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The best 3 hours, 51 minutes of my life.

October 8, 2012

My favorite movie is Lawrence of Arabia. I like it the best because it is gorgeous to look at and completely absorbing. The script is sharp, most of the performances are superb and there’s a magnificent score.

I saw Lawrence again last night. There was a special HD broadcast to cinemas of the new digital version in honor of the 50th anniversary of its release. Of course I saw nothing to diminish my admiration of the picture and much to deepen my appreciation.

Riding a toruk with Sully or a camel with Lawrence are what the movies are made for.

Have you ever seen a Panavision/ CinemaScope production on a big screen? I highly recommend it. Going to a movie can be a big event. Something more than entertainment; an experience that carries you away from your own existence for a few hours. There’s nothing like it. Seeing Avatar, Gladiator or LTR in IMAX comes close. Anyway, if you get the chance to see one of the classics, do it! I anticipate that Dr. Zhivago and Gone With The Wind will be out in the next few years.

The really big pictures start with a few minutes of musical mood setting called an overture. This non-visual, solely audio introduction cleanses and prepares the emotional palette because no stimulus excites the emotions faster than music. Symphonic scores is one of the few things action directors still do right.

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Last night I recognized the economy of David Lean’s style. I swear there are fewer cuts in 216 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia than in one 90 film today. Whole scenes play out with just a few shots. The funeral sequence is 7 shots. The next sequence at Cairo headquarters where we meet Lawrence for the first time is 4 shots. Four. No close-up of the hero. Not even an establishing exterior of domes and minarets to announce CAIRO!

Every cut of Lawrence is easy to watch. The film just unspools before you with nothing superfluous or subjectively showy. The pacing is perfect. Each episode leads organically to the next so it feels like one episode rather than an accumulating series of events. It takes 1:45 to get to Aquaba, but you’d swear it’s only a third as long as that. Watching Lawrence of Arabia, you have no idea how much real time is passing. That is the greatest compliment a film can earn.

This trademark elegance of shooting and editing is even on display in the film’s great set piece— the arrival in Auda’s camp. First we see the black-tented encampment sprawled across the wadi. Some gunshots and the galloping “Hareef” theme announce the arrival. Lawrence’s band ride their camels from left to right (as they always do). Auda’s countless horsemen ride right to left to meet them. From the air, we see the troops approach each other. Cut to Lawrence: he’s having a blast. Cut to Ali: he’s close to panic. Back in the air we see the horsemen capture Lawrence’s small band in a swirling black vortex. It’s just enough film to tell the story. No footage of pounding hoofs or flaring nostrils. Not cutaways to other riders or onlookers. No individual rifles thrust in the air or fluttering flags. Steven Speilberg would spend a week shooting this scene and then project it in real time.

I don’t think movie makers today believe an audience can stand more than a few seconds of a scene no matter what’s going on or being said. Take, for example, the first few minutes of The Hunger Games. All that herky-jerky movement and quick cutting. It’s hard on the eyes and it makes no sense. Katniss, as a hunter, is calm and fluid. Her eyes take in everything until she spots prey, then she focuses. If she hunted the way Ross photographs her, she’d’ve starved a long time ago.

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Lawrence meets Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia was always stunning to look at. The arid desert is saturated with color. The landscapes and rockscapes are awesome. The scale is mindboggling. By day, the brightness dazzles—even indoors. The nights are velvety rich (night filters have never been used so well). Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young capture the hypnotic quality of the desert as well as the “clean-ness” that appeals to Lawrence.

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There’s no kissing. Love scenes make me squeamish. Too intimate. I’m not a voyeur, I don’t want to see that stuff.

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The script, by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, matches Lean’s visual economy. No long speeches, no big words. Nothing overtly poetic or philosophical. Most of the characters are plain spoken, men of action rather than words. Prince Faisal and Mr. Dryden choose their words carefully in order to not say as much possible. Only Auda (Anthony Quinn) is anything like chatty, but he’s also a braggart.

This is not to say that the power of words is overlooked. It is a bit of verbal sparring that gets Auda to join the revolt. Lawrence and Ali entrap the clan leader with his own prose and pride (the operative word is pleasure) which prompts Quinn to spit in reply, “thy mother mated with a scorpion!”

“Thy mother mated with a scorpion!”

Bolt and Lean know their actors will convey everything with inflection, gesture and timing. That is why so little needs to be said. Claude Rains as the political diplomatist, Mr. Dryden, gets most of the best lines and delivers them exquisitely. Two of my favorites

If we’ve been telling lies, you’ve been telling half-lies. A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.

[to Jackson Bentley, on what’s happening in Allenby’s office] Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a little clash of temperament that’s going on in there. Inevitably, one of them’s half-mad— and the other, wholly unscrupulous.

“Cool it, Lawrence.” Mr. Dryden counsels the young lieutenant on the art of diplomacy.

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Nearly every performance in the film is among the best the actor ever gave. (The exception is Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal; he is ostentatiously precise. You never forget you’re watching the great British actor Alec Guinness). Peter O’Toole is properly charismatic, enigmatic and completely at the will of his demons. Sherif Ali, the role played by Omar Sharif, undergoes a tremendous transformational journey and Sharif illustrates every step of it naturally. The desert brigand is always there, Sharif just adds more colors to the character as he works his way through the complexities of friendship, trust, loyalty and politics.

Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali does not like the changes he sees in his friend El Aurence.

Rains and Jack Hawkins, as General Allenby, are the standouts in the supporting cast. Hawkins’ combination of command and subtly are so good that it’s a little jarring to see his artificial hairline and be reminded that he’s an actor in a role after all. (One drawback of Panavision and such media is you often see the make-up. Although I’m happy to report that Anthony Quinn’s nose doesn’t look quite so fake in this latest transfer). My favorite moment with Claude Rains is at the Officer’s Club. Allenby asks him if Britain will occupy Arabia after the War. Dryden has been enjoying some champagne and can’t quite straighten his face as he burbles in reply, “Difficult question, sir.” If only contemporary politicians could lie so charmingly.

el Obi Wan bin Kenobi

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In a way, Lawrence of Arabia is actually a failure. The picture never manages to explain who he was and why he did it.

The film starts in front of a bust of Lawrence newly installed in St. Paul’s Cathedral. The deacon asks Colonel Brighton if Lawrence was really worthy of the tribute. The next 3 hours 35 minutes is the answer. We see that Lawrence did accomplished great things, but we can’t say why. And being unsure of the motives, we can’t be sure that he really was a great man.

And that’s what makes Lawrence of Arabia my favorite movie: it brazenly fails to deliver on its promises, and I don’t care.

Lawrence in front of a fresco of Phaeton. What could it mean?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Mike permalink
    September 12, 2015 6:15 am

    Nicely summed up, but perhaps his purpose is explained at the end of the movie after Lawrence is promoted to Colonel. He walks out of the room, and Prince Feisal explains that, “Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men, courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. The vices of peace are the vices of old men, mistrust and caution.” In a way, Lawrence was a means to this peace but has served his purpose and has used up his usefulness.

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