Lawrence of Arabia is an intimidating film. As a cinephile (read: wannabe film geek), it’s been a significant hole in my personal pantheon for some time now. I’d caught a half hour in the middle of the day on network television at some point in my youth – which, I’ll hasten to add, is not the way to watch the film – yet even after buying the DVD years ago I’d yet to properly sit down and watch the film. Because it’s intimidating! Not just because of the length – it falls just short of four hours, not including the intermission – but because of the reputation the film has, as one of the greatest Hollywood epics of all time and as a film that requires – demands – to be seen on the big screen.
For example, these are a couple excerpts from Roger Ebert’s 2001 “Great Movies” review of the film:
“This sequence builds up to the shot in which the shimmering heat of the desert reluctantly yields the speck that becomes a man–a shot that is held for a long time before we can even begin to see the tiny figure. On television, this shot doesn’t work at all–nothing can be seen. In a movie theater, looking at the stark clarity of a 70mm print, we lean forward and strain to bring a detail out of the waves of heat, and for a moment we experience some of the actual vastness of the desert, and its unforgiving harshness.”
“You can view it on video and get an idea of its story and a hint of its majesty, but to get the feeling of Lean’s masterpiece you need to somehow, somewhere, see it in 70mm on a big screen. This experience is on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film.”
So not only does Lawrence of Arabia consume four hours of your time, but you’ll also simply not be experiencing it correctly unless you see it on the big screen! I had planned to, before the end of 2013, either dust off my DVD or upgrade to a Blu-Ray and watch the film: after all, televisions are somewhat larger and somewhat higher quality now than when Ebert posted that review. Thankfully, the British Film Festival Australia came to the rescue, announcing that among their new films would be a screening of five classic British films including, naturally, Lawrence of Arabia. This screening was a proper event, with a packed cinema, an intermission, and even a proper two minutes of bombastic musical overture before the curtains were opened.
The film is much more interesting than I had expected. The description of “epic” carries with it some baggage, suggesting a story more focused on event and scope than on individual people and moments. Certainly, Lawrence of Arabia is a big film in every sense of the word. The score is full-throated and immense. The camera, directed by Sir David Lean and cinematographer F.A. Young, exploits wide open desert spaces, placing characters at the centre of a vast yellow ocean of nothingness or as shimmering specks on a shifting horizon. The near-four hour running time spreads its span over many years and many countries. That said, for me the moments that had the most impact were the close-ups on Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) or Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), moments of commingled fragility and anger; fear and masculinity.
Lawrence of Arabia is a film about T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who played an integral role in the Arab Revolt during World War I. He was a famous figure of the Great War, an icon and a hero. The movie reconstructs his mythology piece-by-piece, recreating both Lawrence’s formidable feats and uniquely compelling personality. Peter O’Toole’s astounding performance – in his first major role – ensures that his humanity remains intact. Lawrence feels larger than life without ever losing that sense of personhood. After establishing the myth of “Lawrence of Arabia” across the pre-intermission stretch of the film, the last half of the final deconstructs and interrogates the very notion. What does it mean to be more than a man, to be a legend, a hero? What does it mean to the man himself, what does such a man do with the intangible, fleeting power that comes with such mythology?
Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson’s screenplay asks such questions, but never truly provides an answer – a boon of the story, not a failing. Over its running time, as an audience we come very close to Lawrence. We watch him from a distance, moving as a sprightly figure of hope amongst thousands of men, or a raging spectre of bloodshed. We stare into his impossibly blue, deeply melancholy eyes, which give some insight into the man’s core. And yet, he is not a puzzle to be solved, and the film is not interested in easy answers. The film is often contradictory, or at least complex. The first half can be read as a treatise on the power of British resolve, or as a pro-war adventure film, or as criticism of British colonialism. But Lawrence’s over-confidence begins to seem more like foolish arrogance, the tone shifts to be decidedly anti-war, and the film seems to suggest that perhaps British rule is beneficial to the Arab states, or even necessary.
A lack of a clear agenda is probably for the best; while Lawrence of Arabia is, for the most part, still a moving, powerful piece of cinema, there are elements of the film that have not aged well over half a century later. Some minor quibbles are easily forgiven – for example, the score, while impressive, is over-used – but others, like the film’s questionable racial politics, are more problematic. Prominent Arab roles are portrayed by stately English actors (like Sir Alec Guinness) in brownface, and there’s a significant disconnect between a film that wants to portray Arabs with maturity and insight yet struggles to cast Arabian actors. It’s understandable, as is the film’s reluctance to engage with Lawrence’s sexuality, but it’s still jarring to a modern viewer.
I can forgive such moments, relics of a bygone era, when they are paired with scenes of such immensity and power that it’s hard to imagine them existing again in the modern environment of film. How could anyone possibly finance a scene as jaw-droppingly powerful as the Battle of Aqaba, surveyed from the vantage point of abandoned artillery gun … it just seems impossible. Partly because it would just be done with CGI, because it’s “easier,” but mostly because no-one could raise the kind of money needed in the first place. Perhaps for a superhero film, but not for a four-hour long historical war epic that would do little business outside of the arthouse.
It’s easy to talk about the big moments. As I said before, the real strengths of Lawrence of Arabia lie in the small moments, the little details. Nowhere is this better realised than in the short epilogue-as-prologue that opens the film, where Lawrence takes a fatal fall on his motorcycle and a reporter tries – and fails – to get an insight into the man at his funeral. Opening with the end of the story is not an uncommon technique, of course, but what distinguishes this sequence is the way it completely informs the character of Lawrence without putting too fine a point on it. All the key aspects of his character are laid out in these few minutes – he’s confident to the point of recklessness, he’s haunted, and he’s deeply enigmatic, leaving no one clear impression on the men he knew. It’s such fine detail that ensures that, while I’m very glad I had the opportunity to see Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen, I have little doubt that the film would still resonate on a much smaller screen.