From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Monday, May 10, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Biographical Epics
Lawrence of Arabia

After many delays, I have finally gotten to finishing up last week's theme. I would imagine some of you thought I had been wandering the desert for as long as Lawrence was :-)

Lawrence of Arabia is the true story of British Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence, a poet and author as well as soldier. The film opens on Lawrence at the time of his death in a motorcycle accident. The audience gets a glimpse of the memorial, and the opportunity to listen in on some of the conversations about Lawrence. In these conversations it becomes readily apparent that Lawrence was a polarizing personality. He has as many admirers and supporters who barely knew him personally as there are detractors who claim to have the real "insight" into the man.

We are then taken back to Cairo during World War I. The British are fighting with the Turks in an attempt to grab a stronghold in the Middle East. The British hope to gain the support of Prince Feisal (Sir Alec Guinness, wandering the deserts of Earth long before those of Tattooine) and his people to battle the Turks. However, Feisal's ability to support the war effort is limited. In addition to battling the Turks, Feisal is constantly engaged in skirmishes with the other tribes of Arabia.

Enter Lawrence (Peter O'Toole, in his 4th feature, but the one that would define his career as a leading man). Lawrence has been assigned to Fiesal as a military liaison to try and convince Feisal to adhere to British strategy regarding the war effort. Lawrence proves to be both the right and wrong man for the job. He is right because he succeeds in uniting the warring tribes into a concerted effort to defeat the Turks. He goes well beyond that though in his hopes to help the Arabic people to unite to have their own nation independent of the British. It is this lofty goal that leads to his downfall.

Much has been written about this as one of the definitive films of all time, and nothing I can write here will significantly add to the praise already out there. It is a wonderful film just to watch. Director David Lean frames many shots to introduce the land of the Middle East itself as almost a supporting character playing along with the actors. This is a film that was born to be seen on the big screen, and no matter what quality your home theater setup is, it can't quite measure up to the film as when seen in a theater. Austin's Paramount Theater has presented it in the past as part of its Summer Film Classics Series, and it is worth making the trip for to see if they run it again.

Peter O'Toole gives a very nuanced performance that lives up to the legend that Lawrence built for himself. From the get go, we see Lawrence as a man whose life has not lived up to the size of his dreams. When he gets the opportunity to join Feisal's tribe as their liaison, it's as though everything he hoped for is finally coming to pass. And then both his aspirations and his legend get larger than life. It twists him, changes him in many ways. The way he becomes tortured both physically and mentally is heartbreaking.

The supporting performances are all top notch. Guinness, after working with Lean on his previous feature Bridge on the River Kwai brings some interesting gravitas to his portrayal of Feisal. He seems well aware that his time may be fading fast in the face of progress and the encroachment of the Western World. It lends some wry sadness to many of his lines as he tries to make the most of a bad situation.

Equal in presence alongside Lawrence are Omar Sherif as Sherif Ali and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi. Sherif is Prince Feisal's right hand, and goes from being a serious skeptic of Lawrence's leadership to one of his fiercest supporters. Auda is leader of a mercenary tribe that looks only to take the fights which might bring them fortune and glory. They are metaphors for Lawrence's warring portions of his conscience and they bring his personal conflicts into sharp relief.

At three and a half hours, the film is a lengthy hike as an epic should be. But it is something that needs to be seen for all the little elements that make it a rich cinematic work. O'Toole in his prime is the kind of leading that makes women of any generation swoon. The cinematography is the kind that the big screen was made for.

Later today: Professional Killers week will start with Leon.