Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Epic Watch: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Watched:  04/15/2018
Format:  Alamo Ritz
Viewing:  6th of 7th
Decade:  1960's

If you've never seen Lawrence of Arabia (1962), fix that problem.

I should mention - Jamie took me to see this as a birthday present.  The showing was in 70mm from a fairly recently struck print and it looked astonishing, including the scratches and signs of this actually being shown from film.  I don't know that it might have looked poor in digital - I doubt it - but it was a tremendous presentation.

The first time I saw this film I was 14 and it was during the school year.  I don't know the exact context, but I do know that a bunch of my brother's friends were over, and a living room full of teen-aged dudes watched this thing silently for the entire near four-hour run time, pausing only to swap out tapes.  I can't recall which of us rented it or why, other than that we were in a mode of renting movies we'd heard were pretty good.  We were gobsmacked - and it's been one of those foundational film experiences for me ever since.

And I certainly recall returning to school and finding only one other kid in my English class who'd seen the film, but man did he want to talk about it, too.

Arriving during the era when lengthy Bible epics were not yet out of fashion and before other reflective deconstructive war films like Patton and Apocalypse Now, Lawrence of Arabia must have been a revelation when it arrived in theaters.  If it appeared today it would be a sensation, and, honestly, it surpasses anything I can think of that's shown up in a decade or so.*  The scope and scale - all recreated and shot on location with a cast of... I can't begin to guess numbers... with bi-planes and trains and tanks, camels and... oh my god, the locations...  I love seeing Wakanda on the big screen, but it'll always be CGI.  Even Dunkirk and it's scale is still limited by time and place.

Look, there are books on the movie, a book the movie is based on, articles, websites and endless hagiography.  I'll keep it brief.

From script to performances to the masterful camera of F.A. Young, David Lean (director) and Sam Speigel's (producer) is as solid an entry in the best of Western Cinema as I can think of.  The score by Maurice Jarre is legendary.  One of the few overtures in film that feels worth the pretension.

It isn't often when I see a movie at this point that it feels like an *experience*.  Whenever I finish watching the film, I feel drained.  It's not just the run-time of the movie, it's the arc of our lead as we follow him from cocky, under-employed, bright young officer in search of adventure to leader of men, spark to found nations, disillusioned true-believer and cynical survivor of war.  A man who won't lift a gun to a man taking no prisoners and trying to retain his humanity.  That's not to mention the introduction of the tribal/ feudal culture of the locals of the region, their fight with the Turkish Army, how it fits in with England's ambitions fro the region both in conjunction with and for after the Great War.  And how the bloodshed and violence of war and colonialism destroy good men on all sides.

That this is based on true events from a well known first-person account of TE Lawrence (the Lawrence of the title), and that this is some version of how the world turned is astonishing.  And, yes, it does make me want to read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  I expect massive liberties have been taken, but nonetheless.

While the desert had provided a favorite landscape for filmmakers since the silent era and the innumerable "shiek" movies of the Valentino-era and into the sands and swords and Biblical films period, Young's camera captures the majesty, scale and diversity of at least the locations which double for the wide range of areas they're supposed to be traveling.  But beyond that, the movement of people, the framing and blocking - the close-ups on the faces of handsome, desperate men.  There's no bad or wasted shot cut into the movie.

The movie is a product of its time and an English film - the major roles are Brits cast as real-life, non-Anglo figures.  It does find a much better balance of the "white man joins local culture, does very well" trope - as, in fact, things don't go particularly well.  But you can imagine how tempting this film made that idea for other filmmakers leading to some just terrible movies.

Women basically don't appear in the film.  It's a war movie far from England, located mostly in the deeply gender-segregated Middle East of the mid-1910's   The haunting, rousing appearance of women calling out to their men as they head out to take Aqaba still puts them at a distance, far from the lens.

Alex Guinness is brilliant in the movie, but he's not Arabian.  Anthony Quinn wears a strange prosthetic nose, like we don't know Anthony Quinn's face.  But the film does introduce Omar Sharif who is at least ethnically adjacent (and gives those who might care a jawline to swoon over).

In the middle of this, we have Peter O'Toole giving the g-d performance of a storied career.  I have no idea if this was hard for him or not.  It's easy to think he sobered up in the morning and just did it - but there's a decline to the character that must have been exceedingly difficult to capture.  So little is said directly in the movie, its O'Toole's performance that carries the truth of the narrative.

I could either write 3,000 more words or simply respect the fact you've seen the movie and know, or encourage you to watch it.

So, below here... nothing is written!  (except a footnote)

*feel free to remind me of movies I'm not thinking of

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