Friday, 17 September 2010

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) - 4 STARS

"A Mighty Motion Picture Of Action And Adventure!"

My personal experience with film was back in school as it changed through my viewing of LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (2003) which was and still is my all time favourite film. It was from watching that, which allowed my passion for film to get started and I wanted to start things off by watching a film which featured similar battle scenes to that of the fantasy epic. The first film of my juggernaut sweep which got things started was David Lean's masterful epic LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), a masterpiece thought to be highly regarded by many film fans and even my most popular director Steven Spielberg acclaimed it as his favourite. This gave me confidence of buying it on DVD a few years back and watching it and initially my first viewing wasn't exhilarating to say the least especially with it being a three-and-a-half hour picture set mostly in the desert. However I appreciated its visual splendor as well as the terrific cast and some beautifully shot scenes though I remember thinking back then it was overrated. But I finally gave it a second viewing today and really got myself into the film a lot more deeper and that's how one can appreciate something when giving it another chance!


The film begins with the death of the title character T.E Lawrence (played with energetic tenacity by a debut role from Peter O'Toole) who is killed in a motorcycle accident in England in 1935. His funeral is attended my many, who saw him as a national treasure who was also a born leader during his time in Arabia, but it is clear that there is something complicated about what he achieved back in World War One that obviously made him unpopular with certain people. The film traces back to Cairo during the war where Lawrence, then a commanding officer, is instructed by his superiors to assist a prince (Alec Guinness) in helping the Arabians rebel against the Turkish, and should they fail, then the English army will be chased away from the land. Lawrence's journey across the desert with his guide ends with the latter being killed by a darkly clothed sheik named Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) just because the guide was illegally drinking from a well. Although the pair head their separate ways they are reunited at the same camp with the prince who wants the Arabians to seize control of a seaside town named Aqaba. Lawrence soon makes himself more well known to the prince by insisting they can gain control of the settlement but it would mean leading the men across a torrid desert over the course of a few days in blistering heat. Alongside Sherif, Lawrence manages to keep the army in shape as they eventually escape the desert (though he does take the risk of rescuing one soldier who is left behind). They are then joined on the quest to confront Aqaba by fiery Arabian leader Sheik Auda (Anthony Quinn) and soon the Arabian army unleashes its ferocious fury on the settlement with a superb sweeping attack caught splenderly on camera by cinematographer Freddie Young. Lawrence's rise from commanding officer to national hero becomes apparent as the success of leading the army to glory makes him realise how much he loves the country.


His commitment to the Arabians is proven more when he returns to Cairo still wearing his robe clothing to speak to General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) and Mr Dryden (Claude Rains) about getting the Arabians more weapons and money to help them with winning the war but clearly the bureaucratic thoughts of Allenby and Dryden about whether they should have their independence is being kept quiet. Nevertheless Lawrence returns to the Arabians and is now fitting in nicely as a leader eager to help these people secure their freedom. The allies under his direction, attack and disrupt the Turks' efforts to maintain control of the territory, whilst the British army and its heavy guns pushes ever deeper into the area: not until his job is done does Lawrence learn that the French and British governments have carved up the middle-east between them and that the battle-lines for the 21st century are already being drawn.American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) becomes intrigued about writing about Lawrence with the hopes of getting the U.S. interested in the war, by presenting them with a larger-than-life hero. It is Lawrence though who is treating himself as a sort of Christ-like figure who thinks of himself as immortal which clearly raise concern from Sherif who has become fascinated with Lawrence's effect on the Arabian people. As well as wrestling with himself, with his own demons, and with the cruel desert environment, he is also faced with culture clashes which pit not only the imperialists against the indigenous populations, but also the mercenary practices of the Arab guerrillas against the discipline of the British army. After a run-in with a Turkish officer (Jose Ferrer), Lawrence's immortality gets to him and by the film's ending which includes a brutal attack on a Turkish convoy, he finds himself
not knowing which side he is on, nor which party he belongs to which adds to the tragic element of how he has become overcome with killing and giving orders.


The film is the story of a solitary adventurer who always knew he was different, but in Arabia he discovers that his proportions are heroic. Perhaps this is the secret of Lawrence of the legend, that at the bottom of all the violent action is a protagonist about whom one cares. A puzzling personality whom one glimpses but never fully understands. Throughout the picture one has a sense of a man discovering his own unique dimensions. Scripted by the inimitable Robert Bolt and directed by David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia is one of those films without a weakness, despite drawing complaints for its near four hour length. Every component is here, everything one needs for a great adventure film, many spectacular sequences, each of them so perfect: Lean cuts to the sun again and again, turning it into a character; Lawrence striding on top of a captured train, parading before rows of cheering Arabs; the scene between Lawrence and Ferrer illuminating Lawrence's strange perversity, a mixture of masochism and repressed homosexuality; the scene when Sherif appears on his camel, an exceedingly long take in which a strange figure is first resolved out of waves of heat and then, as he approaches, becomes a frightening threat to Lawrence's escort at the desert well. Maurice Jarre's phenomenal music also helps keep the film going. I'm sure some of the scenes of people crossing the desert would have been tedious without his music, but with his majestic music transplanted over the images they are simply compulsive viewing. O'Toole understands that the most influential figures in history could also be the most difficult and ruthless when they needed to be, and he gives Lawrence an incredibly complex characterization, leaving his audience in doubt as to whether he should be worshiped or feared, or perhaps both. Omar Sharif is also superb and it is easy to see why he became a big international star following his charismatic performance. Guinness, Quinn and Hawkins also shine in a stellar supporting cast that adds to the film's epicness. There are no talking parts for women. There is no love interest. There is no happy ending. It is a product of Hollywood showing its guts, which it seems to have lost. 'Lawrence of Arabia' is an awe-inspiring Goliath of cinematic perfection.

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