Sunday, March 02, 2008

Lawrence of Arabia

I was a little under the weather today, so I devoted four hours or so to David Lean's epic, Lawrence of Arabia. It was on TCM, so thankfully proceeded without commercials.

I hadn't seen it for about ten years, since Mr. Lien put it on in history class in high school. I was curious about which parts I remembered and which I didn't.

One thing that really stuck out to me this time was Lawrence's tightrope walk between a sense of purpose and mission for the Arab people and messianic delusions of grandeur. He had the same lessons over and over again about power and mercy, and continued to swing the pendulum back and forth. He resigns his commission, then is flattered into returning to war. He is depressed and shaken by killing, then slaughtering the infidel with fervor. For all his hardness and sense of destiny, he ends the movie a very broken person.

I think that a thing I tend to do when I'm watching movies is to appropriate the identity of the main character. I like good guys and bad guys like anyone else, but it goes deeper than that. I tend to see the action from their point of view. Thus, my high school view of the movie saw Lawrence as a somewhat one-dimensional hero figure, doing what it takes to carry the banner of civilization. This time around, I felt the irony and had much more mixed feelings about Lawrence.

Does Lawrence go native, or is he a colonialist in tribal clothing? I definitely think he lost the plot along the way. His final great act was the slaughter of defenseless people. His friend, Sherif Ali, throws the words Lawrence said the first time they met, about the barbarity of the Arab people, back in his face.

So has Lawrence finally been mastered by the desert he loved, assimilating, or is he finally showing his true foreignness? Certainly Lawrence's psychotic response can't be separated from his torture at the hands of the Turks. The epilogue with Prince Faisal and General Allenby suggests that he was being manipulated into his crusade, along with the sidewise remarks about what happened to Lawrence when he met the English general.

The score is epic and the theme is classic, but one thing I noticed was that the levels went from soft to loud pretty quickly. A modern movie might take more care to balance things toward the middle. Also, that theme is used over and over again, inevitably.

The cast is incredible. I was not aware that Obi-Wan Kenobi was in this movie, or Mr. "Round up the usual suspects" Claude Rains. Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, and on and on. And of course, Peter O'Toole was awesome. One striking absence is any significant female role.

Finally, during the intermission, the word "entr'acte", which is French for "intermission", was spelled "entre'e acte". This is probably the stupidest misspelling of French I have ever seen.

When you have a good solid block of time, hie thee to the video store and check it out. Incidentally, our nearby video store is closing. I advise that you go see a real live video store before they all become Blockbuster, and then they all disappear.

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