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January 24, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Film | January 24, 2008 |

Let us forego for a moment the usual critical plaudits used to recommend a film such as Lawrence of Arabia. Make no mistake, they all apply: sweeping, epic, grandeur, masterpieceLawrence of Arabia is an icon of desert adventure films and is at least partially responsible for a string of mimicking flops such as Cleopatra. The depth of this film should not be lost, however, in accolades directed merely to its surface brilliance. Lawrence of Arabia was also a remarkable achievement in terms of its challenge to the reigning Anglocentric historical hierarchy, its self-effacing commentary on the use of media to color historical fact, and its cultural sensitivity regarding Arabs, not to mention an expansive view of what it means to be a masculine heroic figure.

Creative tension invariably arises when a filmmaker attempts a historical biography, as narrative and dramatic demands collide with the glum reality that even the most exciting lives are largely made up of drab moments of routine. This tension sharpens with more obscure figures, when, as a practical matter, the director can take more liberties because of audiences’ lack of familiarity with the story, while at the same time he is more subject to such deviations being viewed as a cheat because of the relative lack of that same familiarity. In any event, rarely does a historical biography hit theatres without a round of grousing about the creative liberties taken with the subject matter — one need only review the Pajiba comment thread for Elizabeth: The Golden Age to observe this phenomenon.

The issues raised in such films are a central feature of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, a sweeping 1962 desert epic in which Lean tackled the remarkable military career of Thomas Edward (T.E.) Lawrence, a callow but extraordinarily gifted lieutenant in the British army in World War I, serving in what was then known simply as “Arabia” to most of the world. Lawrence, a brilliant and charismatic man with a deep sympathy for the Arab peoples and their long struggle for meaningful self-rule, united the fractured Arab tribes allied with Great Britain and led their fighters against the Turkish military of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany. With Lawrence of Arabia, Lean created an unprecedented technical achievement and a bracing, gorgeous epic while also turning the historical-accuracy argument on its ear, intentionally magnifying Lawrence’s personality and behavioral traits and in the process igniting four decades of debate about Lawrence’s life and the British role in colonizing the Arabian peninsula in the early 1900s.

As pure cinema, Lawrence of Arabia is, quite simply, one of the finest achievements in film history. With the foundation of a compelling story and a fine dramatic script, Lean assembled a bravura cast of experienced actors for the complicated plot. When it came to casting the title lead, however, Lean threw in his lot with a virtually unknown Irishman named Peter O’Toole. Lean proceeded to shoot one of the most beautiful pictures ever put to film, with O’Toole delivering a performance for the ages. Shot in 70mm Super Panavision, the film is uncompromising in its scope, using a wide 2.20:1 aspect ratio to capture the sweeping expanse of the Arabian desert, vivid yet stark, harsh yet beautiful.

Beyond the grandeur of Lean’s vision, however, the film presents a fascinating take on the political aspects of Great Britain’s relationship with her Arabian tribal allies circa 1917 — a direct and cynical analysis that remains fresh in 2008 as a symbol of subsequent empire-building in the region. Lean’s honest depiction of British ambition and paternalistic oppression was nearly unprecedented in mainstream Anglo media in 1962, though he laid blame on all sides for the Arabs’ inability to create and maintain a viable unified state, sparing no one — certainly not the squabbling Arab leaders, nor his protagonist Lawrence.

Following an establishing framing device, the film spends nearly its entirety tracking Lawrence’s path in Arabia, beginning with his initial assignment to assist British intelligence in advising the Arab military. Lawrence’s subtle intellect and keen grasp of Bedouin culture quickly gain the trust of Prince Faisal of Iraq, played by Alec Guinness, who is the closest facsimile of a leader available to the fractious Arab tribes. Faisal leads an amorphous mob of an army, composed of a shifting membership of irregular cavalry that is no match for modern Turkish artillery and machine guns.

Against the wishes of his superiors, who advise Faisal to retreat after a recent military defeat, Lawrence counsels Faisal to attack Aqaba, a Turkish naval hub heavily defended by sea but lightly defended on land. Aqaba lies across the wide Nefud Desert, which the Bedouin consider uncrossable by camel or horse, and the Turks expect no Arab attack by land. Accompanied by Faisal’s kinsman, tough-as-nails Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Lawrence leads a small group of Bedouin fighters in an arduous trip across the desert. During the journey, Lawrence displays such courage, toughness and loyalty to the Bedouin that he gains not just their respect but their admiration.

Once across the desert, Lawrence is quickly tested again, when a confrontation arises between Lawrence’s Bedouin allies and a local chieftain, Auda (Anthony Quinn), whom the Turks regularly bribe to remain neutral. Lawrence’s unique combination of shrewd diplomacy and charismatic directness win over Auda, however, allowing Lawrence to combine two Arab military forces. Lawrence leads the combined tribal forces to a stunning victory at Aqaba, capturing a port by which the British can re-supply the Arab fighters and birthing the legend of Lawrence of Arabia.

Quickly promoted by the British for his victory, Lawrence becomes a trusted counselor of Faisal and a key British operative. With money and equipment from the British army, the Arabs in Lawrence’s command wage a guerilla war against the Turks, blowing up trains and stealing Turkish money and arms, with Lawrence gaining fame among both Arabs and British military. During the campaign, his friendship with Ali becomes akin to brotherhood, particularly after Lawrence is captured and tortured by the Turks, then rescued by Ali. Lawrence’s and Ali’s comradeship provides much of the film’s most insightful cultural interaction; indeed, Lawrence’s close relationship with Ali is a moving reminder that while race is skin-deep, humanity goes to the bone, and O’Toole and Sharif seem to share a preternatural bond as actors.
The second half of the film focuses on Lawrence’s relationship with his adopted culture and his growing understanding of and fear of himself and his impact on the Arabs’ future. Lean’s genius shines as the complex nature of Lawrence emerges and the thematic elements raised during the first two hours are visited with stunning force on the characters.

Throughout the film, O’Toole’s iconic visage dominates the screen, robed in gold-trimmed white native dress after his acceptance by the Bedouin, with piercing blues eyes and a striking, angelic profile. Lawrence takes on the mantle of a messiah to the Bedouin, repeatedly behaving as an invulnerable, invincible savior of the Arabian military. Lean presents this aspect of Lawrence as both admirable and abominable by turns, at once heroic and narcissistic, as in his exchange with an American reporter following the victory at Aqaba.

REPORTER: They hope to gain their freedom. LAWRENCE: They’re going to get it … I’m going to give it to them.

Facile modern analysis might critique Lean’s film for casting a blond Englishman as the savior of the Arab people. Lean firmly erases any doubt, however, that Lawrence is in fact such a savior. In one beautifully shot scene, the camera follows Lawrence’s shadow as he prances along the tops of the railway cars after blowing up a Turkish military train, silhouetted in the sunlight against the sand, epitomizing a preening, capering egotist. Later, as a British officer recounts Lawrence’s successes to British General Allenby, Lean provides a telling exchange. Describing the high regard of the Arabs for Lawrence, the officer states, “They think he’s a kind of prophet,” to which Allenby responds, “They do, or he does?”

True to this messianic identity crisis, the film’s ultimate and central theme is betrayal, and Lawrence’s elevation in standing and impossibly high self-regard create the tableau by which Lean can complete his skewering of British foreign policy; even when well-meaning, Western intervention cannot help but bring harm. Indeed, Lean’s portrayal of Lawrence can be read as a more general commentary on the good intentions and fantastic capabilities of the West and in particular Great Britain and the United States — like Lean’s protagonist, brilliantly powerful and resourceful, yet ridiculously narcissistic and confident to the point of supreme arrogance. Throughout the film, Lawrence struggles with conflicting feelings of all-powerful victory and incapacity, love and mercy set against bloodlust.

Delving deeper into the film’s structure, one of the most remarkable aspects of Lawrence of Arabia is the manner in which it wears potential flaws as strengths. For decades, commenters on the film have expressed strong qualms regarding its historical inaccuracies, which are numerous. Lean tweaks the nature of Lawrence’s relationships with various figures and the timing and importance of certain events — in particular, there is little historical indication that T.E. Lawrence experienced the mammoth struggle over the juxtaposition of a deep-held belief in mercy and love and a strong bloodlust and thirst for revenge. Lawrence’s leadership of the Arabian Council following a great victory at Damascus, as well as Prince Faisal’s relationship with the Council, is also highly fictionalized.

Far from a weakness, however, these alterations transform an intriguing but ultimately unavailing thread in Arab history into high drama and a commentary on the nature of altruism, love, and hubris. Lean himself declares his intentions right in the film as he implicitly comments on his own filmmaking approach. Lean utilizes the narrative device of an American reporter sent to Arabia to find an “adventurous” character among the British in their fight against the Turks, with the ultimate intention of writing newspaper stories to romanticize the conflict and draw the United States into the war. Lean interposes the reporter as a wink and a nod to the viewer: I know I’m taking liberties with this character and these events — I’m romanticizing them to make a point, as well as to sweep you up.

There is also a potentially cruel irony in the selection of a famous English thespian, Alec Guinness, to play the primary Arab authority figure in a film about British interference in Arab self-rule. Don’t believe for a second, however, that Lean didn’t perceive the issue. It would have been easy to cast Omar Sharif in this role and go with a lesser-known, more ethnically consistent actor in the role of Ali, but again it is the content of Lean’s character and not the color of his actors’ skin that must inform our judgment.

Lean’s portrayal of the Arab leaders and soldiers is admiring, sympathetic, and diverse. The Arab leaders are presented as keenly intelligent yet fiercely proud, noble of spirit but far too sensitive to perceived slights, which, from Lean’s perspective, renders their nation too weak to coalesce and forestall British empirical ambitions. Guinness’ soft-spoken, insightful Prince Faisal understands his people’s limitations as he tries in vain to utilize their strategic importance to gain substantial improvements in their lot through British aid. In one scene he apologizes to Lawrence for his soldiers’ inability to comprehend the notion of airplanes dropping bombs on them; later he surprises the British command by outing their secret agreement with France to subjugate Arabia following the expulsion of the Turks. Omar Sharif gives a masterful performance as Lawrence’s closest friend, Ali, a man born and trained for the challenges of ruling the desert but caught in the dying of an age and learning to move in the murky world of international affairs. In stark contrast, Anthony Quinn’s Auda is presented as a puffed-up, self-interested sharpster, a greedy politician as far away as it is possible to be from Faisal’s noble cares and Ali’s awakening political conscience, yet he is no na├»ve savage.

The film also provides an intriguing, if ultimately West-centric, allegory for Arab self-rule. Following a fleeting moment of military triumph, Lawrence leads the Arab army into Damascus, where the tribes immediately commence arguing over whose fault it is that the telephones and electricity won’t work. Throughout the film the petty squabbling of Arab commanders repeatedly prevents them from pressing strategic advantages and securing sufficient protection from foreign interference. This view is tempting for Westerners, though its derogatory nature ignores the role of outside forces in pitting Arab leaders against each other.

Throughout the film, flaws are converted to strengths. Peter O’Toole is generally marvelous, but he is first and foremost a stage actor in a film where the story focuses on him in nearly every scene, and his theatrical training makes for some frightening mugging in places. Lean turns this potential problem into a major strength, however, as Lawrence is supposed to be something of a madman, and O’Toole’s larger-than-life presence becomes an integral part of the character. In other words, O’Toole’s innate hamminess appropriately makes Lawrence appear all the batshit-crazier.

Closing non sequitur: Much has been made over the years of the homoerotic undertones of Lean’s film, focusing on the overt expressions of male love as an implicit commentary by Lean on Lawrence’s alleged homosexuality. If Lawrence was gay, then great — that might be a worthy dramatic subject in itself, but I just don’t see it in the film. Ali’s tears over Lawrence’s safety and declarations of love; Lawrence’s physical tenderness with his orphaned male servants — this is the stuff of confident, mature male bonding, and the contrary speculation regarding Lean’s supposed subtext on Lawrence’s sexuality smacks of elementary school elbowing. As a famous French race car driver once said of men holding hands: “Eet eez uh sign of fwrundsheep in mohst couwntwries.” Let us not be the Ricky Bobbys of film criticism.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who would leave his barstool only to stalk Whit Stillman, if anyone could find Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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