by David Lean
(UK/USA 1962 221m) DVD1/2
Nothing is written
p Sam Spiegel, David Lean d David Lean w Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson ph Frederick A.Young, Nicolas Roeg (2nd unit) ed Anne V.Coates m Maurice Jarre art John Box, John Stoll, Dario Simone cos Phyllis Dalton sound John Cox
Peter O’Toole (T.E.Lawrence), Omar Sharif (Sheriff Ali), Anthony Quinn (Auda Abu Tayi), Jack Hawkins (Gen.Allenby), Anthony Quayle (Col.Harry Brighton), Arthur Kennedy (Jackson Bentley), Alec Guinness (Prince Feisal), Claude Rains (Dryden), José Ferrer (Turkish Bey), Donald Wolfit (Gen.Murray), Michel Ray, Zia Mohyeddin, I.S.Johar, Clive Morton, Cyril Cusack, Howard Marion Crawford,
Lawrence of Arabia is a film so deified by the current Hollywood elite that it seems churlish to pick any holes in it. For sure it’s the greatest film of Lean’s epic phase, a film of incredible visual beauty, intelligently scripted, exceptionally acted and dipped in the sort of majesty few films even aspire to, let alone achieve. Yet though it may be worth his later efforts Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage to India put together, forgive me if I don’t yearn for his earlier, more linear and certainly leaner forties works. (As one quipping critic put it, inside every Lean picture, there is a fat one wanting to get out.)
Though following Lawrence’s career in detail from his Cairo beginnings to his final return home, the one main complaint one has is that Lean’s film never remotely gets to grip with Lawrence the man, being more interested in the vision of Lawrence the demi-god, worshipped by the Arabs and the embarrassment of his superiors. Yet though it may lack such insights into the eponymous characters afforded by Schaffner’s Patton or even Attenborough’s Gandhi, it’s a superior achievement to any of them. After all, how can any biopic justify a man’s life? The only person who can and perhaps should do that is the man himself. Lean’s film is happier to leave him as an enigma and let audiences come to their own conclusions. Lawrence was no saint, an egotist of almost frightening proportions who came to believe in his own invincibility. Like any modern celebrity, fame went to his head, but unlike many of the more shallow celebrities of the modern era, we see him dislike not only what he has become, but also what he is. At times, we get the feeling he believes his nationality is something to be ashamed of.
Lawrence could not have worked without an ace technical crew and the co-operation of many Levant governments. His film is full of epic sequences on a grand canvas, with desert reaching illimitably to a hazy horizon, clear blue skies and shots of the Via Lactia at night contrasting with the burning heat of the sands. Though he undoubtedly had time on his side, Freddie Young’s photography is awe-inspiring – you almost feel as if your throat is parched. There are sequences that stay with you for life; the attack on Aqaba, Lawrence returning into the officer’s mess with an Arab youth, Sharif’s immortal introduction on the horizon, that infamous cut from matchstick to sunrise. The sets, editing, costumes and score (easily Jarre’s best) are all perfect, too and the cast are beyond compare. Though O’Toole’s masterful performance was rightly praised, Sharif is excellent as Ali, Wolfit and Hawkins perfect as differing sides of the military, Guinness suitably chameleonesque as Faisal and Kennedy superb as Bentley, who perhaps understood Lawrence better than anyone.
More than anything, however, this film is a David Lean super production, a film only a director as fastidious as he could make. Steven Spielberg once said it was a miraculous film, and one recalls him saying how he enjoyed watching the restored film with Lean and how Lean gave him a running commentary throughout on how each shot was made. Quite right that he enjoyed it, but it does highlight the hypocrisy of his denying others his thoughts on his own films by not doing commentaries on his DVDs. As for Lawrence, leave the final words to Quayle – who superbly played probably the most normal character in the movie – who said “he was the most extraordinary man I’ve ever known.” One thing no-one who saw this film would argue with.