Sunday, May 17, 2009

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This was intended to be a mini-review.

(That's right. I didn’t think I had too much to say about Lawrence of Arabia.)

The reason for this is that it's a classic, and you should go see it, and that's all there is. If you still need more persuading, let me tell you that this movie features Alec Guinness out in the desert wearing a brown cloak. Given the evidence of Star Wars, that can only be a positive thing.

It's the War to End All Wars, and on the Arabian peninsula, the scheming Brits intend to overthrow the ailing Ottoman Empire by uniting the various squabbling Arab tribes. Granted, compared to the epic slugfest going on in central Europe, it’s a distinctly second-tier affair. Guinness plays the Arab leader Prince Feisal, and Peter O'Toole (repeat offender!!) plays T. E. Lawrence, an Englishman with conflicting feelings of identity. Lawrence is fey and a little bit fruity (not sure if O'Toole intended to portray him as being gay, but it's a possibility). His superiors don't quite trust him, but before you can say 'the Judland wastes are not travelled lightly', Lawrence has recruited Feisal and other chiefs, and sent them on their merry way to raid that hive of Turkish scum and villainy, Aquaba. The Arab Revolt is underway!

This film gets everything right. It's epic without ever being boring or ponderous, and that's a tough line to straddle. Not many four-hour long movies achieve it. The first half of the movie is especially stirring- watching Lawrence whip his rough-and-ready camel commandos into shape as they score some early victories is thrilling. Like djinns, they appear out of the desert leaving the Turkish guns at Aquaba pointing uselessly out to sea. Huzzah! The second half focuses more on political machinations, as Lawrence begins to wonder exactly what the British have planned for the Arabs after the war. Things do slow down a bit here, but it's still fascinating viewing.

The film is similarly rough-and-ready with history. There are inaccuracies and plot holes large enough to march the 11th hussars through, but it all makes for a better movie. The cinematic Lawrence is made more sympathetic by his ignorance of the Sykes-Pycot agreement to annex Arabia, which in real life he was well aware of. Such discrepancies rankle less than they might- often simplifying a complex situation allows a movie to flow better.

In terms of sheer cinematic craft the film is unmatched. When Lawrence first announces his excitement at being sent to Arabia, there's a jump-cut from a lit match to the first burning rays of the rising desert sun that rivals the bone/spacecraft cut from 2001: A Space Odyssey for sheer pretentiousness. In fact, much of the movie is very like Kubrick's classic in feel. Like 2001, much is hinted at rather than explicitly stated in long, lazy scenes.

A note on the score- upon arriving at the top of a hill or mountain and suddenly being confronted with a dramatic view of the surrounding landscape, a suitably dramatic theme is required. I once had a friend who hummed the Lord of the Rings theme to himself in such situations. Not me- for me its gotta be Maurice Jarre's immortal Lawrence score that sums up the right kind of majesty. I've heard it said that the mark of a good movie is how it affects you in your life afterwards- I guess this applies even to trivial things like the above statement.

The most powerful character in the movie is the desert itself, portrayed with stark beauty by director David Lean. The visions of impossibly remote and desolate dune-scapes are awe-inspiring. It’s a harsh, unforgiving and inscrutable world of mirages and quicksand, sandstorms and vicious bedouins. Somebody once called the Arabian campaign 'the last picturesque war'- a somewhat thoughtless but fitting epiphet, given the evidence of this movie.

Deserts hold a fascination for me- the combination of endless flatness and murderous sun is almost the complete opposite of the wet greenery of home (Ireland!). It’s a completely alien world. In an early scene, Lawrence journeys alone through the desert to meet his British contacts, and sings that old music-hall classic 'I'm the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo' to keep his spirits up. He's singing to himself, but the song echoes off the rocks and is reflected back to him. It’s a bit like staring into the abyss, and having the abyss stare back, I guess- this inhospitable environment will mirror aspects of a man's character back at him that he didn't know were there. Indeed, Lawrence finds his life's worth in the desert. It's the old colonial fantasy of the white man who leaves his starched-collar world behind and lives as a native in a more primitive environment where men can be real men (except if they're gay. Maybe).

I guess I did have a bit to say about Lawrence of Arabia. Who would have thought?

No comments:

Post a Comment