LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (David Lean, 1962)

François Truffaut once remarked that he despised what he called “film elitism,” which to my understanding can apply equally to those who make movies and those who criticize and evaluate them. There is no movie on earth that more rankly embodies film elitism than David Lean’s ponderous, self-important Lawrence of Arabia, which at the time of its original release, in 1962, critic Andrew Sarris opined exists to intimidate audiences, not enlighten or entertain them. Long on panoramic vistas and short on interest in exploring any facet or feature of human behavior or human experience, it drones on emptily for an unconscionable length (over 3½ hours), during which time it throws at us impressive logistics, tons of extras and the whole “spectacle” to-do just so a certain kind of reviewer, a certain kind of audience, can puff up on the notion that he, she or it, too, is very, very important. It’s a movie for people who hate either movies or people, including, perhaps especially, however unconsciously, themselves. Sarris called it “one long mirage.”

Based in part on his Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was published in 1926, the film is about T.E. Lawrence, the idiosyncratic World War I British Army officer who became a champion of Arab nationalism amidst tribal Middle Eastern warfare, as endlessly reported, on the spot, by Lowell Thomas, an American. (In the film, Thomas, whose middle name was Jackson, has been rechristened Jackson Bentley, probably to circumvent a potential lawsuit.) The film, à la Citizen Kane, begins with the man’s death, either a suicide or a quasi-suicide (Lawrence is speeding on his motorcycle back home, far from the desert where he really felt at home), and thereafter flashes back to the shifting sands of his maladjusted adventures and misadventures—the stuff of his legend. Lean’s film, which was written by playwright Robert Bolt and, uncredited, blacklistee Michael Wilson, takes a very long time to arrive at an irritating conclusion: the man in question is ultimately unknowable behind the façade of heroism that Thomas dubiously and relentlessly (and perhaps lethally) imparted to him. Let’s set aside the fact that the lone American in the cast turns out to be the principal villain; we Americans are all capable of taking this bit of slander with a grain of sand or salt. Instead, let’s focus on another fact: that this film goes on and on and drearily on about Lawrence, just to arrive at the conclusion, “Well, don’t ask me about the man! I’ll be darned if I can figure him out!” There is a genuine point here, about the mysteriousness, the unfathomable nature of each of us, not least of all those among us to whom a gigantic legend has become attached. But is the point worth all the time we must put in to get to it? Turn to Book VII, “Residence in London,” of his tremendous autobiographical poem The Prelude, and you will see how much more powerfully and hauntingly William Wordsworth makes much the same point in a very short space (1850 version, lines 619-649). The Great Windbag, Lean, sandbags us with his treatment, seemingly promising revelations about Lawrence but, instead, wearying us into being something akin to tiny insects rather than the fellow and sister beings we really are. Lawrence of Arabia reeks of the filmmaker’s contempt for us, his elitist conviction that he is entitled to manipulate us in any way he cares to.

Another theme is the extent to which Arab adulation finds Lawrence buying into his own legend. Here again Lean is facile rather than probing, never bothering to contextualize this by explaining, for example, how this acceptance of his own heroism compensates for empty patches and pockets in Lawrence’s British experience. Lean gives us so little to hold onto.

Perhaps there is nothing so odious about his work here as the way Lean approaches Lawrence’s likely homosexuality. Constantly tossing sand in our eyes, but teasing us with gleams and glimpses of the possibility, the film is as inconclusive about Lawrence’s sexuality as it is about everything else regarding him. Then why do Bolt, Lean and Wilson even bring the matter up? This gratuitous point of characterization could become meaningful only if Lean explored how and to what extent Lawrence’s homosexuality contributed to something relevant: his ease among Arab boys and men; his preference for the desert, where he could “find” himself by “losing” himself; whatever. Instead, Lean gives us a cheap, melodramatic passage in which Turks capture Lawrence and the head Turkish officer, a coughing homosexual, has the blond, blue-eyed captive stripped and whipped. I don’t know where Turkish sadism and Lawrence’s masochism begin or end in this sick, tormented part of the film, but its pitiless equation of homosexuality and mental or moral disease, whatever the level of denial involved, is almost impossible to stomach. Here, David Lean becomes David Leer.

Curiously, all the film’s attempts to convey visually the desert’s attraction for Lawrence fall flat. (At one point Lawrence thus explains why he loves the desert: “It is clean.”) Lean may have had an enormous amount of money at his disposal (his previous film, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957, had been a titanic financial hit), but a deficiency of imagination robs his images of all sense of the desert’s vastness and mysterious beauty. Compare John Ford’s World War I desert adventure The Lost Patrol (1934) and the difference becomes clear. There is no grandeur to Lean’s concept of the desert, only a trivial pursuit of academic color photography and aesthetic effects.

Marlon Brando and Albert Finney both turned down the lead role in the film—Brando, perhaps because he was afraid of outing himself; Finney, because he was afraid, as a young actor, that such a role would give his budding film career the kiss of death. Peter O’Toole is ridiculous as Lawrence. Sarris was again accurate in describing this unintentional parody of a performance: “hysterical, effeminate.” I can’t imagine who would consider O’Toole’s clipped speech and bundle of tics as any kind of serious acting. Instead of suggesting a real Lawrence behind the public façade, O’Toole keeps to his character’s most superficial aspects and projects enough exhausting nervous energy to make Judy Garland’s concert appearances in the sixties seem calm, contained and relatively normal by comparison.

The supporting cast is large, and some of the actors—among them, Anthony Quayle as Colonel Harry Brighton and Arthur Kennedy as slimy Bentley, that is to say, Thomas—are good.

Is there anything else to recommend this tortured, silly movie? Yes: Maurice Jarre’s rousing score, which won an Oscar. Other Oscars went to Lean and cinematographer Fred A. Young. Lawrence of Arabia also won the best picture award,* and it might have done as well with the New York Film Critics Circle but for an unfortunate coincidence: a New York newspaper strike meant, according to the group’s rules, that there would be no 1962 prizes. I keep hoping that the group might yet fill in the gap, but apparently this isn’t meant to be.

* This was the first time a British film took the prize in fourteen years. When Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, with its beautifully rendered Cold War atmospherics, won the 1948 Oscar as best picture, half the membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences resigned in protest over the fact that anything other than a Hollywood film would win. Good grief!

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