Thursday, March 26, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA"

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson based on the writings of T.E. Lawrence



You know something funny? I actually don’t really know that much about T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole). Seriously, I honestly never even bothered looking up the accuracy of the film. I’ve seen “Lawrence of Arabia” six or seven times over the years, but I actually don’t even really understand all the intricacies of what’s happening in the film or the historical events that they’re based on, nor the history really. It’s not that I’m not interested, I am, but oddly I realize now that, that wasn’t exuberantly important in “Lawrence of Arabia”. Yes, Lawrence is a legendary and complex character, but the movie uses his life and events from it to express ideas. Filmmaking ideas. 

There’s a reason why the British Academy Award for Best Director was once named after David Lean, and the secret of his films, they are epics most of them, but normally not in the way we think. They’re not big in the stories actually, they’re big in the ideas. The building of a single bridge only to then destroy it in a marvelous explosion in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, or even in something small like “Brief Encounter”, the idea of two strangers sharing a private, secret moment in time before never seeing each other again, a lifetime of what could’ve been.  Take his best and most celebrated work, “Lawrence of Arabia,” the essence of the film is not just in it’s flamboyant title character, but in images and emotions. Actually more the images. When I think of this movie, I don’t think about the story of this renegade flamboyant soldier T.E. Lawrence, I think about him in Arab clothing, walking along the train, those long, long landscapes shots of just, sand, with two mean on camels walking across it, the epic rows of Arab soldiers running as they bombard a train that Lawrence has just dynamited, there’s dozens of shots like these.This film was shot on a 70mm widescreen, most movies toady are 35mm. Imagine this huge screen big enough to put many amounts of images onto a screen, but instead we get a landscape view of an endless sand desert, and nothing but that for minutes on end, and then a single solitary image. A dot, barely-visible dot right in the middle of the screen that slowly is getting closer and closer and closer…. Trust me, it takes a creative mind to consider such thoughts, but secondly it takes an audience viewing the film correctly, and by correctly I mean on the big screen, in a theatre, on a widescreen. No pan-and-scan for television, in fact don’t even watch it if you’re screen isn’t at least 27inches. (I’ve done it, you don’t know what you’re truly missing; I’d argue that no movie needs to be seen on a big screen more than “Lawrence of Arabia”) Probably bigger than that even that. On the list of things a filmgoer’s should experience in a lifetime, watching “L.O.A.,” on a big screen in a theater in probably in the top 5, next to watching “2001,” on a big screen, viewing the entire collection of Charlie Chaplin shorts, at least one viewing of “Un Chien Andolou,” one viewing any Steven Speilberg action movie on a big screen, preferably “Jaws,” or “Raiders…” and one viewing of “Ishtar.”(Ok, I made the last one up.)

That’s not to say that their isn’t historical accuracy either. T.E. Lawrence was a poet/warrior, this unique British soldier who helped Arabs drive the Turks out of Saudi Arabia and then he himself would become a god-like creature to some as he stayed in Arabia for years afterwards. An American newspaper writer would make him a hero by telling his story across the world, and Lawrence was more than willing to fulfill the role as a hero, although what role and how big a role he played is subjective even in the films beginning where he’s being honored posthumously and he’s referred to an great hero and then in the next sentence, is referred to as the biggest showman since P.T. Barnum. That man is probably correct on both. (And although it’s never noted, although heavily alluded to that Lawrence was homosexual, keep in mind this film takes place in the 1910s, and if you notice, there’s no women in the entire 4 hour movie.)

As you may have also figured, there isn’t as traditional a structured plot in “Lawrence…”, as most biopic shouldn’t, and in this case, they really shouldn’t, cause most of the film is based on the emotions we get from the shots, not the story. Even the glorious battle sequences have this strange feeling that they aren’t filmed for violence but filmed solely for the pleasure of the eye. It’s a pure directorial achievement that ironically just happens to be arguably the greatest  insight into the ways of the  tribal nomadic culture in the Middle East still works.  In my younger days, I once wrote that if Bush had seen this movie, he would have done a lot of things differently, and hopefully nothing at all, it’s unfortunate that to some extent, I still feel I can say that sometimes without any sense of irony. Nowadays however, I’m not interested in the political lessons. “Lawrence of Arabia” has twice been named on AFI’s Top Ten Films of all-time list, one year reaching number 5, and strangely, I think  more people simply admire this film from afar, they admit it’s greatness, they don’t really see or understand the joy in the film, just how amazing and how unique a cinematic experience this is. This film should be revived in theaters every ten years cause as great as a widescreen is on TV this should be viewed in its proper format. It’s had trouble over the years doing that. It’s been cut from its original length numerous times for re-released and one the point the entire second part of the film’s image was reversed for some reason, and of course, television screenings don’t do this film justice. Plus there’s a general dismay towards these grandiose classic Hollywood epics. In some cases I can understand; I actually think Lean’s next film, “Doctor Zhivago” doesn’t hold up at all and is frankly a complete bore, but you gotta also realize that when it’s done right, great epics take great big ideas of the mind and of the camera. Few films reveal this more than “Lawrence of Arabia”. 
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