Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

"No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees."

I was expecting to write about Syria, Iraq and the current turmoil in these countries, partially under the yoke of the so-called Islamic State. But I'm not going to. Sykes-Picot gets a cursory mention, there's a definite implication, not dwelt on, that Britain and France are going to end all hope of an independent Arab state, yes. But that's not what it's about. This is a film about soldiers, not politicians, about T.E. Lawrence as a man, and about how David Lean's camera, like a certain type of Englishman, loves the desert.

Why, there are even a couple of crowd scenes where you can actually catch a glimpse of a woman or two. I think. This has to be, by a large margin, the most oestrogen-deficient film I've ever seen.

So what if Lawrence? We begin, in a nice bit of structure, with his death in s motorbike crash in 1935, and we hear from various characters, whom we will encounter later, at his push Westminster Abbey funeral. Our impressions from this are that Lawrence, while capable of great things, was hard to know and just bloody weird. The rest of the film does nothing to dispel that.

Peter O'Toole puts in a truly great performance of a personality so nuanced it can only be real. Lawrence's peculiar type of masochism and obvious homoeroticism are shown, not told. This is clearly a sexual orientation that can only be described as "public schoolboy". This is the inevitable result of fagging, boarding, cold showers and regular savaging by the school leopard. But I think there's a tension here between modern psychological understanding of mental conditions and the literary abs epic tradition of heroism.

Omar Sharif, too, is awesome. So is Alec Guinness is, too, but he's also, er, white. Now, it's easier not to be racist in 2015 than in 1962 when popular culture largely confined practices that make us squirm, but that's not to say we can quite let them off the hook. Still, let's not dwell on that. Let us instead observe that a white actor in a sea of real Arabs stands out rather awkwardly. 

Still, that's not enough to prevent the film being awesome; the epic desert landscapes alone see to that. This is a truly epic film- with an intermission!- and one of the finest ever made. It's also the longest I've ever blogged.

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