The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Lawrence of Arabia (1962/UK/dir. David Lean) appeared at #2 on my original list.
What it is • T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is an outsider long before he arrives in Arabia. Born from a liaison between a noble father and a servant mother (herself born out of wedlock), Lawrence is still at odds with his surroundings when we meet him: an intelligence officer stationed in Cairo, perpetually bored but bemused. So he is assigned a mission which, however fleeting, should entertain him for a few weeks and produce effective results for the British Empire. Lawrence is to journey into the Arabian Desert to link up with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), leader of the earnest but unsuccessful Arab Revolt against the Ottomon Empire. Despite his simple mission - assess the situation - Lawrence decides to go much further. When he finally returns to Cairo, he is caked in dust and accompanied by an Arab boy (Michel Ray) who has experienced hardship, battle, and loss alongside the British officer: they are fresh from the daring conquest of Aqaba from its unprotected desert flank. Overnight, Lawrence is deemed a hero - and his journey has only just begun. As with many epic films from the thirties to the sixties (and perhaps beyond), Lawrence's first half (actually a bit more than half) is divided from its second by an intermission. Some have praised the tight, focused, cohesive early section at the expense of the more scattered approach post-intermission. But in fact the film's greatness, deeply rooted and established in the first part, is fully realized in the more uncertain, sprawling second part. Lawrence's story isn't simply one of military success. It's a tale of cultural disorientation, in which a British officer attempts to subvert colonial policy but - unlike similar situations in Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, or Avatar - can never fully assimilate. This is also a story of humiliation, of hubris, and of Lawrence's psychosexual kinks applied on the battlefield as well as within his own mind. Lawrence of Arabia has been celebrated throughout history, placing highly on "greatest ever" lists and winning Best Picture in 1962 (maybe the most deserving Oscar winner of all time, with the Godfathers, On the Waterfront, Casablanca, and Gone With the Wind its only rivals, and even they probably fall short). Yet I can't help but feel the film is misunderstood, especially when celebrated as eyecandy without substance.
Why I like it •
Few opinions frustrate me more than the conventional wisdom that Lawrence of Arabia is pure visual spectacle, with a cipher as its central character. I saw the film as a child (this is one of the earliest cinematic experiences on this whole list), and right away I understood that the protagonist was as perverse as he was charismatic. The violence felt funny, slightly eroticized in a way I didn't have words for at the time (Lawrence has variously been characterized as homosexual, asexual, and masochistic - perhaps all three at once). It was clear that this was not merely a handsome epic, but a deep dive into the mind of a flamboyant, ambivalent warrior. I've seen the film in several forms. First, on a VHS tape borrowed from the library, probably heavily edited (dating before the 1989 director's cut re-release that established the lengthier runtime as the norm). Then on a Hi-8 dub made by a friend of the family, which as I recall still preserved the pan-and-scan approach of the old videos, while also incorporating the extra footage. In the late nineties I bought a deluxe video version in widescreen, and finally I converted to digital in the early zeroes by purchasing a DVD (the final step, acquiring it on HD - as a file or a hard copy blu-ray, has yet to be taken). Alongside these various home viewing options, I also watched the film three times on a big screen in a movie theater, at least once - maybe more - in its native 70mm. And yet as indelible as those screenings have been, the film worked for me even on a small screen. It was always about the personality of Lawrence as much as the scenery of Arabia, and I chafed at the suggestion that the film had visual splendor and little else. Where to begin? I love how the film structures our understanding of the hero and his obsession, taking us from an outside to a closer view and then finally a visceral immersion in the landscape that captivates him - and expresses his own imagination. I am fascinated by the movie's place in Lean's filmography, how it seems to evolve from the more reserved yet deeply romantic Brief Encounter, a fulfillment of the adventure Celia Johnson yearned for but couldn't achieve herself. And I am drawn to the multilayered history of the work, its attraction to an individualized perspective as well as its broader take on British imperialism. All of that requires much more than a capsule to explore; so allow me to cheat and point you to a much longer piece...
More from me • So many of my favorite films never actually received full review on this site, or even a capsule (hence, this series). Lawrence of Arabia is a happy exception. My 2009 essay on the film, written on the occasion of a theatrical screening, explores how the film's narrative structure and psychological outlook are reflected in the formal choices of the filmmaker. It's a piece I'm proud of; if you're looking for more Lawrence, I hope you'll check it out. I also included a clip at 5:32 in "Sixties Rising", a chapter in my video clip series "32 Days of Movies".
How you can see it • Lawrence of Arabia is available for blu-ray/DVD rental on Netflix and for digital rental/purchase on YouTube, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and other sites.
What do you think? • Is the film primarily a spectacle, or does it have more substance? When you look at earlier David Lean films, do you see them leading toward this, and if so, how? How do later Lean films follow up on Lawrence's accomplishments?
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Yesterday: Vertigo (#3)
Tomorrow: Masculin Feminin (#1)