|LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)|
|T.E. Lawrence: "The truth is I'm an ordinary man. You might've told me that, Dryden.|
|Time: 217 mins.|
Won Academy Awards for Best Art Direction, Cinematography, Sound, Film Editing, Score, Director and Best Picture. Nominated in 3 other categories.
Ever since we've owned a DVD player, I've been dying for this movie to be released. It is one of the most entrancing epics ever filmed and it requires great sound, letterboxing and a big television to do it justice. In fact, it is one of those movies that should only be seen in a movie theater with a very large screen, but those are becoming just as rare as the films that require them. I first saw LAWRENCE in 1989 when it was re-released in its' newly restored version. I can honestly say I have never seen a movie before or since that is its equal in regards to a pure cinema experience. Nothing like this had been done before and nothing like it will ever be done again because to duplicate it would be prohibitively expensive.
Filmed long before special effects created other worlds, LAWRENCE was shot on location in Jordan with everything you see on screen as real as it gets. This was a difficult production not only because of the locale and weather, but because it explored the life of a man whose exploits were internationally known, but whose true personality was a mystery to all who knew him. T.E. Lawrence was a British hero, so the filmmakers had to be very cautious in their rendition of his life. Using his own writings as a guideline, they create a piece that reverberates in the essence of a man who was constantly fighting his own demons while trying to free other men of theirs. The film begins with Lawrence (O'Toole) as a soldier stationed in Arabia during the first world war. He's not a very good soldier, but he is keenly interested in Arabia and its people. With the help of Mr. Dryden (Rains), he manages to get himself assigned to the field to discover what the mood is like with the native people. His camel ride to Prince Feisal's camp is filled with illuminating experiences and auspicious meetings, especially with Sherif Ali (Sharif) Prince Feisal's second in command.
Lawrence believes that it is the in-fighting between the tribes of Arabia that keep them under Turkish rule. The British claim to be aiding Prince Feisal (Guinness) to rid his country of the invaders, but it is secretly believed that they are only helping because they want the territory themselves. Lawrence tries to make Prince Feisal understand that he must unite his people and form their own government or they will never be free of outside rulers. In order to make the world aware of their military power, he forms a plan that is crazy at best, but if successful will send the Turks running and give the Brits reason to arm the Arabs. With Sherif Ali and bedouin warrior Auda abu Tayi (Quinn) at his side, he takes 50 men through the desert on a mission to sneak attack the port of Aqaba, a Turkish stronghold. This is the most unforgiving land on Earth and if they misjudge one iota of the plan, they could all wind up dead, burning under the sun's torturous rays. The trip is harrowing at best, but on the other side they end up with a stunning victory, that leaves the men in awe of Lawrence and begins his military reputation. This success brings Lawrence and his bedouin army the necessary weapons to wage a larger campaign against the Turks.
With guns and explosives they wreak havoc on the Turks supply chain by blowing up their trains and looting whatever's left. Though the tribesmen are thrilled to be rid of the Turks, they care more about the wealth gained from raids than the future of their country. Everything's going well until Lawrence finds himself in the cruel hands of a local Turkish captain in the town of Deraa. The torture he endures shows him he's just an outsider, a common man and he becomes desperate to leave the desert and return to the green hills of England. Unfortunately for him, his superiors have other plans. They convince him to take his army to Damascus, the last Turkish stronghold. If he can bring the city down, he can go home. Of course, the British and the French are then planning to split the spoils. Ever a man of his word, Lawrence raises his army and brings bloodshed down on the Turks all the way to Damascus. The torture changed Lawrence and not for the better. He's beginning to enjoy bringing pain upon others. The Arabians takeover of Damascus is short-lived since they are unable to put aside their tribal differences to create one nation. Lawrence is finally able to return to a life of obscurity as a junior officer, trying to escape both his fame and his conscience.
What Lawrence claims to love about Arabia, besides his legions of followers, is the cleanliness of the desert. There is nothing for hundreds of miles but sand and rock. David Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young make it both a beautiful and forbidding landscape. There is a definite allure to this place though I wouldn't want to live there full time. It may be pristine and untouched, but it is also ungodly hot and deadly. Many characters lose their lives on the sand, which helps convey these ideas to the audience. The rising sun is a sign not of the potential of another day, but the power of the Earth to create and destroy. The sequence where Lawrence goes back into the "sun's anvil" to rescue one of their group gives the cinema some of the most powerful images ever filmed. The heat radiates off the screen. I thank God I wasn't part of that crew. The score Maurice Jarre composes brings all the elements together with a melody you will never forget. Everything about this film will take your breath away, especially the acting.
O'Toole gives one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen. He is at all times bumbling, confident, intelligent, arrogant and sensitive. Portraying a hero is never easy, but he makes Lawrence human...and not a little bit crazy. Even though he begins to enjoy killing and equally loathe himself for it, it's clear from the emotions in his deep blue eyes that a fierce battle is going in his soul. Omar Sharif is startlingly sexy and powerful as Sherif Ali. He befriends Lawrence because he believes he can free his people, but it pains him to see the toll the fight takes on his friend. His big brown eyes are so expressive at points it hurts to look in them. A popular actor in his native land, LAWRENCE made him an international movie star, an honor he greatly deserves. Sharif would go on to star in David Lean's other classic epic DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, putting in an equally impressive performance there. Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness are also very good in this film, giving each of their roles just the right spin. Quinn adds humor and volatility to the movie, Guinness, dignity and resignation. They are essential pieces to this dynamic story.
Movies about war impress me mostly on the technical level. Recreations of huge battle scenes, replete with explosives and thousands of extras is usually quite a sight. I give kudos to any film production that does this type of work. However, LAWRENCE is a film that on the surface I would generally avoid like the plague. It's all men, fighting and soldiering, which is not my cup of tea, no matter how beautiful it looks. What makes this different is the story, the unravelling of this man everyone thought was a hero except himself, depending on which day you asked him. The tale of an ordinary man who did extraordinary things, good and bad, all of which is laid out in stunning Technicolor. The film has a slight slant to be sure, falling onto the "he was a great man" side, but it tries to tell the whole story and leaves the final decision up to the audience. Personally, I think he was a bit crazy myself, but decent enough to use his insanity/courage to help others become free. You can decide for yourself. All I can say is LAWRENCE takes you on quite a ride. He may have yearned to be ordinary at the end of his life, but after you see everything he went through in the desert, you'll understand why.