The Oscars Project: Week 5 – Lawrence of Arabia

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to The Hurt Locker. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture, Best Director and five others)

“You are not fat?”

“No. I’m different.”

— Dialogue between Tafas and T.F. Lawrence

Hollywood has a long history of honouring its biggest projects, rather than the best. Big is an easy thing to identify: Do the credits go on for longer than most short films? Could you purchase an island nation for less than the movie cost to produce? Could you build a scale model of the Taj Mahal in less time than it takes to watch the movie? Depth can’t always be judged just by glancing at the surface; length is much more obvious.

It’s no surprise, then, that a solid chunk of best picture winners cozy up to the 4-hour mark. Lawrence of Arabia is no exception, with the restored DVD version clocking in at 210-or-so minutes, spread over two discs, plus an intermission. Unlike The Ten Commandments or Ben-Hur or even most non-Charlton-Heston-based epics, though, Lawrence doesn’t feel bloated. The quote that opens this piece is from a dialogue between Lawrence and his Bedouin guide (the guide is amazed that Lawrence can hold his own in the desert, unlike most British military men he has met), but it might as well be about the film itself; this might just be the leanest three-and-a-half-hour epic you’ll ever see. It’s also probably the best.

Lean might be a misleading term, though, because Lawrence isn’t exactly fast-paced. As could be expected for a film based around traversing deserts, Lawrence loves its landscapes. Director David Lean (there’s that word again) is extraordinarily patient in his portrayal of the unforgiving terrain. He holds shots to the breaking point, focusing on a horizon, waiting for a dot to appear, then allowing that dot to grow to a smear, then a silhouette and eventually a man. On paper, it sounds almost bafflingly dull. On film, it’s hypnotic. Actually conveying the scale of nothingness in the Arabian desert is likely impossible — I know from experience that a few decades’ worth of post-apocalyptic thrillers haven’t dulled the impact of the real Australian outback, and I imagine that the areas around Jordan and Morocco, where Lawrence was filmed, are likely the same — but Lean’s long takes and vast panoramas at least come close.

In fact, more than any of the other films I’ve watched so far for this project, Lawrence doesn’t seem suited to a small television screen. Even though it plays well at home — I’ll get into the human element in a bit — Lawrence is definitely designed to be big. At home, you can still marvel at it, but in a theatre, you’d likely get lost in it. I’m pretty sure Bob Hope made this joke 50 years ago, but seriously: sales of water during the intermissions must’ve been huge.

Just have a look at how Lean introduces the desert. First you get one of the most famous cuts in film history, from Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence blowing out a match to the glow of the desert sunrise. Then, almost 40 seconds of that horizon — and keep in mind that, to get that shot, Lean would’ve had to wait with his camera at the ready for the exact moment of sunrise — before a fade to still more landscape. Then, another 20 or so seconds for the characters to pop up, not that you could identify them from the wider-than-wide angle.

With that kind of terrain, you need production to match, and ol’ Larry the Arab delivers here, too. Like with Ben-Hur, to watch Lawrence is to be reminded of the sheer scale of Hollywood’s pre-computer effects ambition. Lean had managed some impressive sequences in his previous Oscar-winner, Bridge on the River Kwai, but they’re nothing compared to what’s on display here.

Imagine the set-up required to get even that first shot of O’Toole and his guide appearing over the horizon. The characters are miles away from the camera, and they’re in a real, honest-to-God desert, so the working conditions are far from pleasant. You have to set up the cast at exactly the right point, communicate via walkie-talkie, and if you need a second take, they’ve got a ways to go. That’s even more true of a later shot of another character riding his camel from the horizon all the way to O’Toole and his guide — it’s little wonder that the filmmakers sometimes completed as little as a single shot in a day.

Then, look at some of the more complicated set-pieces, like the capturing of Aqaba. Although the scene was shot in Spain, they had to construct a full-scale replica of the actual settlement, with upwards of 300 buildings. Then you have the dozens (maybe hundreds) of cavalry and soldiers to corral, all just to achieve an especially majestic panning shot over the city, ending with the mounted guns that are aimed harmlessly out to sea. All of that is real — no extra soldiers comped in, no trick edits, no CGI in post. Add in the very real sand blowing around into all the equipment and the desert heat, and you quickly realize just how difficult the filming would have been. (Click the image to see the video on the TCM site)

If all Lawrence had was its scope, it’d probably still be remembered, but it’s doubtful it’d be revered. It’d probably be regarded the same way Ben-Hur is: a couple of masterful setpieces and some other, less interesting stuff. But Lawrence has one thing that Ben-Hur and the other epics didn’t: Lawrence. It’s odd that no one ever thought of it before, but apparently putting a genuinely compelling, multilayered and unique character at the heart of your 4-hour First World War epic is a good way to perk it up.

Even before you bring O’Toole into the picture, Lawrence is one hell of a character. An over-educated Brit with a fondness for philosophy and literature wouldn’t seem like the most likely person to spearhead the Arab nationalist movement (and his role is almost certainly overstated in the film, but not offensively so), but that contradiction is exactly what makes the character work. As played by O’Toole, he’s also oddly charismatic (as he must’ve been in real life), mildly unearthly and — not to sound less than fully heterosexual here — very, very pretty.

He’s also very much an oddball. His manner of speaking often falls somewhere between sarcastic and dumbfounded, as if he’s never quite sure which vocal inflections are required by social propriety. His fellow British soldiers call him “barmy.” The Bedouins he meets call him “mad.” His ego seems to know no bounds, occasionally verging on messianic, but then his self-loathing knows no bounds either, verging on (or outright embracing) masochism. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say O’Toole’s portrayal hints at homosexuality, either — Lawrence’s biographers would agree. All told, he’s far from the traditional hero, which can only be a good thing. Even from his first scenes, he’s hard to take your eyes off of.

It’s clear from Lawrence’s manner that he doesn’t fit in with proper British society — a point that’s also made clear by his superior officers’ disdain — which helps make sense of his desire to essentially become an Arab. But he also can’t entirely fit in with that culture, either: Despite making a speech to the contrary, he eventually comes to accept that his skin colour does have an effect on his destiny. The whole issue of race is a bit tricky in the movie; aside from the standard-at-the-time approach of having actors in brownface (Sir Alec Guinness plays Prince Feisal), there’s also the tricky bit about building a movie around a single white man’s ability to essentially save another race. At least part of that is his status as an in-betweener — he has access to the British Empire’s wealth, but he also understands the culture of the scattered Arabian tribes — but another part of it is his ability to out-Arab the Arabs. There’s a fine Hollywood tradition that runs up through Dances with Wolves straight to Avatar where the only thing standing between a “savage” race and destruction is one magical white man, and Lawrence falls into that mode from time to time. But O’Toole’s portrayal, along with the beauty and scale of the overall project, are enough to make that particular sin a little more forgivable.

Really, the only scene in Lawrence that doesn’t fit in is the intro. The movie opens with Lawrence’s death, in England, by motorcycle crash, then moves quickly to his funeral, where various well-dressed Brits clamour over one another to make statements to the media about this great man. The rest of the film is a flashback to the African exploits that gave Lawrence his name, but the preamble in Britain never comes into play again. The movie would work just as well without it, as it doesn’t say anything about the character that won’t become abundantly clear as the epic unfolds. Aside from a structural nod to Citizen Kane, it’s hard to say what the scenes really add to the picture.

Still, that’s a pretty trifling complaint in a movie that manages to give the old-school Hollywood epic a good name. Consider this one of those rare situations where honouring the biggest and the best actually amounts to the same thing.

Coming up:
1963: Tom Jones
1964: My Fair Lady
1965: The Sound of Music

One Response to “The Oscars Project: Week 5 – Lawrence of Arabia”
  1. Sarah says:

    You are a good writer, Peter. I enjoy reading your reviews. More specifically, I enjoy your writer’s voice; it’s clever and yet casual, uplifting and informative without condescension.

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