Sunday, May 15, 2011

Film #55: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean

Initial Release Country: United Kingdom

Times Previously Seen: once (about 12 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Bright, charismatic, and quixotic young British officer fosters & leads major Arab military campaigns during World War I.

Extended Summary (Spoilers included. Fair warning.)

In Cairo, in the midst of World War I, a young British military intelligence officer, T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), whiles away his time and immense intellectual abilities making maps. This all changes when his commanding officer decides to send him to the Arabian desert. Despite Lawrence's seeming lack of respect for authority and discipline, he is fluent in multiple languages and shows a rare and genuine interest in the region. He accept the assignment to seek out the British ally, Arabian Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), and see how his battle against the enemy Turks is going.

In western Arabia, after an arduously scorching journey across the desert, Lawrence meets up with his superior officer, Colonel Brighton, and finds Prince Feisal just as he and his tribes suffer an air raid by the Turks. Although Brighton and high British command urge Prince Feisal to move his people to the south and await British aide, Lawrence expresses his distaste at the Arabs relying solely on foreign assistance, though it comes from his mother country. He convinces one of Feisal's warlords, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), to launch an assault on the heavily fortified, Turkish held port city of Aqabbah. To show his confidence in the plan, Lawrence agrees to go along with the fifty-odd fighting men on their perilous trek across the desert towards the occupied coastal city.

Still clad in mostly British soldier gear, Lawrence makes one of his first forays into the scorching Arabian desert.

After a weeks-long journey under the punishing Arabian sun, during which several companions die, Lawrence and Sherif Ali's fighting force clear the desert. They are met by Auda Abu Tai (Anthony Quinn), the local sheik who has been bought off by the Turks not to attack Aqabbah. Ignoring Sherif Ali's disgust and personal desires not to accept help from such a man, Lawrence stokes Abu Tai's pride and thirst for gold, and he convinces him to join forces to take Aqabbah from the Turks. The plan works to perfection, as the Turks never expect a landward attack and are quickly routed. However, Abu Tai is disgusted to find no gold anywhere in Aqabbah, and centuries-long blood feuds threaten to break out between the two Arab tribes. Lawrence decides to head back to Cairo, across the Sinai peninsula, to bring word of the victory and ask for more military aide from his British commanders.

After yet another brutal journey across the desert wastes of the Sinai, this one killing one of Lawrence's body servants, he makes it back to headquarters. The mere sight of him, sun-stroked and wearing a tattered robe of a local khalif, shocks the standard British officers and high commanders. After a few emotional outbursts, Lawrence calms enough to explain the situation in Aqabbah and convince his commanders to supply armaments and training to the Arabs. The goal will be to disrupt the Turkish rail supply chain through guerrilla attacks that Lawrence will lead himself.

Lawrence and Sharif Ali, on the brink of yet another one of their guerrilla raids.

Many months pass, and Lawrence's guerrilla fighters are succeeding beyond expectations. Their hit-and-run dynamiting tactics are sending Turkish supply routes into chaos. The fighters have become famous enough that Lawrence has even attracted an American photojournalist, whom Lawrence is more than happy to indulge.

In the middle of the Arabs' wild successes, however, Lawrence finds himself extremely torn. All this time, he has fought with the Arabs for their own freedom from foreign control, and he has become a hero of near mythic proportions both in Arabia and abroad. Still, he feels a mounting desire to set down the mantle of responsibility, turn away from all of the bloodshed, and just become an average person again. Complicating his moods even more are his equally strong feelings of vanity and sense of importance. It is all of these conflicting emotions that pull Lawrence briefly back to headquarters in Cairo.

At British headquarters, Lawrence makes a desperate plea to be allowed to become just an average soldier again. His commanding officers convince him that he is too valuable and send him back to Arabia.

Once back in Arabia, Lawrence continues to fight, but has become a gruesome specter. He leads his ever-dwindling number of troops northward towards Damascus, where Britain and her allies hope to deal a death blow to Turkish forces. On his march, the previously-compassionate Lawrence no longer balks at wholesale massacres of Turkish forces, and nearly all evidence of his past flamboyance and vanity have been burned away. After another spell of self-doubt, Lawrence actually wanders into a nearby town, allows himself to be captured and brutally beaten by Turkish forces.

After being treated for his wounds, Lawrence returns once again to headquarters in Cairo. This stay is very brief, but before leaving, Lawrence extracts a guarantee from his general and the local British diplomat: that Britain has no designs on moving in and taking over Arabia once they have banished the Turks.

On returning to Arabia, Lawrence's Arab forces make their final push northward, and manage to take over Damascus even before the European forces arrive. As such, the various Arab tribes have sectioned off the city by tribe, leading to different segments of the infrastructure being under that control of rival groups, including his old comrades-in-arms, Sherif Ali and Abu Tai. Lawrence attempts to get the divergent groups to sit, talk, and negotiate, but seemingly for naught. He sees the chaos that is resulting from centuries-old tribalism, and decides that he can do no more. He leaves Arabia and becomes an anonymous British soldier once again.

An exhausted Lawrence makes his final attempts to unify the Arab League, with Abu Tai at his side.

Years later, in 1935, at the age of 47, Lawrence dies in a motorcycle accident. It is only at his funeral that people seem to recall what an extraordinary person he had been, though none can rightly say that they knew exactly what had been in his heart.

My Take on the Film:

Lawrence of Arabia is a true epic, and one that I really enjoyed watching, even if I don't find it flawless.

Part of the reason I enjoyed this massive picture is that I knew what I was in for. Having a running time of 216 minutes staring me in the face, I set aside a Saturday morning with nothing else to do. Mother nature helped me out by adding a rainstorm. Perfect movie-watching weather. Anyone who's thinking of taking in this classic, be sure you understand what's expected of you, and plan accordingly.

So, what does Lawrence of Arabia give you? The most obviously stunning element is the visuals. As far as the TIME list goes, this was only the fourth color film that I've watched (Pinocchio, Meet Me In St. Louis, and The Searchers being the others). In 1962, the vast majority of films were still being filmed in much more cost-effective black-and-white. If they were filmed in color, nearly all backgrounds were painted mock-ups. When Lawrence of Arabia hit the screens, it must have completely blown people away. The sweeping, on-location desert landscapes are incredible. Even someone like myself, who has grown up in an age of unparalleled cinematic visuals, has to marvel at David Lean's eye. The wide-angle shots convey the beautiful vastness and desolation of the Arabian desert, as well as the affects that such a landscape would have on humanity. The setting is clearly as much a character as T.E. Lawrence himself.

One of the almost countless stunning images of the pitiless yet oft-beautiful desert as it surrounds the characters.

The history of the modern Arab world is also a major theme. This may not be of interest to some viewers, but it certainly has a certain bearing, considering the changes the Middle East is undergoing as I write these words. This relatively brief slice of European doings in modern Saudi Arabia and its neighbors is likely to pique the curiosity of most. I realize that it is a dramatized version of events, but I do plan to dig a bit to find out more about this very seminal moment in world history.

Of course, the movie is not called “History of The Middle East”. The titular protagonist is certainly one of the most intriguing people the West has ever produced. A rather tortured intellectual, Lawrence was, by the few accounts that I've read, a walking collection of contradictions. The movie does as well as it can at displaying as may of the facets of T.E. Lawrence as possible. The quiet, ponderous scenes in the desert evoke his passive, philosophical nature; while the desert fighting scenes show a savage, sadistic warrior in the throes of battle rage. We get a fantastic scene of Lawrence alone and preening in his newly-given khalif robes, clearly absorbed in his own vanity; later, we have an emotionally shattered Lawrence begging to return to the British military, desperate to be “just one of the chaps” again.

Of course, it was a very young Peter O'Toole tasked with acting out David Lean's visionary bio-pic. O'Toole's performance is certainly packed with emotion, and is very effective. However, I do have to say that, after three-and-a-half hours, I had grown a bit weary of all of the quivering. It seemed to be the way that was decided upon (by O'Toole or Lean, I don't know) to convey a range of Lawrence's various emotions. Lawrence is angry? He shakes with rage. He's crushed by sadness? He shakes in despair. And so on. There are more tranquil moments that offset this; it's just an impression that I come away with.

The only other element of the movie that I found a bit frustrating is one that probably cannot be avoided. Because the real T.E. Lawrence was apparently such a difficult man to pin down, I came away from the movie rather befuddled by the title subject. As most people are, I am accustomed to protagonists who are, on the whole, clearly defined, be they “hero” or “villain”. Lawrence was one who clearly defied easy categorization. It's the thing that makes him fascinating, but also left me with the sense that the movie's study of him, despite being nearly four hours, was somehow incomplete. I don't really feel that this was due to poor storytelling on the parts of the filmmakers; it's simply the subject matter.

Lawrence of Arabia is a great film, though one that may seem like an unsatisfying trial to many viewers. If you can be patient and drink in everything it offers, its merits shine as brightly as any film's. If longer films without pat conclusions are not your thing, you may not have the wherewithal for this one.

That's a wrap. 55 shows down, 50 to go.

Coming Soon: 8 ½ (1963)

The Italian filmmaker's filmmaker, Federico Fellini's well-known film on making a film. Say all of that five times, quickly.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.

*Note on future content: As a few of you may have notices, I did not include the “Take 2” segment in this review. From this point on, I will cease doing this portion of my reviews, as they had become simply too time-consuming. Henceforth, I will keep it limited to a brief summary and my impressions of each movie. I hope that you will still enjoy them.