Lawrence of Arabia

(David Lean, UK, 1962): Extraordinary to think Albert Finney was David Lean’s first choice to play T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, as Peter O’Toole is very picture of destiny fulfilled when he arrives in the desert circa 1969. An odd man out in Britain, in the Arabian landscape his blue eyes and golden hair blend with sky and sand as though part of them. And as he grows gradually crazy with delusions of his own role as mythic uniter of a tribalized people, the heat and vastness of this world seems to have infiltrated his soul, so that when he is finally returned to England the motorcycle accident that killed the real Lawrence at age 46 seems clinched as much by fate as history. Even if it eventually drives him mad, his element is that earthly inferno.

Still remarkable for its balance between the epic and intimate a half century later, David Lean’s towering achievement is one of those rare routinely cited ‘classics’ that begs no argument as to how it qualified for that status, but also threatens to be diminished by its own status. If classics take on an aura of the sacred and untouchable, they can also seem beyond experiencing on their own terms, complete and eternal independent of any immediate engagement or fresh exploration. We don’t need to climb Everest to know it’s there. And we don’t need to watch Lawrence of Arabia to know it’s somehow important. It doesn’t need our eyeballs for affirmation.

What threatens to be lost in such canonical presumption is the process of discovery, and by the time I finally got old and open-minded enough as a movie lover to simply watch Lawrence of Arabia on its own terms — as a movie to experienced and not an obligation to be fulfilled or sacred cow to be tipped — I was rewarded by a movie that lived, breathed and spoke in the moment. Yes, it is as ravishing and immaculate as its reputation prepares us for, but it is also so much more than merely beautiful. It remains perhaps the most nuanced and intricate accounts of colonial delusion and western arrogance ever produced for mainstream consideration, and is in that sense as inextricably specific to its subversive cultural moment as The Battle of AlgiersPlanet of the Apes, Bonnie and Clyde or The Wild Bunch. More traditional in form and conservative in presentation, but every bit as unconvinced that power and politics aren’t in sore need of radical intervention.

By adhering with such painstaking yet idiosyncratic affinity to the form of the Hollywood roadshow spectacle, which offered accounts of the lives of historical and Biblical figures as a means of reifying the popular’s cinema’s role as arbiter of eternal values and true heir to literary significance — while maintaining those fundamental attractions of sex, violence and visual sensation — Lawrence of Arabia invited its viewers into the conflicted darkness of the western imperialist agenda by way of the very conventions which had previously so well served the affirmation of that agenda.

Where big-spectacle films such as Gone With the Wind, The Ten Commandments, Ben-HurThe Longest Day and How the West Was Won offered history as eternally progressive and ultimately prelude to their ultimate evolutionary apex as star-studded movies, Robert Bolt and (an initially uncredited) Michael Wilson’s script set out to reverse the conventional popular epic form, so that the process by which Lawrence attains mythic greatness through the ‘white saviour’ unification of Arab tribes against the Turkish oppressor is the means by which the psychology behind such presumption is questioned, probed and ultimately revealed not only as dangerous, arrogant and futile, but more than a little deranged.

Lawrence’s journey to the desert and toward his destiny as blonde, blue-eyed, white warrior-god is precisely calibrated to correspond to the character’s own drift into messianic megalomania, and his story is the inevitable tragedy of empire: by projecting his own vision of history and global order on this foreign landscape, and by confusing his influence on particular people and circumstances with a universal manifest destiny, Lawrence in Arabia was acting out the folly of every presumptuous intervention by imperial powers in the affairs of cultures viewed as too backward to help themselves. In 1962, Vietnam, Algiers, Cuba, the Suez Crisis and Korea would have hovered over Lawrence’s campaign in the middle east, and viewed today it is impossible not to conjure Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and a world once again stricken by the limits of its own presumptions of power and destiny. War is ego’s ultimate endgame, and this is what Lawrence of Arabia depicts with such ravishing beauty and tactical brilliance: as spectacular as spectacles get, and yet ultimately as intimate as a mind losing itself in the desert.

Now look again, and pay attention to how carefully and precisely Lean contrasts epic scale with specific detail, landscapes with faces, subjective point of view with omniscient perspective, the constant interplay of micro and macro, the insistence that history is every bit as determined by internal impulses as external forces. Note how O’Toole’s gradual drift into delusion is so meticulously observed and articulated, how those eyes and hair merge with the void. If there’s anything that deserves to be called radical in the film, it’s precisely this vision of the spectacular and the epic as the imagination projected so that it seems so much larger than life itself. But it never really is, and it can’t ever be. Once we confuse our own perspective with objective reality, we’re lost to the dunes. (Sony)



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