Lawrence of Arabia

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

The film opens in 1935 when Lawrence is killed in a motorcycle accident. At his memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, a reporter tries (with little success) to gain insights into this remarkable, enigmatic man from those who knew him.

The story then moves backward to the First World War, where Lawrence is a misfit British Army lieutenant, notable for his insolence and knowledge. Over the objections of General Murray, Mr. Dryden of the Arab Bureau sends him to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal in his revolt against the Turks. On the journey, his Bedouin guide is killed by Sherif Ali for drinking from his well without permission. Lawrence later meets Colonel Brighton, who orders him to keep quiet, make his assessment, and leave. Lawrence ignores Brighton’s orders when he meets Faisal. His outspokenness piques the prince’s interest.

Brighton advises Faisal to retreat after a major defeat, but Lawrence proposes a daring surprise attack on Aqaba; its capture would provide a port from which the British could offload much-needed supplies. The town is strongly fortified against a naval assault but only lightly defended on the landward side. He convinces Faisal to provide fifty men, led by a sceptical Sherif Ali. Teenage orphans Daud and Farraj attach themselves to Lawrence. They cross the Nefud Desert, considered impassable even by the Bedouins, travelling day and night on the last stage to reach water. Gasim succumbs to fatigue and falls off his camel unnoticed during the night. When Lawrence discovers him missing, he turns back and rescues Gasim—and Sherif Ali is won over. He gives Lawrence Arab robes to wear.

Lawrence persuades Auda abu Tayi, the leader of the powerful local Howeitat tribe, to turn against the Turks. Lawrence’s scheme is almost derailed when one of Ali’s men kills one of Auda’s because of a blood feud. Howeitat retaliation would shatter the fragile alliance, so Lawrence declares that he will execute the murderer himself. He is then stunned to discover that the culprit is Gasim, the very man whom he risked his own life to save in the desert, but he shoots him anyway.

The next morning, the Arabs overrun the Turkish garrison. Lawrence heads to Cairo to inform Dryden and the new commander, General Allenby, of his victory. While crossing the Sinai Desert, Daud dies when he stumbles into quicksand. Lawrence is promoted to major and given arms and money for the Arabs. He is deeply disturbed, however, confessing that he enjoyed executing Gasim, but Allenby brushes aside his qualms. He asks Allenby whether there is any basis for the Arabs’ suspicions that the British have designs on Arabia. When pressed, the general states that they do not.

Lawrence launches a guerrilla war, blowing up trains and harassing the Turks at every turn. American war correspondent Jackson Bentley publicises his exploits, making him world famous. On one raid, Farraj is badly injured. Unwilling to leave him to be tortured by the enemy, Lawrence shoots him before fleeing.

When Lawrence scouts the enemy-held city of Deraa with Ali, he is taken, along with several Arab residents, to the Turkish Bey. Lawrence is stripped, ogled, and prodded. He strikes out at the Bey and is severely flogged and possibly raped. He is then thrown into the street. The experience traumatises Lawrence. He returns to British headquarters in Cairo, but he does not fit in.

A short time later in Jerusalem, Allenby urges him to support the general’s “big push” on Damascus, but Lawrence is a changed, tormented man, unwilling to return. He finally relents.

He recruits an army that is motivated mainly by money rather than by the Arab cause. They sight a column of retreating Turkish soldiers who have just slaughtered the people of the village of Tafas. One of Lawrence’s men is from the village; he demands, “No prisoners!” When Lawrence hesitates, the man charges the Turks alone and is killed. Lawrence takes up the dead man’s cry, resulting in a massacre in which Lawrence himself participates with relish. Afterwards, he regrets his actions.

His men take Damascus ahead of Allenby’s forces. The Arabs set up a council to administer the city, but they are desert tribesmen, ill-suited for such a task. Despite Lawrence’s efforts, they bicker constantly. Unable to maintain the public utilities, the Arabs soon abandon most of the city to the British.

Lawrence is promoted to colonel and immediately ordered home, as his usefulness is at an end to both Faisal and the British. A dejected Lawrence is driven away in a staff car.

REVIEW:

We are coming to the end of the year and, per tradition, I am trying to empty out my Netflix queue and also watch some true classic films. You may recall last year, I tested Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This year I have a couple of masterpieces lined up, the first is the epic masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia.

What is this about?

This Oscar-winning epic tells the true story of T.E. Lawrence, who helped unite warring Arab tribes to strike back against the Turks in World War I. This lush, timeless classic underscores the clash between cultures that changed the tide of war.

What did I like?

Score. Wow! Maurice Jarre really captured the essence of the sweeping desert winds with the main theme of this film. Not only that, but he also composed a score that fits perfectly with the rest of the film. I didn’t notice any part of it that stuck out or felt like it belonged to another genre. I am not inherently familiar with Jarre’s work, but if this sample is any indication, this man is severely underrated!

Cinematography. When people talk about epic films and sweeping cinematography, it is this film that they tend to use as an example. The lush score mixed with the visual of the vast desert makes for a great image. Add in an army crossing 20 days worth of barren sands with no water in sight, and you have the visual formula, as it were, that many films attempt to use still to this day (note that I said attempt).

A pint of Guinness. Alec Guinness is best known to those of us less cultured saps as Obi Wan Kenobi from the original (holy) Star Wars trilogy. Seeing him outside of his Jedi robes sometimes takes me aback, but then I remember that this is a man who is quite the capable actor. His scenes as Prince Faisal are quite interesting as he portrays this man as forceful, yet gentle, slow to rage and respected. The depth and range of his performance is of note because he isn’t on the screen but for maybe 10-15 min total. A trivia tidbit, this role was originally meant for Sir Laurence Olivier, but he couldn’t take because of other engagements.

What didn’t I like?

Extra, extra! Lately, there have been a string of films set in the middle east area. Here in the present day, one would think that casting directors would do everything they can to cast actors that fit what people in that part of the world look like, rather the whitest actors alive, just with a dab of tan makeup to make an attempt to look like they are native. That isn’t the case, however. The old saying, “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” is certainly coming true in Hollywood today as film like this, Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, and others did not cast accurately. I will give this film credit, though. The extras look like they actually are from this part of the world and Omar Shariff is a major character

Length. Look, this is an epic film and it tells a grand story, but did it really need 3 hours and 42 minutes to do so? I think I fell asleep somewhere near the end, but I’m not sure. I will admit, though, that audiences in the 60s had better attention spans, so perhaps this was not a problem for them, but for me it was a challenge.

Dead men tell no tales. As the film starts, we see present day, well 1935,  T.E. Lawrence riding a motorcycle until he is killed in an accident. The very next scene is his memorial service where we thrown to the rest of the film. I am fine with this being told as a flashback, I just feel that it should have bookended with the reporter again at the end, rather than the abrupt ending we were shown. A bit of closure would have been nice there.

So, there is no doubt that Lawrence of Arabia is a grand, epic film, worth of high praise and accolades. One review I happened to see on Netflix said it best,

Lawrence of Arabia is not a film to be trifled with. It spreads out its own epic-ness like a down comforter, and then proceeds to roll around in it luxuriantly for the next four and a half hours or so. T.E. Lawrence is a complicated man, equal parts genius and lunatic, and Peter O’Toole’s decidedly quirky performance conveys this excellently. The smart script also pays close attention to the political string-pulling behind Lawrence’s thrilling adventures, and displays admirable respect for its Arab characters. The likes of Sherif Ali and especially the sad, dryly witty Prince Faisal are presented as full-blooded human beings, without the slightest trace of condescension. With all these graces, gorgeous desert cinematography and a lush score, you’ve got a movie so appropriately mammoth it’ll take two nights’ viewing to appreciate it all.

Not much more I can really say after that summation. Do I recommend this fine example of what cinema should and could be? Yes, very highly, but make sure to clear your schedule before viewing.

5 out of 5 stars

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