(from Lawrence of Arabia, at widescreen museum; film frames from the 2002 restoration.)
So I just spent the last four hours watching this movie.
I gather I am the only person in the English-speaking world that hadn’t ever seen it before, even on TV. The film I saw was a restoration shown in 70 mm at full length, with intermission. It was easy to see why this film has such an elevated reputation. The combination of the setting with the large screen cinematography was sufficiently persuasive on its own; O’Toole’s seriously troubled Lawrence, and the script which drives this antihero are obviously even more important.
The film first played in Seattle as part of the festivities for the Cinerama’s reopening several years ago. I missed it then, I wasn’t gonna miss it now.
Of course, the film has shifted meaning since a restoration first played here. The first half of the film, about 2 hours long, is a beautiful, if standard-issue European-American morality play concerning the importance of national identity and the grand lowercase-l liberal democratic revolutionary European ideal of the nation overthrowing monarchy, imperium, and superstition.
In essence Lawrence’s project in Arabia is Lord Byron’s in Greece one hundred years before. Indeed, the opressing imperial power in both cases is the Turk. Alec Guinness’ Prince Feisal’s family was actually militarily defeated by the house of Ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia but, if I understand my research, did snag the throne in Jordan, and Feisal himself became king of… Iraq.
It’s worth noting that EVERY SINGLE ASSUMPTION I had when viewing the film about this character was incorrect. I assumed he represented the house of Saud.
You can see how an American audience might approach these arguments with some distance today. Unfortunately it’s not the arguments that appear discredited, and we can expect to meet some patriotic founding fathers of another Middle Eastern nation shortly, I believe. The story Lean was cribbing from here is too deeply embedded in our pop culture narrative to get rid of it that easily.
I’d say the film does argue against imperial involvement in the Middle East, although it bases that argument on some very European ideas, and clearly celebrates the idea of, um, the proxy force.
Happily for me, the man himself says this: “Do make it clear,” he wrote to D. G. Pearman in 1928, “that my objects were to save England, and France too, from the follies of the imperialists, who would have us, in 1920, repeat the exploits of Clive or Rhodes. The world has passed by that point.”
Lawrence, although unquestionably depicted as highly troubled in the film, is the very inspiration of European and American special services operations. He’s the OSS, CIA, and Special Forces all rolled into one classically educated, masochistic queer package.
It was interesting to watch the film not deal with Lawrence’s sexuality, even as O’Toole appeared to. I’d be interested, I suppose, in Lawrence’s own self-awareness as an avatar of Byron in Greece, and for that matter Alexander out of Greece. I’d guess that O’Toole, at least, and possibly others involved with the film, were thinking of Alexander in certain scenes. Byron’s ghost did not appear, to my eyes.
Worth noting here is that at the time the film was made, the winking knowledge that Lawrence was gay underpinned the experience of the filmmakers. This site very much wishes to make a countervailing case and did not strike me as hysterical. I have not had time to evaluate the information presented.
The second half of the film, also about 2 hours long, depicts Lawrence’s passion, if you will. His increasing disillusionment and sense of self-loathing drive him first out of the field and then back into it, with military if not political success.
The film’s depiction of Lawrence as a tormented genius grants his character no mercy even as it delivers the conventional heroic victories of any given historic or fictional hero. In this sense the film is a product of its time and place and foreshadows the importance of the antihero in much film of the sixties.
The film remains grounded in the idea of a great white man guiding the benighted savage; and it uncritically adopts attitudes concerning nobility and privilege which might be best described as old-fashioned. I kept wincingly preparing for some awful Jar-Jar fetchit sequence; thankfully, there were none.
I will say this: there were a LOT of blue-eyed Arabs in the film. It looks dumb. I mean, they had contacts in 1963, I’m assuming. Maybe inaccurately.
I can’t imagine watching this movie on DVD because Lean’s cinematography depends so heavily on setting tiny human figures against the vast mass of his landscapes. Additionally, the movie brought to mind one of my great bounty of privileged childhood experiences.
In January of 1982 or 3, my family spent two or three weeks visiting Algeria, the home of a very close family friend. Algeria is a North African state, her north coast Mediterranean; her southern border deep in the Sahara. Lawrence was shot in Morocco, in part, which borders Algeria to the west.
While we were in Algeria we drove south from the coastal city of Algiers, the country’s capital, up and over the mountains to the south. These mountains are the home of the Berber people, and where our family friend was born. We visited with him and his family at their mountain village for a few days and then began a different leg of our journey. We continued south into the Saharah itself.
In my recollection we drove for two days to reach a town called Ghardaia. Ghardaia was a mud-walled oasis town at the edge of the true desert. On the way down we stopped and climbed one of the towering pinkish tan dunes that bordered the highway.
I have gazed upon the sea of sand and felt its’ wind. It was something that has stayed with me, although I prefer the wet and the buildings. Throughout this movie, I was reflecting on that trip.