Friday, July 29, 2011

Lawrence of Arabia

Originally Written and Posted at on 7/5/07 w/ Additional Edit  & Extensive Revisions.

Considered to be Britain's great director, David Lean was a director whose epic-scope and approach to storytelling made him unique among his peers. From early films like his adaptations of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations to epic-blockbusters like The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago. Since his death in 1991, Lean has been named after the British Academy Award's Best Director Prize known as the David Lean Award for Best Director. He's also been regarded as an influence among other directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. In 1962, Lean released what was considered to be one of the films ever made. A near four-hour epic based the life of T.E. Lawrence in Arabia during World War I that was known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia.

The adapted screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (uncredited due to the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s), Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of a man named Thomas Edward Lawrence. A British soldier who goes to Arabia during World War I to serve as a liaison between feuding tribes during the war against the Turkish army. Along the way, Lawrence struggles with his own identity as well as the actions of war. Directed by David Lean, the four-hour epic is considered among to be one of the greatest movies ever made that also included the legendary Peter O'Toole, in his feature-film debut, as the title character. Also starring Omar Sharif, Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, and Claude Rains. Lawrence of Arabia is a powerful epic from the late, great David Lean.

The first World War is happening as T.E. Lawrence is asked by General Murray (Donald Wolfit and Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) to observe a conflict between Prince Feisel (Alec Guiness) and the Turks. The eccentric Lawrence takes the mission where he meets Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) who kills a Bedouin guide that was trying to trick Lawrence. Realizing that Feisel has retreated following an attack, Lawrence and Ali meet up with Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) where Lawrence suggests an attack on the port of Agaba. With a group of 50 men including Daud (John Dimech), Gasim (I.S. Johar) and Farraj (Michel Ray), they trek to the treacherous Nefud Desert where they barely survive the journey.

While Lawrence's bravery wins over Sherif and his men, they meet a tribe chief named Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) whom Sherif has a dislike towards though Lawrence convinces Auda to join the war. After an incident over conflict between Sherif and Auda's men where Lawrence settles the matter, the two join forces to capture Agaba where Lawrence goes to Cairo with soldiers about the news. Though the journey through the Sinai desert proved to be horrifying and tragic, Lawrence talks to Dryden and General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) about what happened as Lawrence becomes a major as he takes part of a guerilla outfit with Sherif, Auda, and their men. Though the small missions proved to be successful with American reporter Jackson Bentley making Lawrence a hero, another mission goes wrong forcing Lawrence and Sherif to retreat.

During a recon scout at Daraa, Lawrence and Sherif are captured by Turkish soldiers led by Bey (Jose Ferrer) whose method of torture would nearly destroy Lawrence. Wanting out of the war, he is asked by superiors to launch an attack on Damascus with Sherif and Auda. Lawrence reluctantly takes the mission though Sherif realizes that Lawrence isn't the same man as the aftermath that included a council meeting leaves Lawrence more fragile than ever.

While the film is more of a fictional account of sorts on T.E. Lawrence's life, the story of this young man who made a difference to an entire group of people. Yet, a film with a near-running time of four hours (counting overtures, end music, and an intermission), it's one that grabs the attention of the viewers as it opens with a funeral scene that features a reporter (Jack Hedley) covering the event.

The screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson is wonderfully structured, particularly the development of some of the major characters. When we meet Lawrence, he is seen as this eccentric, insolence solider who doesn't have a lot of care for authority. When the film progresses, Lawrence becomes an unlikely leader through his unconventional ideas and manners towards war. When engaged in violence, it's a reaction in how he isn't sure. Yet, when an incident involving Bey happens, he becomes traumatized and descends into madness.

Another character that has a great development is Sherif Ali. We first meet as a man who just killed Lawrence's guide. Once he meets Lawrence again, there's tension between the two as well as cultural differences. When Lawrence becomes this unlikely leader, Sherif Ali becomes interested in politics and as towards the end of the film. He is pretty much a moral conscience of sorts while having to see the danger in politics as he deal with other Arab tribes. It's the script by Bolt and Wilson that really bring these characters to life. Not as one-dimensional caricatures but men who are dealing with these new changes and such as they add a broad dynamic to the film.

Then there's the wonderful direction of David Lean. Lean's approach to the film is unique by opening the film with Lawrence's death and funeral. Then, he just goes to a straight cut of Lawrence during the first World War. Lean doesn't waste time by just going into some straight flashback or something. Instead, he just used the intro to spoil the audience a bit as well as who this man is to other people. When the film really begins with Lawrence in Cairo, the scene is to show the enclosed world Lawrence is in. When he's in the desert and Arabia, it's an entirely different world that Lawrence is trying to discover. When he makes unconventional ideas about capturing Aqaba, particularly through the Nefud Desert, his will wins over his men as he becomes an honorary Arab by wearing their clothing.

Lean's direction definitely observes the difference of Arabia and British imperialism in which the latter is discussed throughout the film. The Daraa sequence is one of the most haunting scenes where it seems Lean is suggesting of what happens to Lawrence based on legend. Lean doesn't actually show but if he did at the time of 1962, it would've been extremely controversial and taboo. Still, through his epic-scope and in Super Panavision 70mm film, Lean knows how to capture his audience through images. With many exterior settings, the film couldn't be seen in a full-screen format. In the widescreen, even in a theater, the epic-scope of the film is just jaw-dropping. The compositions of those scenes plus the battle sequences are wonderfully staged. It's the kind of filmmaking that isn't seen in today's world of computer imagery and fast-cut edits. Lean takes his times in watching the action and emotions unfold. It's in Lean's amazing direction where the film really shines.

Cinematographer Freddie Young does some amazing camera work, particularly in the film’s exterior scenes. Young's cinematography, especially in 70mm film, is just extraordinary to how he shoots long shots of the desert, camels, and horses riding onto that hot desert. The look of Arabian desert is just awe-inspiring through Young's camera where on full-screen, it would lose it's imagination. The interior scenes are more intimate to convey the differing atmospheres that Lawrence is in. Young's cinematography is just exquisite in every scene shown.

Production designer John Box and art directors John Stoll and Anthony Masters created some wonderful interior sets including the lavish tents of Auda and Prince Feisel while creating more straightforward sets in the scenes in Cairo. Costume designer Phyllis Dalton creates some wonderful costumes from the straight-laced officers uniforms to the more lavish clothing of Arabians decked out in different colors and such.

Editor Anne V. Coates does some amazing work on the film's editing. With a pacing that isn't too slow or too fast, not even relying on style. Coates' editing is wonderful on the way it captures the intensity of the film's action as well as the shifting of sequence to sequence, notably the intro. Sound editor Winston Ryder does some great work on the film's sound from capturing the winds in the Sinai Desert sequence to the sounds of guns, bombs, and horses in some of the battle sequences.

Music composer Maurice Jarre creates what is considered to be one of cinema's finest and most memorable film scores. The orchestral music of Jarre is truly sprawling and epic with its sweeping melodies and Arabian tone. The drums are in display for the film's intense, action scenes while the film's title theme just captures the beauty of Arabia. It's a magnificent film score by Jarre and truly one of the best.

The film's cast is amazing, and most notably for the fact that there's no large or supporting female parts in the film. Smaller performances from the likes of I.S. Johar, Michel Ray, John Dimech, Henry Oscar as Feisel's servant, Norman Rossington as Corporal Jenkins who is seen in an early scene, and Donald Wolfit as General Murray. In a small role, Jose Ferrer gives an excellent performance as Bey, a man who doesn't have much dialogue but brings a very terrifying presence to the scene itself.

Arthur Kennedy is great as photojournalist Jackson Bentley who captures all of Lawrence's exploits as by the near end of the film, he isn't sure what to think or how to portray in that current state. Claude Rains is wonderful as Mr. Dryden, an advisor who is trying to figure what the French would gain from the Arab alliance. Anthony Quayle is good as Colonel Brighton, Lawrence's superior in the deserts who finds himself being upstaged by the insolent protagonist.

Jack Hawkins is great as General Allenby, a more sympathetic yet cynical general who enjoys Lawrence's exploits while pushing him back to get into war again despite his own political motives. The late yet legendary Alec Guiness (aka Obi-Wan Kenobi) is wonderfully charming and philosophical as Prince Feisel. Guiness, sporting makeup and such manages to steal every scene he's in as the wise Prince Feisel. The late Anthony Quinn is magnificent as Auda abu Tayi in an over-the-top manner in which, it seems that Quinn is having a lot of fun in his character. Quinn really sells the character's struggles of change while sticking to his old tradition as he becomes aware that he's an old horse in a changing world.

The film's best supporting performance goes to Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali. In his international breakthrough performance, Sharif manages to bring depth as Feisel's lieutenant who questions Lawrence's own motives while later becoming a moral conscience as he sees Lawrence's descent into madness. Sharif is just amazing while being a wonderful presence in every scene he's in, especially with O'Toole.

In his feature film debut performance and what a debut, Peter O'Toole truly gives an iconic performance as T.E. Lawrence. O'Toole truly captures the eccentric, unconventional personality that is Lawrence with a witty charm, compassion, and loyalness to everyone including his servants and fellow soldiers. When the film progresses, he is seen as a leader who doesn't take himself to seriously but when he encounters troubles and becomes traumatized. O'Toole sells the despair and madness of Lawrence and how he tries to deal with everything around him. A performance that has to be seen, it is indeed one of the greatest ever captured in cinema.

When it was released in late 1962, the film was a huge critical and financial success winning seven out of ten Academy Awards that year including for Best Picture and Best Director for David Lean. O'Toole was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird though over the years, it is considered to be one of the greatest performances ever. In 2007, 45 years after its release, the film was ranked seventh in the AFI 100 Greatest Films ever made. Its influence has also captured the likes of many directors including Steven Spielberg who called it his favorite film ever made.

In the end, Lawrence of Arabia is a triumph in not just international cinema but the history of films itself. Thanks to David Lean's great vision and an amazing cast led by Peter O'Toole, it's a film that has to be in everyone's film collection. No doubt is this film considered one of the greatest while those new to both Lean and O'Toole or even Omar Sharif. There is no doubt this is a great way to start. In the end, for an experience that is unparalleled with some of today's films. Lawrence of Arabia is the film to see.

© thevoid99 2011

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