This is my favorite movie of all time, bar none. Celebrated and studied ever since its initial release, Lawrence of Arabia is the thinking viewer’s epic. It sets the bar high for itself and leaps over with ease. I’m very happy to be sharing it for the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon, hosted by Rick’s Classic Film and TV Café in honor of the first National Classic Movie Day. Be sure to read all the posts!
(As is usual for After the Silents posts, I will also be offering details on the silent film career of a member of the cast or crew after the review. In this case, the silent movie work of director David Lean.)
Lawrence of Arabia is a difficult film to explain. Its length puts off many viewers and the promotional materials don’t really capture what makes it a masterpiece. I suppose I could get technical about the performances, script, setting, etc. but I think the most enjoyable way to share the Lawrence love is to tell my story.
I invite you to travel back in time. I was a precocious teen and the AFI had come out with its first version of the 100 Years, 100 Movies list. It was being hotly debated in newspapers and online. Were these films really the best? Why was this film placed above that film?
Clearly, such lists are a study in frustration. Who can say definitively which films are “the best” and quantify that opinion? At best, these films represent the opinions of whoever made the list. (Just as my ranked reviews reflect my opinions and prejudices.) The list was deeply flawed. In addition to the obvious stuff, there were only two true silent films on it and none made before 1915.
But the point is that there was a hot debate going on and I didn’t want to be left out. I studied the list and marked off the movies I had already seen, which still left quite a few. I determined that I would watch as many of these films as I could but it wasn’t so easy back then. Netflix was just getting started and VHS rentals were still going strong. Still, I was determined to give it an honest try.
As a partner in my endeavors, I drafted my younger brother. And so, list in hand and Blockbuster card at the ready, we set out on a voyage of cinematic discovery. The selection was lean but one of the movies on the shelf was Lawrence of Arabia.
I knew two things about Lawrence of Arabia: the famous score and this still.
That’s it. I had the vague idea that it was a war picture and, as it required two VHS tapes, it was long. I liked Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn in other films but I had the terrible fear that I had rented a dull dud. Oh well. Into the VCR it went.
A trailer to set the mood:
From the first moments, my brother and I were hooked. We watched into the night and then got up early the next day to finish it. Watching it together is still an annual event. I’ve never tested this but I do believe that we have the entire movie memorized and could recite the whole thing if called upon to do so.
I am not going to elaborate too much on the plot as the film is quite long and intricate and it will be much more enjoyable if you discover it for yourself. Here is just the bare bones so you’ll know where I’m coming from. (In fact, I am taking a pretty light pass at the film overall. My goal is to touch on points that are not often brought up regarding this film, not make an encyclopedia entry.)
The film opens with Colonel T.E. Lawrence’s (Peter O’Toole) 1935 death in a motorcycle accident. At his funeral, his military superiors, peers and members of the press try to make out the man and his legacy. Was he a war hero? An amateur who got lucky? A showoff? An enigma?
They may be confused about Lawrence but there is no one more baffled by him than Lawrence himself. We flash back to Cairo. The First World War is raging in Europe and the Middle East is a sideshow with the Arabs fighting for independence against the decaying Ottoman Empire, which is allied with the Germans. The British are supporting the Hashemites, who are led by Prince Faisel (Alec Guinness). It’s not that they believe in Arab independence but more the idea that the enemy of their enemy is their friend.
Lieutenant Lawrence is an insolent, untidy, unpunctual officer with some knowledge of Arabic. He is seconded to the Arab Bureau because of this latter skill and sent to meet with Prince Faisal in order to determine what his overall intentions are.
Lawrence is an idealist who believes in Arab independence. He also has the optimism of an amateur. Military experts have written off Faisal’s army as hopelessly inferior to the Turks and the British refuse to arm them but Lawrence feels there has to be some way to win. Faisal views Lawrence as useful while Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), one of Faisal’s military commanders, views him as a fool.
Will he succeed? History tells us that he will but the battles are actually the least interesting part of the story. What really intrigues us in the mystery of the man himself.
Underneath the bravado, Lawrence is a quivering ball of nerves. He obsesses over and fetishizes pain. Can he withstand it? Will he crack? He puts out matches with his fingers, always testing and never being satisfied with the result. He has a horror of bloodshed but he is a soldier and must kill. Everything he wants conflicts with everything else that he wants. And the worst part is that he doesn’t actually know what he wants or why he wants it.
In many ways, Lawrence is a protagonist in the Tolstoy tradition. He is enchanted by the culture that he encounters and, as he does not fit in with his own people, attempts to adopt it. But he is in love with his own outsider’s perspective of the culture, not what it really is. His disillusionment with the Arabs and with himself finally comes to a head in the third act of the film when his neuroses explode in an outburst of violence. (This disillusionment toward war and his perception of Arab culture is mirrored by Sherif Ali’s growing admiration of and eventual disillusionment with Lawrence himself.)
Obviously, Peter O’Toole’s performance is one of the finest in the history of film and he was robbed at the Oscars. Sorry, Gregory Peck fans, but it’s true. His voice barely above a whisper, his eyes conveying a sea of conflicting emotions, O’Toole is hypnotic on the screen.
The most astonishing thing about Lawrence is how easily it all could have gone wrong. The film started shooting without a finished script. Casting was a nightmare. (Can you see Marlon Brando as Lawrence and Alain Delon as Sherif Ali? The producers did.) None of the originally planned music worked out and two of the hired composers became unavailable. Maurice Jarre had just a month to finish the epic and legendary score.
Frankly, all the near-misses involved in the production could make a book in themselves. (Cary Grant as General Allenby? Alan Ladd as Lawrence? Good gravy!)
Another underappreciated aspect of Lawrence of Arabia is how deftly it avoids one of the biggest problems with biopics in general. You see, most biographical films start at some significant point in the protagonist’s childhood and then the screen fades and they grow to teenhood and then the screen fades and they are adults and then significant things happen and the screen fades and two years pass…
This is a major reason why I absolutely cannot stand biographical films as a rule. The stories become choppy, disjointed. We are shown the greatest hits of the protagonist’s life but it’s as if we are being given a novel with only every third chapter intact. These collections of vignettes are not satisfying.
Lawrence of Arabia could have easily done the “fade, two years pass” thing. Lawrence certainly had a colorful childhood and early adulthood. However, by dropping us right into Lawrence’s life just when the good stuff is about the happen, the film shows respect to its audience.
We don’t need every element of Lawrence’s masochism explained to us through some childhood trauma or another. We don’t need Lawrence to stop everything and explain that he’s got an issue with pain. We’re big boys and girls, we work it out for ourselves. I for one enjoy being treated like an intelligent viewer but very few films are willing to pay me that compliment. Lawrence of Arabia does and I appreciate it greatly.
The film also deftly slices through history, giving us just enough information to understand what is going on but not so much that it becomes bogged down in fussy details. We don’t need to know, for example, how or why the Ottoman Turks went to war with the British. What matters is that the war is on. (I find people who sift through this film looking for the tiniest historical inaccuracy to be tedious beyond measure. I say we maroon them.)
Lawrence of Arabia also benefits from when it was made. In 1962, the classic era of film was either dying or dead, depending on who you ask. Modern films were on the horizon but there was still a bit of the old dash and bravado left in the industry. Lawrence dances on the fence between these two eras and never stumbles once. (Cecil B. DeMille tried to negotiate the rights to Lawrence’s memoirs in the 1920s. I love DeMille but thank the movie gods that negotiations fell through. We can also thank those same deities that John Wayne’s version never got out of development hell.)
Let’s swing back around to the acting for a moment.
Jose Ferrer… wow. He was reportedly paid more than O’Toole and Sharif’s salaries put together for a performance that lasts just five minutes on the screen but he was worth every penny. The hollow, forlorn sadism of his only scene is blistering.
The rest of the supporting cast also shines. Claude Raines is at his silky best as Dryden, an amoral diplomat who gives Lawrence his big break. Jack Hawkins is a snake in jodhpurs as General Allenby. Anthony Quinn rocks a putty nose as Auda Abu Tayi, leader of mercenaries. Alec Guinness glides along gracefully as the polished, ruthless Prince Faisal. There’s more but we really must move on. (Lawrence of Arabia famously has no speaking roles for women. Given how much I dislike Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, that may be a blessing.)
There’s no real formula for “great” films but one thing I have noticed about many of them is that they can be read on multiple levels. For example, A Trip to the Moon can be enjoyed as a simple fantasy but it also can be read as a condemnation of colonialism. Lawrence of Arabia can be read as a bittersweet adventure story but it goes many, many layers deeper than that and viewers have the option of submerging themselves as far as they like. And unlike most other epics of the period, it is not based on the life of a religious figure and so does not become bogged down in piety.
Lawrence grew up with me. More subtle and sophisticated elements became clear as I got older. That’s the real beauty of the film. You can see it a thousand times and still notice something new on each viewing. However, viewers who “just want to be entertained” (and goodness knows those people drive me bats) can still find much to enjoy in the pomp and spectacle.
These layers have been discussed and examined by reviewers far more talented than I will ever be. I could go on but this review is already pretty lengthy. Also, I honestly believe that the film is better seen than discussed, if that makes any sense in the context of this review. And so, I can only give you a suggestion and ask that you trust me:
Availability: Lawrence of Arabia is available on DVD, Blu-ray and via streaming but you really should try to see it on the big screen at least once. That’s what it was intended for and that’s where it looks the best.
After the Silents: David Lean
David Lean’s reputation as one of the greats of twentieth century cinema is secure. Covering his entire career goes beyond the scope of this biographical sketch but I wanted to discuss the influence of silent films on his career.
Lean never directed a silent film. His first credit as director was In Which We Serve, a 1942 war picture. By that time, Lean had been working in the British film industry for fifteen years.
I said that Lean never directed a silent film. That’s true but he did work in the silent film industry. Young David found movies to be an escape from his unhappy love life and he went to the cinema often. He was impressed by the stylish moodiness of Rex Ingram’s The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and the artistic flourishes of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.
Lean seemed destined to be an accountant but the formality of office life and the sheer boredom of looking at numbers all day long made him miserable. He was nineteen when his father arranged for him to take an entry-level position at Gaumont-British Studios.
It was 1927 and talking pictures were on the horizon but the silent film industry was still humming away. Just as Clara Bow honed her craft by starring in dozens of cheap poverty row productions, the eccentricities of British film quota law helped to give David Lean a crash course in every aspect of filmmaking.
In order to protect the native British film industry from the wave of popular Hollywood offerings, a quota system was made law in 1927 and put into effect in January of 1928. British theaters could still show American films but they also had to play a certain number British productions. The system was based on quantity over quality and movies were churned out to meet the demand of the quota.
Studios anticipated a boom and stepped up hiring as a result. This was the first, most obvious benefit to David Lean, whose job was created due to this increase in staffing. Second, making these “quota quickies” was as good as film school but Gaumont also made films of higher quality, which kept Lean interested in the work. He worked as a general gofer, a camera assistant, an assistant editor and what-have-you. His eagerness (and the casual nature of filmmaking at the time) allowed him to float between departments, learning as he went.
His career as camera assistant came to an abrupt end when he turned on the wrong light in the darkroom and destroyed a day’s worth of Madeleine Carroll closeups. He was tossed into the wardrobe department for a while to think things over.
Like so many filmmakers in his generation, sound was an unwelcome interloper to David Lean’s world. The silent film was at the height of its artistry and now the exciting and kinetic world of motion pictures was moving back into the drawing room with a lot of talk, talk, talk.
The sound version of All Quiet on the Western Front did much to restore Lean’s enthusiasm for the movies and he continued to move up in the ranks, becoming a director a little over a decade later. David Lean found fame and success in sound cinema but his silent roots are equally important. The influence of Murnau, Eisenstein and Ingram are all there, if you know what to look for.
If you want more details on David Lean’s work in silent films, I highly recommend Kevin Brownlow’s David Lean: A Biography which, unsurprisingly, extensively covers Lean’s career in the silents.