LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

Lawrence_of_arabia_ver3_xxlgIn Oxford England, home to some of the oldest higher learning institutions in the world, is the Bodleian Library’s Treasury, where they display important and historical books to the public. Among the blackletter parchment texts and First Folios, you can see the manuscript for the memoirs of a British intelligence officer from the First World War and Oxford alum, T.E. Lawrence. An archaeologist; like many of his generation his career was interrupted by service in the war. While certainly not the only literary figure to emerge from the Great War, writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Ernst Junger described an experience harder to attach a narrative: the misery of trench life and futile battlefield draws that went on for years. Lawrence served in the Middle East, aiding the Arab Bedouins in their revolt against the Ottoman Empire, taking not only  the role of battlefield commander, but adopting the Bedouins’ dress and aspects of their culture. He stood out as an almost swashbuckling figure, leading a small army of robed fighters on camels and horses across the desert. Romantic as he may have appeared, in no way did his dashing image insulate him from the horrors of war, and his role as a bridge between two nations left him in a deeply conflicted position.

Over the course of our project, I’ve realized that many Oscar winning pictures are about war. As someone who is a staunch anti-militarist, this was off-putting at first; however, as the daughter and granddaughter of veterans I am also grateful for it. If anything, seeing tell of the horrors of war and the individual lives impacted solidifies my convictions.

Lawrence of Arabia is a powerful film on a host of levels, not the least of which is its visuals. The film has gorgeous landscapes as our protagonist spans the globe; the scenes in the desert are stunning and made me wish I could visit soon. One error I think we made in watching this film was neglecting to find time and space to see it on the big screen. That’s a little hard to do with a three and a half hour film though, especially when you have a toddler.

War films are well represented among Best Pictures, and among movies in general, but that’s unsurprising. Wars and battles by their very nature arouse passions and bring people to the extremes of human experience, which is a fair working definition of “drama.” There is also inherent spectacle to war, which lends itself to cinematic treatment. And of course on the most visceral level, it is exciting. God knows I’ve never been anywhere near combat, but I’ve listened to people describe it, and while, yes it is certainly horrific, even sensible, conscientious human beings have acknowledged the thrill as well, describing it as almost addictive. So of course war is a perennial subject of film. What I would hopefully ask is that the subject not be treated totally exploitatively, merely as an outlet for macho fantasies or an ultra-nationalistic exercise.

Lawrence is certainly of the ‘big production’ types of Best Picture, and if there’s one thing it’s famous for, it is its on-location cinematography. We tried to watch it on a projection screen, which is what held us up for so long, but circumstances wouldn’t permit. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful film to watch on the living room TV.

Despite the film’s length, it focuses exclusively on Lawrence’s service in the Middle Eastern theater of the war (excepting the opening scenes), and I found this an interesting choice. The real life Lawrence very likely suffered from PTSD afterward and behaved in some odd ways. About a month after the events of the film, he actually declined a knighthood, being perhaps the first person known to do so. He later re-enlisted in the military, but as an enlisted man under an assumed name, despite having left the army a lieutenant colonel. Lawrence’s experiences in the war- just whatever they may have been- obviously affected him very gravely.

Peter O’Toole, over the film’s length, captures this transition from eccentric adventurer to charismatic leader on a brutal revenge crusade. There is an inherent contradiction in the man that O’Toole plays like an internal weight crushing him. He never quite appears confident of who he is: Major Lawrence of the British Army, or the folk hero Lawrence of Arabia. More than once, he is inclined to walk away, but his cynical superiors lure him back, holding out his esteem among the Bedouins like a drug he just can’t resist. Then the final irony: he succeeds on the battlefield and captures Damascus but fails to lead the Arabs in establishing a functional civil state. They just can’t keep the lights on without going to the British for help; help which will come at a steep price. With the fighting over, neither the British nor the Arabs under Faisal have any use for him. He is unceremoniously driven out of town, passing the now-former members of his army who are on their way home and, in the other direction, soldiers of the British occupation. The final transformation of Lawrence to a spent, demoralized war hero. ‘You can’t ride two horses’ goes the saying, and in the end, no amount of self-delusion can negate that truth.

Lawrence’s internal struggles are underscored by his relationship with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), and their eventual role reversal. (Of course they are foils: Lawrence wears white, Ali black.) In their famous first meeting, Lawrence furiously scolds Ali for his casual violence. Later it is Ali who is shocked by Lawrence’s recklessness and eventual brutality in his no-quarter order given against the retreating Ottoman army- an episode that depicts a historical event.

Watching films like this does often lead me to go back and grapple with historical texts to understand what artistic liberties might have been taken and how true the telling is to what actually happened. That’s incredibly valuable, but I often worry that people take films like this as full-on documentaries. Perhaps it is because I am increasingly terrified about the low media and information literacy I see in our country on the whole. However, films like this are part of what excite audiences to learn more – and that’s a good thing.

I find it interesting that Mouse is talking about the addictive quality of war and battle here. I once knew someone who described her own experience being in the military as an addiction of sorts. She really loved it – you could tell – but she also was a smart person who problematized it and was disgusted by many elements of it. She truly experienced it as an addiction. I can see how Lawrence gets pulled to both sides. I think it’s the passion itself he is drawn to. For him, it isn’t about wanting to express nationalism or imperialism, per se – he seems impulsive and like someone who gets caught up in the moment. He likes the thrill of the chase, the romanticism of war and battle. However, through his character’s lens, it is easy to see how the “good guys” and “bad guys” can easily change in war by virtue of where you are standing. This is an important lesson even today.

Do you think that in Heaven, T.E. Lawrence and George Patton ever talk about what it’s like to be a war hero, then die in a traffic accident after the war?

Lawrence unsurprisingly won Oscars for direction, score and cinematography, as well as nominations for the principle actors, but the real drama at the 35th Academy Awards was in the Best Actress category. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane costars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were playing out the famous chapter in one of the great classic Hollywood feuds. When Davis was nominated for Best Actress, Crawford was kind enough to approach the previously-engaged Anne Bancroft with an offer to accept the award on her behalf, should she win. When Bancroft was announced the winner, Davis got to watch her rival Crawford accept an Oscar in the category in which she herself was a nominated.

That’s interesting, but definitely got my mind wandering away from the subject of Lawrence of Arabia. Given the beautiful scenery and epic shots, it’s no wonder an Oscar for direction and cinematography were in the bank. The score is interesting, though. As a music lover, I don’t recall being that struck by it. I do think should we ever have the opportunity to see this film as it was intended, on the big screen, we should take it. That’s my advice to our readers if they have not seen it yet as well.

Also nominated in 1962:
The Longest Day
The Music Man
Mutiny on the Bounty
To Kill a Mockingbird

Next film: THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)

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