Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Day 69 - Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) directed by David Lean

I've owned this DVD for years, but I never got around to watching it because it's nearly four hours long (3 hours 42 minutes to be exact).You basically have to devote an entire day just to watch this thing and it is exhausting to sit through! It's a shame too because I was kind of distracted and tired while watching it and I don't have the stomach to re-watch it anytime soon (probably for at least another 2 or 3 years). Long epics just really drain me out...

This is where I lose all credibility and come across as an amateur. I didn't like Lawrence of Arabia. Well, that's not exactly true. It's not that I thought it was a bad movie. On the contrary, if you told me it was one of the greatest movies ever made, I really couldn't argue with you. Certainly I can't deny it is well crafted and beautifully shot. I just simply didn't care for the movie. It's kind of hard to describe, but I basically couldn't get into it. Most movies, well the really good ones anyways, tend to invite you into their world. You become engrossed in it. You become part of the movie; you're friends with the hero, you go on adventures with him, you feel his fears, his excitement, his joy, his pain. But in this film, I felt oddly distanced, there was no point of entry for me to hop on. I was an outsider looking in, feeling no connection to anything I was watching on screen.

I suppose part of that had to do with the fact that Lawrence of Arabia is nothing like I pictured it would be. I always imagined a sweeping melodrama starring a virtuous hero, epic battle scenes, thoughtful and lyrical dialogue, maybe even a little desert romance, but this film basically has none of that. That doesn't make it any less epic, in fact Lawrence is probably one of the most epic films ever in terms scope and vision, but very different from the modern Hollywood definition.

Also a lot of it has to do with Lawrence himself. He's not a typical hero at all. In fact, in some instances he is very unlikeable. But I don't think this film means to romanticize or deify him, but means to simply tell his story and show him as a complex and tortured individual. A lot is said about Peter O'Toole's brilliant and powerful performance, but I actually have to disagree somewhat. There is something off putting about him that actually made me despise him a little. I'm not sure if it is O'Toole's acting or just the character of Lawrence himself, but O'Toole's soft spoken voice really got on my nerves. The fact that he isn't given any substantial heavyweight lines makes it all the worse. All he's given are a bunch of one to three sentence lines in this passive tone with minimal passion or range. For all I know that is how Lawrence actually was, but either way it did not help endear him to me.

Of course, Lawrence was a man of action, but even then O'Toole's expressions and reactions are kind of hit or miss for me. There is the battle near the end where he is crazed and conflicted that seemed more like cliched acting than anything. However, he does have his brilliant moments as well. I loved the scene where after trekking across the desert and suffering the loss of one of his servants, he and his other servant finally make it to British headquarters where he walks up to the bar and demands two glasses of lemonade. There is a policy against serving non-military personnel (the kid) and Lawrence shows such dignified rage that is so befitting and perfect.

Lawrence is a complicated fellow. He hates to see senseless violence yet he admits to enjoying killing. He has a noble cause in uniting Arabs in their fight against the Turks but he is also driven by his immense ego. What is he trying to prove and to whom is he proving it to? To show that he is smarter and more courageous than his British superiors? To force Arabs into accepting him as one of their own? Or is it something that he must prove to himself? There are instances in the film where he's heroic like when he goes back into the desert to find one of his men and other times where he seems weak and comes across as a little whiny.

Apparently, there is some question to T.E. Lawrence's sexual orientation. By many accounts he was homosexual, but obviously you can't have the star of your big 1962 war epic being gay. Yet, you can definitely see it in O'Toole's portrayal if you wanted to look for it. Perhaps that explains the strangeness in O'Toole's soft spoken voice. It is even more alarming when you consider how remarkably handsome he is and the elegance that he carries himself with throughout the film. There are also a couple scenes that pop into mind. One is when he thinks he's by himself in the desert admiring his wardrobe, taking a bow and dancing around in the same way a girl would trying on a new dress. Another is when the Arabs successfully derail a train and Lawrence stands atop the wreckage in all his glory, almost as if posing for the runway. He is definitely a deeply layered character.

For a movie that is so long and so dramatic, there actually isn't very much meaningful dialogue. There is little wit or humor or impassioned exchanges or monologues. People talk and people listen but there doesn't seem to be much more beyond that, which was a pretty big downfall for me. Not every movie has to have the sharp tone of Double Indemnity or the clever banter of Pulp Fiction, but Lawrence of Arabia doesn't offer much more than the basics. Speaking of dialogue, I know it is standard practice for the benefit of the viewer, but I found it funny that everybody in the film speaks English even random kids in remote villages. At least some of the actors pretend to have an accent of some sort.

Anyways, Lawrence of Arabia is more of a visceral movie anyways. You respond to the sights and sounds and feel of the movie, more so than to the plot and characters. For a four hour movie, there isn't actually that much going on. There aren't many turning points or decisive battles to hook you in, yet you are somehow immersed into this world. There is something majestic about seeing the sun creep up over the horizon in the desert that sweeps you into another time and place.

The cinematography in this movie is truly great. The vast desert landscape with the sand dunes and whirling dust storms are captured beautifully. One shot that comes to mind in particular is pretty impressive. It involves Lawrence returning back to the rest of his army after rescuing one of his men. At first you all you see is the open desert with heat waves blurring the horizon. Then a teeny tiny speck appears and it gradually takes shape. Then after a couple more seconds you know that it is Lawrence returning safely. The last battle of the movie where the landscape is littered with bodies reminds me a little of the scene in Ran where the old lord walks through the carnage of war. Pick any screen shot of this movie and it will probably look really good.

Perhaps that is what frustrated me most in my viewing of this movie. Lawrence of Arabia is so well made, has such grand vision and scope, yet it somehow failed to leave any lasting impression on me. I really wanted to like this film. I could appreciate it for what it is, but could never be part of it no matter how hard I tried.

Grade: B-

1 comment:

  1. Wow!

    I'm pretty shocked man! I totally disagree with you, and think this film kicks ass, but I would like to point out that your post is very well-done! As Castor Troy would say... Bra-fucking-vo! I haven't been on the site in a while, but love what you've done with place! Good shit dude.

    I love watching the scene in the beginning of this film with the motorcycle ride... It seems so real! Very well done effect for being such a relatively old movie.