50 years of ‘Lawrence’ – plus an Intermission

My favourite movie – David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia‘ – celebrates its 50th birthday this year and is enjoying a limited cinema release with a new digital print by way of commemorating this anniversary.

I can still recall my Dad taking me to our local ‘fleapit’ on Wellingborough Road to see ‘Lawrence’ when it first came out.  I had only the vaguest idea who T.E. Lawrence was (or had been) but even at a very tender age, I was captivated, both by Peter O’ Toole’s astonishing turn as the eponymous, troubled hero as well as the wide-screen landscapes of the desert which are a substantial part of the movie’s unique signature.

Since that first ‘sighting’ of Lawrence on the big screen, I have, like many Englishmen of a certain age, become embroiled with the whole mythology of the man’s life.  I have read Lawrence’s  own books and many other books written about him, I have visited his cottage at Clouds Hill and his grave at Moreton and have already written about him on this blog, here:

The enduring impact of T.E.Lawrence…..

in February of 2010.

David Lean directs  a smiling Peter O’Toole somewhere in the Jordanian desert

Lawrence ‘s  ‘enduring impact’ has, of course, been substantially enhanced by  David Lean’s wonderful film but also, in my view, has something to do with this country’s post-Imperial status and the way in which we, as a nation have dealt with that.   Lawrence almost became a poster boy for a dysfunctional, crumbling Empire; emotionally conflicted and battered by circumstance, whilst retaining a certain fundamental English decency.  His fury and bafflement at the slings and arrows of the politicians,  the diplomats and the media somehow echoed the frustrations of thousands of ordinary servicemen and women who felt that they had fought in  (one or both of) the war to end all wars and if they were supposed to have won it, why did they so often feel as though they’d lost it?  For the story of a detached and reserved Oxford academic’s adventures in the deserts of Arabia to capture the imagination of so many ordinary British people is little short of extraordinary.

At the outset 0f the movie , in Cairo, O’Toole plays Lawrence as the Army misfit with his distracted manner and awkward exchanges with colleagues and  superiors.  He seems to inhabit, rather than wear his ill-fitting uniforms and is regarded with suspicion and ill-concealed irritation by his superiors.  In his first foray north-eastwards from Yenbo to meet up with Prince Feisal’s irregulars, he sits awkwardly on his camel and only as he gradually adopts local attire and becomes more comfortable with his life among the Bedouin does he seem more at ease.  In fact, only once in the film, after the fall of Akaba, whilst being interviewed by George Kennedy’s American journalist, does he ever really seem at peace with his role as the arbiter of the Desert Revolt.  The rest of the time he seems to veer from self-doubt and self-loathing to manic over-confidence and reckless humour.  It’s a tour de force performance and one from which O’Toole’s career never really recovered;  subsequently,  most people saw those vivid blue eyes and just remembered Lawrence.

Omar Sharif makes his unforgettable entrance……

Despite this ‘tour de force’ , after nearly 4 hours –   3 hours & 45 minutes plus a 10-minute intermission – we are  in many respects none the wiser about Lawrence’s motives;  – patriot or romantic?  pragmatist or accidental hero?  man of action or poetic dreamer?

And there are more questions about him…..  Away from the  War and the politics, there has been continuing speculation in this prurient age about Lawrence’s sexuality.  In 1962,  Lean was unable to tell what he thought was the full story of Lawrence’s capture and imprisonment in Deraa,  though the movie hints that Miguel Ferrer’s Turkish officer sexually assaults  Lawrence and he himself suggests this in his book, ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.  Yet again, we are forced to observe that so much of Lawrence’s story is untold and despite this movie and all the other books and documentaries and press articles, the man remains the proverbial enigma, elusive,  shrouded in mystery and so on.

Within the movie, Lean’s visual strategies often hint at this – Lawrence the public figure is often seen backlit atop a train carriage or in silhouette,  as a shadow or as a muffled figure, wrapped in his keffiyeh.  At the very end of the film, with Lawrence on his way to take ship to England, he’s back in Army khakis and being driven by an NCO in a jeep.  They pass a group of Bedouin who are returning to the desert.  Lawrence rises as if to salute them, but they do not recognise him.  He sits down again and (prophetically) a motorbike overtakes them – part of the extended ‘journey’ metaphors with which David Lean bedecks the movie.   Lawrence stares ahead – a man who is part of 2 very different worlds but not altogether at home in either of them.   Here in the very final frames of a 4-hour film, the hero remains  both obscure and obscured due to the fly-spattered, dusty windshield of an Army jeep.

We  cannot really see his face.  What do we actually know about him?

The official publicity materials for the movie tended to reinforce this approach – Lawrence’s face is similarly shrouded here……who was that masked man?

Without wishing to demean the efforts of a superb supporting cast – Anthony Quinn and Jack Hawkins were particularly effective – the other undoubted star of Lean’s movie is,  of course, the desert itself.  Some parts of the film were filmed in Morocco and Spain, but the most dramatic sequences were filmed in Jordan, particularly in the spectacular landscapes of Wadi Rum.  Seen on a super-large IMAX screen, these scenes are even more overwhelming and demonstrate a crisp, compositional flavour that just makes today’s CGI  epics look  flat and one-dimensional by comparison.  For all that it is 50 years old, ‘Lawrence’ has worn pretty well and for me it was a joy to see the film on an even larger screen than the one where I saw it originally.

 Some autographed publicity stills with Peter O’Toole and  Anthony Quinn as the larger-than-life Auda

 However,  the opportunity to see such a classic movie as it was meant to be seen does not seem to have transferred overmuch to a younger generation of fans. There was no more than a sprinkling of takers for this showing and most of them were as old, if not older than myself.  In the car park outside, we met some friends who were on their way in to see the latest James Bond movie – 007, of course,  being a character at least partly inspired by Lawrence.  Sadly, I suspect that box office business would have been somewhat brisker for Bond than it was for Lawrence.  Whether or not people will still be turning out to watch ‘Skyfall’  in 2062, however, is rather less likely.

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