Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi may be the most stereotypical (at least by Hollywood standards) of any major character in the film playing the part of an Arab, but in many ways he comes across as the most human as well.
Of the other roles, Jack Hawkins as the manipulative General Allenby comes across as the most convincing.  Many other characters, including Claude Raines as Dryden, are stereotypical Englishmen set out to conquer the world.
What make this film so unique are the chances that it takes in storytelling.  At 216 minutes of filming portraying various settings all over the Middle East, the film obviously was intended as an epic.  Yet this was an epic like none other shown before in the extreme complexity of the hero of the film.  Lawrence is portrayed as a visionary, intellectual, eccentric, a sadist who at times was repelled by bloodshed, a masochist, possibly a homosexual, and one that had a love/hate relationship with the Arab people.  Lawrence was attracted and repelled by Bedouin morality which at times he considered clean and other times pushing the limits blood thirstiness.
The film can at times be as ambiguous as the main character.  The Arabs are treated reverentially at some moments, and treated with disdain at others.  Some characters like Sherif Ali are allowed to grow, and others never change or outgrow their resentments that seem to have no beginning or end.  Yet what we see filmed in Damascus where petty rivalries once again take hold after the Turks have been repelled still seems mild to what we are seeing in Damascus today.
Lawrence of Arabia is a great film because of the lead actor, because of the direction, because it takes risks, and because it does not insult one’s intelligence.  Seven Pillars of Wisdom is an extremely complex book that leaves one baffled about its author.  T.E. Lawrence admits in the book that he could never truly be one with the Arabs, and yet in fighting their cause never again truly be an Englishman.  The film is also perplexing, but that’s in part to do with the difficult questions it asks and the difficult character it presents.
August 30, 2012

© Robert S. Miller 2012