Friday, March 18, 2011

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

UK, 228 minutes
Director: David Lean
Writers: T.E. Lawrence, Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Photography: Freddie Young
Music: Maurice Jarre
Editor: Anne V. Coates
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, I.S. Johar, Gamil Ratib, Michael Ray, John Dimech, Zia Mohyeddin, Peter Burton, Basil Dignam, Harry Fowler, Clive Morton, Robert Rietty, John Robinson, Barry Warren

In terms of its movie industry antics, Hollywood has always been a pretty strange place. But it may have been even more so than normal around the early '60s, when gobs of money were so routinely poured into a seemingly endless series of bloated epics, many with historical/religious settings and each more expensive than the last. The whole thing finally teetered over under the groaning weight of 1963's 192-minute Cleopatra, a film so costly that, even just to break even, projections showed it had to be one of the three highest-grossing pictures ever made to that point. (Fun fact: It managed to turn a $4 million profit.)

And so, conventional wisdom informs us, Hollywood's studio system collapsed. With such prejudices of mine so firmly in place—that is, that all expensive productions of the time were ipso facto ludicrous—I was thus surprised to find Lawrence of Arabia so highly ranked by critical consensus. But there it is, top 20, in all its 228-minute, 70-mm glory, complete with overture, intermission, and finale orchestral music.

And no question about it—it's an undeniable hunk of magnificence, particularly in its first half once it has arrived in the Syrian Desert on the Arabian Peninsula, controlled by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire during the time period of the film early in the 20th century. The T.E. Lawrence story and Arab Revolt context have little significance in the first half, simply providing the broad strokes into which the otherworldly landscape fleshes out all the detail we need.

I think it's far the better part of the film, and I'm not sure it couldn't have more successfully stood as the entire thing if the credits had simply rolled at the point where the intermission presently starts. There are, after all, already way too many movies, from 90 or fewer minutes to upwards of several hours, in which the first half is better than the second. But here, even arguing the necessity of the second half for balance to the larger story, it seems to me almost tragically so, not least for those with something less than iron butts.

That first half is a wonder of visual storytelling and cinematographic acumen. A sputtering start finally concludes with another one of those indelible high-water marks of cinema transition: T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O'Toole), shortly after getting his assignment to meet Prince Feisal, is shown in tight profile blowing out a match. And cut to: a vast shimmering orange horizon with rising sun. Music up. Dunes. Tiny figures on camelback. Spectacular. Huge canvas. Magnificence engaged.

From that point the next two hours move swiftly, with a confidence that is absolute, even uncanny, advancing the story slowly but surely against the strange backdrop of landscape and entrenched politics of Arab tribalism. There's virtually nothing to complain about for anyone who loves movies. It provides sweep, huge drama, larger-than-life performances, and an ever-discombobulating sense of place, which often feel altogether like a western with cowboys and Indians strained through some unfathomable filter. This may be a result of the desert setting, or more likely because westerns have so thoroughly established our understanding of the filmic syntax for these kinds of epic confrontations between warring cultures.

Perhaps most surprising for me, or eye-opening I should maybe say, was to watch unfold a movie released in 1962 about events in approximately 1915 whose antecedents stretch back into the 19th century and indeed into centuries before that, but which nevertheless feels so absolutely fresh and up-to-date and even timely still. It's basically all Hollywood in style and tone, yet it is utterly contemporary with events and situations in the Middle East as we understand them even today: Europeans (now Americans) carping about Arab barbarities even as they continually commit their own, the warring Arab tribes that never seem able to grasp a larger picture, the simmering intractable resentments, and all of the endless, frustrating futilities of prospects for any kind of reasonable resolution. This stuff is old.

In fact, the resort to terrorist/saboteur tactics and the overwhelming bloodlust of war that marks the second half is more than a little disturbing, with Lawrence up to his neck playing the self-appointed role as savior in the efforts to defeat the hated Turks, bombing trains to keep them off-balance and paying his Arab army with the loot these attacks gain them from the collateral damage. It's all too sickeningly familiar: the horrific overreaching, the torture and unnecessary slaughter and massacre, and then the inevitable madness and pathos, even amidst the recriminations.

By that point, however, the storytelling has become episodic, fitful and desultory and practically aimless. It makes all the right points about the confusions of the situation into which it has plunged, as opposed to the focus and simple strokes and mostly glorious conclusion (sans nuance) of the first half. But I find my attention wandering in the third and fourth hours every time. I haven't entirely given up, thinking the fault may lie with me rather than it, and one of these times I believe I might try watching the second half first to see how that goes (though no doubt this picture is best seen always in theaters that can accommodate its size).

There's not much character study here—it isn't that kind of movie. Except for when he is actively engaged in physical action (and often even then), Peter O'Toole is so carefully wooden that I have to think it's a deliberate decision, which lends a continuing odd tone. The numerous stars appearing here, unrelievedly male—Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn—deliver more than adequately, all decked out in Arab garb. Jose Ferrer as a sadistic Turkish official is responsible for one of the most interesting and powerful moments and an obsessively confusing piece of the story, while Claude Rains jauntily reprises a version of the cheerfully corrupted official he perfected in Casablanca.

Lawrence of Arabia most comes alive for me perhaps ironically at many of its slowest moments, when its gaze falls deliberately on the landscapes that it appears to love with at least as much passion and helpless ardor as its titular character. Full of broad empty spaces, strange glowing colors, and distant shimmering horizons, it offers a tantalizing place to go get lost.

1 comment:

  1. Just watched this for the first time and I had the same impression. The first half of the movie I found myself mesmerized by the Western/Tatooine landscape and camera work. Lawrence's odd behavior is engaging and thought provoking. Then all the things that worked so well in the first half seem to be replaced by scenes that don't flow very well, some decent but not great action, an unexplainable torture/rape scene, and an unsatisfying ending.