Movie Review: No 64. Lawrence of Arabia

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Movie Review: No 64. Lawrence of Arabia

Until last night I had 3 half-watched movies waiting for me to get off my butt and finish them. It’s becoming a pretty hard slog. So many of the Top 100 movies are 2.5 to 3 hours long (or more!)

Lawrence of Arabia is one such doozy. A 3.5 hour doozy. Even the lead actor himself took 20 years to get through the whole thing!

As with many of the movies on the list (particularly the older ones), I felt like the first half could do with some serious editing. Nevertheless, I will accept the comment of another reviewer that every single scene in the 3.5 hours of film is essential to the plot. Despite its length, the lulls were few, and those few were quickly and pleasantly passed by my brain softly singing to me “Lawrence of Arabia / British Beatle mania” until things got interesting again.

It’s just a bloody long story.

Then again, isn’t that what wars usually are? Bloody and long? It seems only fair that a movie about a war should follow that same formula.

Jackson Bentley: Never saw a man killed with a sword before.
T.E. Lawrence: [contemptuously] Why don’t you take a picture?
Jackson Bentley: Wish I had.

This “based on a true story” story chronicles the World War I efforts of T.E. Lawrence, “a flamboyant and controversial British military figure”. I knew next to nothing about the film before I started watching it, but I was pleased when he eventually donned the tea towel-like headwear I expected.

Much like ‘Paths of Glory‘, where I argued that, “to Americans, it seems, all it takes to play a Frenchman is a jaunty moustache and a British accent”, in this film they show their clear belief that all it takes to play an Arab is some shoe polish applied liberally to the face. How else could you explain Obi-wan Kenobi being cast as an Arabian prince? (Although, to be fair, he plays the role exquisitely and apparently was mistaken for the real man by people who knew him).

Sherif Ali: Truly, for some men nothing is written unless THEY write it.

Peter O’Toole, playing the eponymous Lawrence, gives – hands-down – the best acting performance I have ever witnessed in my whole life. I can’t imagine this film achieving the success it did without him in it. The film won 7 Oscars but he himself was beaten to the podium by Gregory Peck. It’s a bleedin’ outrage it is! If he’d lost to a lesser man I might have staged a formal protest.

The barren desert scenes depict it as both a deadly and beautiful place – a highly accurate depiction painstakingly wrought through seemingly unending trekking scenes. From the first, I was instantly transported to the Moroccan desert (where, of course, many of the scenes are filmed). Of course, when I went to the desert I was on no freedom fighting mission. Instead, I was weighing up offers of camels in exchange for my travel companion, Rachael, and sliding down dunes on a “magic carpet”. We rode dromedaries rather than two-hump camels and did our best to fight off the insufferable peddlers. At the end of the day we retreated to the comfort of our Bedouin “wazzis” and swam under the moon and twinkling stars of the desert sky.

No such luck for our friend Lawrence.

‘Lawrence of Arabia’ basically shows what it would be like if you took Cowboys and Indians and plonked them in the middle of the desert to battle it out. The baddies wear black, of course, and the good guys wear white. The motivation here, at least according to Prince Feisal, is that “The English have a great hunger for desolate places”. Then again, us Aussies already knew that.

Interestingly, according to imdb, “although 227 minutes long, this film has no women in speaking roles. It is reportedly the longest film not to have any dialogue spoken by a woman”.

Auda: You trouble me like women.

In fact, this epic tale brings about lots of little interesting facts like that and the imdb trivia section for this film read as good as any book. For example, the film spent 2 years in pre-production and a further 14 months in filming – in other words, “It took longer to make than it did for the real T.E. Lawrence to go from lieutenant to colonel, to see the desert tribes united and tip the balance in the Allies’ favor against the Turks in World War I”! Steven Spielberg, who cites this as his all-time favourite film, once estimated that to make the film today you’d have to fork out something like $285 million (which would rank fourth after ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End’, ‘Titanic’ and ‘Spider-Man 3’ in the race for title of most expensive film ever produced). Another little tidbit?…

During an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in the 1970s, Peter O’Toole was describing just how long the movie took to make by referring to the scene when T.E. Lawrence and Gen. Allenby, after their meeting, continue talking while walking down a staircase. According to O’Toole, part of the scene had to be reshot much later, “so in the final print, when I get to the bottom of the stairs, I’m a year older than I was when I started walking down them.”

 

“Epic” really is the only word you can use to describe this film. Just one scene (“The charge on Aqaba”) employed 450 horses and 150 camels. Probably one of my favourite moments in this film was watching camels running at full speed. The least favourite? ‘The NeverEnding Story’-like quicksand scene (which still ranks highly in my list of “saddest movie moments ever”). This time, though, it’s not a horse that cops it.

When you factor in the film’s highly controversial themes, it’s fair to say that a film of this kind will never be attempted again. As a result, in watching it you get a genuine sense that this you are enjoying a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Then again, much of the controversy rests in the film’s homosexual overtones (something I personally hope will become less and less “controversial” with time). It’s interesting timing, given Jodie Foster’s now-famous “semi-coming-out-speech” at yesterday’s Oscars ceremony (which, frankly, I don’t understand the hype over). If Jake Gyllenhaal “was a gay cowboy before it was cool“, then T.E. Lawrence wrote the book on it (no, literally, he did, it’s called ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ and it’s now on my reading bucket list). With the (over) reaction to Jodie Foster’s speech I feel like the gay community are crying outfor a fearless gay hero. Look no further people: T.E. Lawrence is your man.

I wanted to rate this movie lower. It’s long. It’s so. very. long.I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s an easy night’s viewing. It most certainly is not. Thing is, once you’ve fought your way through the whole thing, it almost leeches its way into your bones and becomes a part of you. After that, there’s really no fighting it…

10 pumpkins.

Have you seen ‘Lawrence of Arabia’? Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments below.

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