Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
By all Hollywood standards, Lawrence of Arabia shouldn’t even exist. It bears no trademarks of the comfortable commercial pillows that studio execs love to prop their hopes against. Here is a four hour historical epic with no stars, little action, no romantic subplot, no female characters and much of the film looks out onto a desert with no Jawas. The movie begins at the end of its subject’s life and then rewinds the clock to tell us how he got to that point. And yet, all through the movie, he remains at a distance from us. By standards of marketing, this movie is a dead zone.
And yet, the movie defies all expectations. David Lean, the director, is not interested in making a movie about guns and camels, but about a man who, for the film’s entire running time, remains aloof. It tells the story of T.E. Lawrence but defies the conventions of a standard biography beginning at the moment of his death and then rewinding the clock back to the moment that would lead to the events that would define his legacy. Yet we are never privvy to the innerworkings of this man’s soul. He’s a decent man driven mad by the power of his own image when his assignment to lead the Arabs on a trek across the desert against the Turks gets into his head.
Perhaps if Lawrence were played by anyone else we might object, but Peter O’Toole seemed born for this role. Virtually unknown to movie audiences at the time he had an odd manner, a way of moving that didn’t seem at all conventional. When he spoke there seemed to be odd spaces between his words and he had an accent that many of us privately wish we had for ourselves. He had face so young, so clean and so beautiful that the playwright Noel Coward remarked “If you had been any prettier it would have been ‘Florence of Arabia.'”
Lawrence is an eccentric, an odd duck who defies the usual patterns of heroism or humility. He doesn’t wave off praise but instead becomes intoxicated by the power of his own image and feeds off of the legends that are being written about him.
To the Arabs, he becomes a god-like figure for his bravery and his apparent invincibility and Lawrence is more than happy to feed them that image. The best scene in the movie takes place when Lawrence destroys a railroad track with dynamite, crashing a Turkish train. He then leads the Arabs in a barrage of gunfire that destroys the train and kills all of the passengers. Sitting on the wreckage, he is asked by an American journalist (Arthur Kennedy) to pose for a picture. And so he does, this blonde-haired blue-eyed celebrity struts across the top of the wrecked train while the Arabs chant his name. To them, he is a celebrity, a messiah, and in one brilliantly symbolic moment, these desert-dwellers watch as this man turns and blocks out the sun.
This image goes to his head, especially in a semi-comic scene in which Ali takes Lawrence’s uniform off the clothes line and throws it on the campfire and then adorns him in the clothing of a Bedouin prince. Lawrence struts around in his new robes, walking out into the desert to let the wind twirl around his robes as he tries them out and looks lovingly at his own shadow.
The ending is painfully sad, at least for Lawrence. The Turks have been defeated, the job is done, the mission is at an end and Lawrence’s time in Arabia has come to an end. He returns to his native land but there are regrets and the last scene in the film has him sitting in a jeep, back in the uniform of a British officer, a sad look on his face as he realizes what he has created and what he is leaving behind, for them but mostly for himself.
I’ve seen Lawrence of Arabia at least half a dozen times in my life, but I am nowhere near the bottom of it. There’s a deeper level here that I always feel will be revealed to me on subsequent viewings. It’s an experience that I’ve never been able to put into words. I admit I’ve sat on this review for several weeks. It is a movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Battleship Potemkin, Sita Sings the Blues, Under the Skin, It Follows or even the Batman films that are such a visual experience that you sound ridiculous trying to explain. It is spare on quotable dialogue and on a tightly written plot that can be summarized. It’s an experience, one that you see and feel but struggle to describe.