Thursday, June 12, 2008
Lawrence of Arabia
I do believe that Lawrence of Arabia is one of the best character studies I have ever seen. If I were still in film school I could probably devote an entire paper to the character arch of Lawrence and how we can visually see him change through cues in the film, and how the character emotionally changes as well (but I’ll only bore you with a brief synopsis here). Lawrence is a character that goes from being an idealist, to a believer, to a man without a country and all the while he is praised by all and still this does not satisfy him because he cannot become who he truly wants to become.
At the beginning of the film we see Lawrence racing through the English countryside on his motorcycle where he meets (what I later came to feel) a sad death compared to his heroic life. At his funeral dignitaries, reporters and officers swarm out after it ends each giving their own heroic opinion of Lawrence to newsmen and each other though most freely admit they didn’t actually know him. Finally, reporter Jackson Bentley is asked his opinion of Lawrence and of course he tells the reporter the typical heroics of Lawrence; once the reporter leaves Bentley remarks that Lawrence was “the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey” and is berated by another attendee of the funeral who did not know Lawrence. This is perhaps the best set up for any character in the history of film save Keyser Soze.
The film cuts from the funeral into the longest flash back of all time and straight into Lawrence’s career with the British Armed Forces in Arabia. He is first sent on special assignment to seek Prince Feisal, and on his way he begins to show that he is not an ordinary soldier. From there his career as a soldier takes a different path; he convinces the Prince to give him 50 men and they will do the impossible by crossing the bleakest section of desert and taking a Turk occupied Aquaba, convincing mercenaries to fight with them on the way. On the way to Aquaba he proves himself to be more Arab than British to the Arab soldiers and proves he can do the impossible – they take Aquaba. He no longer wears his uniform, but the Arab robes given to him by his most trusted Arab ally Ali; it is obvious that he both sympathizes with and wants the best for the people he is actually fighting with – the Arabs not the British.
After every major mission he approaches the British General and asks to be reassigned; but he has made his own bed by proving the impossible possible and the General simply promotes him every time and sends Lawrence back into the field, filling his head with tales of how he will be a household name and a national hero and Lawrence returns to the Arabs more resolute than ever that the British will not replace the Turks as Arabia’s governors.
In the beginning Lawrence is happy among the Arabs; he identifies with them and is told more than once that he is “practically Arab”. As the film progresses his love for the Arabs becomes more and more bitter as he continues to realize that though he is better suited for the Arab culture than the British he cannot ever truly be an Arab and though he tries he knows he can no longer truly be British. By the end Lawrence is finally sent back to England and it becomes final to him: Lawrence wants to belong in the desert with the Arabs, but he cannot just as he cannot pretend to be excited about going “home”.
Steven Spielberg has been quoted as saying when he begins a movie he always watches four films: The Searchers, It’s A Wonderful Life, Seven Samurai and Lawrence of Arabia. Having now seen Lawrence of Arabia it is easy to spot how this film has influenced Spielberg to become the director that he is today.
Director: David Lean
Writer: Robert Bolt
Lawrence: Peter O’Toole
Prince Feisal: Alec Guinness
Sherif Ali: Omar Sharif
Jackson Bentley: Arthur Kennedy
Prince Feisal: Well, General, I will leave you. Major Lawrence doubtless has reports to make upon my people and their weakness, and the need to keep them weak in the British interest... and the French interest too, of course. We must not forget the French now...
General Allenby: [indignantly] I've told you, sir, no such treaty exists.
Prince Feisal: Yes, General, you have lied most bravely, but not convincingly. I know this treaty does exist.
T.E. Lawrence: Treaty, sir?
Prince Feisal: He does it better than you, General. But then, of course, he is almost an Arab.