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"Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Mission"


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When I set about to write up Roland Joffe's The Mission, I began by quoting Roger Ebert's review of the film, in which he spoke of "so many talented people [going] to such incredible lengths to make a difficult and beautiful movie -- without any of them, on the basis of the available evidence, having the slightest notion of what the movie was about."

I've just finished rewatching another celebrated film that, like The Mission, is from a Robert Bolt screenplay, and of which I can easily imagine skeptical critics making the same objection that Ebert does above, in the very same words. I first saw Lawrence of Arabia in the theater, and have now seen it on DVD, and while I find it beautiful, gripping, and potentially standing up to any number of viewings, I still don't feel sure that I know what it's about.

I've read a number of reviews, and discovered that the minority who don't like it make this same point, while the majority who do sometimes acknowledge the force of the objection but go on to explain why it is a great movie even though it doesn't seem to know what it's about. They focus on the grandeur of the desert, on a tiny spot on the horizon resolving itself into an approaching figure, on O'Toole's still-unsurpassed debut performance and the magnificent ensemble around him, the sweeping score, etc. Some describe the film as a character study. When I look at the man who is the film's T.E. Lawrence, I'm not sure how I would answer someone who should say, "Why is a character study of this man worth 3 hours of my time?"

Incidentally, I think I have some ideas about what The Mission is about. Any thoughts on Lawrence?

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Those are great points, Steve; What is LoR about by those who seem to know?
"LoR"...? Lawrence of R-abia? ;)
Of course, it's a biopic, which means it's about Lawrence, right? Does it need to be about anything greater?
Not necessarily, but as I mentioned I'd be curious to hear enlightened discussion about the worthiness of this particular biopic life as the subject of such a long film.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Guest Russell Lucas

I don't think the film's length should have anything to do with it, but I think Lawrence of Arabia is worth its acclaim as an exploration of a unique and difficult to characterize persona. The funeral sets the scene: was Lawrence the worst self-promoter worthy of scorn, a liberator worthy of acclaim, or something else? The film presents the evidence for the varying points of view.

Lawrence's was an extraordinary life, if not an exemplary one. I think the story of his experiences is worth the treatment, even if Lawrence's virtue or vice can't be easily categorized.

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I don't think the film's length should have anything to do with it, but I think Lawrence of Arabia is worth its acclaim as an exploration of a unique and difficult to characterize persona.  The funeral sets the scene: was Lawrence the worst self-promoter worthy of scorn, a liberator worthy of acclaim, or something else?  The film presents the evidence for the varying points of view.  

Lawrence's was an extraordinary life, if not an exemplary one.  I think the story of his experiences is worth the treatment, even if Lawrence's virtue or vice can't be easily categorized.

Why shouldn't length have anything to do with it? An action movie or romantic comedy that can be entertaining at 90 minutes would be insufferable at 180, while a provocative epic that is challenging and thoughtful at 180 minutes would be painfully cropped at 90. Generally speaking, a film should take sufficient time to do adequate justice to its theme or subject or intentions; and, on the whole, just so much. If it takes much more time than is needed, we feel it is dead wood. A film that asks an audience to sit through an extraordinary running length should have an extraordinary reason for doing so, or it seems self-indulgent. I'm not saying Lawrence doesn't have this, I'm just saying I don't see why length shouldn't be a consideration.

(Spoilers)

To me, the question of Lawrence's vice or virtue doesn't seem especially interesting or relevant. The main thing that stands out to me about the Lawrence in the film is something like caprice. He seems at first to have a personal, passionate interest in the fate of Arabia for its own sake; but this interest doesn't just get mixed up in his messianic complex, it seems entirely subverted by it, as if Arabia is merely the stage for Lawrence's self-revelation. For the moment Lawrence suspects that he's not a figure of mythic grandeur after all, he loses all will to try to contribute to the Arab cause, even on a mortal level, which would not be the case if he cared about Arabia for its own sake. Then, somehow, he becomes galvanized to embrace his mythic stature once again, but also reveals himself capable of barbarous brutality. In the end, his dalliance with messianism ends and he goes back to Great Britain with a promotion, to write and drive motorcycles. At one point he says he loves the desert because "it's clean," then later he prays never to see it again, but is told "For you there is only the desert." In the end, though, he does leave. So what was it all about?

If there's any plausibility to the perception that the movie doesn't know what it's about, that may be due to the fact that its protagonist doesn't seem to know who he is or what he wants. It's tempting, given Robert Bolt's screenwriting credit on this film and A Man for All Seasons, to see Lawrence as a sort of counterpoint to More, whom Bolt described in the preface to his stage play as "a man with an adamantine sense of his own self, [who] knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved." Lawrence seems to have a similar adamantine sense of his own self, but it's an illusion, and crumbles like a house of cards.

Could this be a way of approaching the film -- Lawrence as a man who lacks a place to stand? Notice how Lawrence, early in the film, obliquely pits himself against, if not God himself, at least pious Muslim fatalism, emphatically declaring that "Nothing is written" and even making pronouncements about the success of his ventures ("I shall be at Aqaba. That is written... in here"). When we hear this, and Ali's declaration "Truly for some men nothing is written unless they write it," we may perhaps think of St. James' warnings against those who say what they will do or where they will go tomorrow (obviously we do make such statements, seldom with an explicit disclaimer to such as "If God wills"; but Lawrence's "That is written" seems to pit itself against even an implicit disclaimer of that sort). But of course he gets a nasty shock when the man he rescued against all odds is the man whom he later has to kill, and is hit again with those implacable words "It was written," and this time has no answer.

Yet when he conquers Aqaba his sense of his own destiny reaches messianic proportions (he even walks on water), a delusion that persists until the bubble is popped in the most thuddingly banal way possible, capture and torture. The ironic thing is, his claim of invisibility is in a way vindicated: He's captured, questioned, stripped, tortured, and released, and the enemy never has a clue who he was. I half expected him, the first time I saw the film, to get up and move on as if nothing had happened, just as he did with the match and the bullet. But somehow his self-illusions have been shattered, he realizes he was only flesh and blood, and he begins grasping toward something that apparently he has previously scorned and now realizes may slip away from him entirely: common humanity. But a pep talk from a "wholly unscrupulous" general convinces him to take up the mantle of destiny beyond the lot of common humanity, and the messiah comes again in greater glory.

Does his messianism crack when he confronts the Turkish column that's just massacred an Arab village, as the man for whom "mercy is a passion" cries mercilessly "No prisoners" and shoots in cold blood a uniformed soldier with his hands raised in surrender? Or is this simply the culmination of his messiah complex -- is he now beyond good and evil? Either way, mythology finally meets intractable reality when he attains his military goal of Damascus but is unable to bring about the unification of the Arab tribes he sought. In the end, he is left with the rank of colonel rather than savior.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Guest Russell Lucas
Why shouldn't length have anything to do with it? An action movie or romantic comedy that can be entertaining at 90 minutes would be insufferable at 180, while a provocative epic that is challenging and thoughtful at 180 minutes would be painfully cropped at 90. Generally speaking, a film should take sufficient time to do adequate justice to its theme or subject or intentions; and, on the whole, just so much. If it takes much more time than is needed, we feel it is dead wood. A film that asks an audience to sit through an extraordinary running length should have an extraordinary reason for doing so, or it seems self-indulgent. I'm not saying Lawrence doesn't have this, I'm just saying I don't see why length shouldn't be a consideration.

I think a film's length is too often and too easily used as a superficial recourse to dismiss it. I'm not sure why each of your first two posts on the film make reference to the film's length in a pejorative way. If the average length of a feature film is 110 or 120 minutes, this film goes, what, ninety minutes longer? That may be unusual, but it isn't the cinematic equivalent of Remembrance of Things Past.

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Russell,

Sorry if I was unclear. I thought in my last post I clarified that my references to the film's length were not pejoratively intended. Neither length nor shortness is good or bad; however, a film's length is not (or shouldn't be) arbitrary or neutral, and is a valid subject of critical attention. Roger Ebert has said that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough. True enough. But it's quite possible for a movie that would otherwise be better to be too long, or too short. A movie needs to justify its running time: Whether I spend 75 minutes or 150 minutes in the seat, I want to feel that it was worth that time. And I generally feel that a movie that is exceptionally long needs to accomplish something exceptional to warrant its running time. Decent three-star pop moviemaking can be worth a couple of hours, maybe even a bit more, but the same quality moviemaking extended to nearly four hours would become insufferable. When we put in that kind of time, we expect more in return. A movie as long as Lawrence of Arabia is, I think, unlikely to be merely good; it's more likely either to be great or else to be a grand failure. So if it is great, then why is it great? What is the accomplishment of this film? That's what I'm asking.

Am I making sense?

P.S. I've said a lot about the film that doesn't have to do with length, too. :D Any thoughts on any of that? Any other thoughts about the film?

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Guest Russell Lucas
P.S. I've said a lot about the film that doesn't have to do with length, too. :D Any thoughts on any of that? Any other thoughts about the film?

Oh, I haven't read that part. It looked too long.

;)

Seriously, though, it has been about a year since I've last seen the film. I'll watch it again this weekend and respond.

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SDG, I've been meaning to get to this ever since I signed onto the new board a few days ago, but I thought I'd get the other, fluffier threads out of my system first. As you may know, Lawrence of Arabia is one of three films I used to tell people several years ago that they should see if they wanted to "get" me (the other two being The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Family Way); it has since become my official favorite of all time.

FWIW, my only published comment on this film to date runs like so: "A grand, visual spectacle backed by Maurice Jarre's majestic music and supported by perhaps the greatest international cast ever assembled, yes, but also a thoughtful, incisive look at the tensions that exist between nationality and personality, power and identity, destiny and free will." In other conversations, I have sometimes said that the film is about "the illusion of power and the power of illusion."

SDG wrote:

: I've read a number of reviews, and discovered that the minority who

: don't like it make this same point, while the majority who do sometimes

: acknowledge the force of the objection but go on to explain why it is a

: great movie even though it doesn't seem to know what it's about.

I dunno, the fact that the main character is an enigma, even to himself, doesn't mean that the FILM doesn't know what it's about.

SPOILERS

: Lawrence seems to have a similar adamantine sense of his own self, but

: it's an illusion, and crumbles like a house of cards.

Exactly. There are hints that this illusion may stem from his own insecure identity as the bastard offspring of a man who left his wife for another woman but never officially divorced and remarried. He nurtures this illusory sense of his self as a British officer, as he indulges his ego by making a show of his superiority to the other British officers -- he knows Arab culture, he reads Arab newspapers, he can burn his fingers without minding that it hurts, etc. But his illusion is, ironically, kept alive by the fact that he is actually less powerful than the other British officers. At any rate, Prince Feisal plays on Lawrence's sense of his own self when he dismisses everyone from his tent EXCEPT for Lawrence, thus giving Lawrence a place of privilege above his superior officer. Lawrence then achieves the "miracle" that Feisal needed, and this fortifies his own illusory sense of his own power -- it gives him a truer air of superiority among his fellow British troops, and by this point, of course, Lawrence is also well on the way to feeling superior to his Arab comrades, too. But then he is brutally, shamefully reminded of his own frail humanity, and the person who once felt superior to both Arabs and Brits now feels inferior to both. After that, his one last stab at reclaiming his illusory sense of self, by playing on the power that his illusion held over other people, backfires profoundly when he gets carried away in the carnage that is essentially perpetrated by the people under him.

: Could this be a way of approaching the film -- Lawrence as a man who

: lacks a place to stand?

I think so, yes.

: Notice how Lawrence, early in the film, obliquely pits himself against, if

: not God himself, at least pious Muslim fatalism, emphatically declaring

: that "Nothing is written" and even making pronouncements about the

: success of his ventures ("I shall be at Aqaba. That is written... in here").

: . . . But of course he gets a nasty shock when the man he rescued

: against all odds is the man whom he later has to kill, and is hit again with

: those implacable words "It was written," and this time has no answer.

Just FYI, both the rescue and the execution are taken from Lawrence's autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom, though they did not involve the same man.

: Yet when he conquers Aqaba his sense of his own destiny reaches

: messianic proportions (he even walks on water), a delusion that persists

: until the bubble is popped in the most thuddingly banal way possible,

: capture and torture.

Well, Lawrence's capture and rape by the Turks IS a matter of historical record (though some skeptics do question whether Lawrence just made it all up).

: The ironic thing is, his claim of invisibility is in a way vindicated: He's

: captured, questioned, stripped, tortured, and released, and the enemy

: never has a clue who he was.

Interesting point.

: Does his messianism crack when he confronts the Turkish column that's

: just massacred an Arab village, as the man for whom "mercy is a

: passion" cries mercilessly "No prisoners" and shoots in cold blood a

: uniformed soldier with his hands raised in surrender?

This, too, comes from Lawrence's autobiography, though it was the source of some serious controversy -- as I recall, Lawrence's brothers objected to this part of the film, and Robert Bolt wrote them a long letter in reply, quoting those portions of the autobiography that supported the film's portrayal of that incident.

: Or is this simply the culmination of his messiah complex -- is he now

: beyond good and evil?

I think the "crack" is definitely there when Lawrence looks in the mirror of his sword (echoing an earlier scene, when he was first given his Arab robes) and both he and the sword are caked in blood.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Peter T Chattaway wrote:

SDG, I've been meaning to get to this ever since I signed onto the new board a few days ago, but I thought I'd get the other, fluffier threads out of my system first. As you may know,
Lawrence of Arabia
is one of three films I used to tell people several years ago that they should see if they wanted to "get" me (the other two being
The Purple Rose of Cairo
and
The Family Way
); it has since become my official favorite of
all time
.

Well, I thought so. I don't know if I remembered it was your official favorite, but I figured from your longtime avatar on the last board that you'd have something to say on the subject.

FWIW, my only published comment on this film to date runs like so: "A grand, visual spectacle backed by Maurice Jarre's majestic music and supported by perhaps the greatest international cast ever assembled, yes, but also a thoughtful, incisive look at the tensions that exist between nationality and personality, power and identity, destiny and free will." In other conversations, I have sometimes said that the film is about "the illusion of power and the power of illusion."

But why is it greatly about these things? What is thoughtful and incisive about its meditations on nationality and personality, power and identity, destiny and free will, the illusion of power and the power of illusion? Please don't misunderstand, I'm not in the least expressing any actual skepticism about the film's greatness. I just want to try to understand it better.

I dunno, the fact that the main character is an enigma, even to himself, doesn't mean that the FILM doesn't know what it's about.

True, it doesn't MEAN that, but even some supporters of the film have still felt that it was confused, or about something much less cerebral than the themes you mention.

For example, Roger Ebert says that the story is "founded" on "David Lean's ability to imagine what it would look like to see a speck appear on the horizon of the desert, and slowly grow into a human being." Desmond Howe (Washington Post) and Gary Kamiya (Salon.com) both praise the film superlatively but also sound like they're making excuses for it. Howe writes somewhat defensively, "Like 'Gone With the Wind' or 'Ben Hur,' 'Lawrence' is too emotionally overpowering for critical reservations," and spends more than a paragraph on all the things one needs to forgive the film (though he says this forgiveness comes very easily). Kamiya says, "Some critics have assailed 'Lawrence' for being murky, muddled, unsure of what it is saying. There is some justice to this criticism. But this is that rare film whose weaknesses are not only swallowed up by its vast, disturbing ambition, but somehow become part of its strengths." He even says, "In one sense, then, 'Lawrence' is 'about' nothing but the desert." I'm not sure that one couldn't make a great film that was about nothing but the desert; but I'm reasonably sure that Lawrence of Arabia is not in fact that film. If it is great, and I think it is, its greatness must lie elsewhere.

SPOILERS

: Lawrence seems to have a similar adamantine sense of his own self, but

: it's an illusion, and crumbles like a house of cards.

Exactly. There are hints that this illusion may stem from his own insecure identity as the bastard offspring of a man who left his wife for another woman but never officially divorced and remarried. He nurtures this illusory sense of his self as a British officer, as he indulges his ego by making a show of his superiority to the other British officers -- he knows Arab culture, he reads Arab newspapers, he can burn his fingers without minding that it hurts, etc. But his illusion is, ironically, kept alive by the fact that he is actually less powerful than the other British officers. At any rate, Prince Feisal plays on Lawrence's sense of his own self when he dismisses everyone from his tent EXCEPT for Lawrence, thus giving Lawrence a place of privilege above his superior officer. Lawrence then achieves the "miracle" that Feisal needed, and this fortifies his own illusory sense of his own power -- it gives him a truer air of superiority among his fellow British troops, and by this point, of course, Lawrence is also well on the way to feeling superior to his Arab comrades, too. But then he is brutally, shamefully reminded of his own frail humanity, and the person who once felt superior to both Arabs and Brits now feels inferior to both. After that, his one last stab at reclaiming his illusory sense of self, by playing on the power that his illusion held over other people, backfires profoundly when he gets carried away in the carnage that is essentially perpetrated by the people under him.

Very interesting analysis. Any further reflections on the significance of this progression?

: Could this be a way of approaching the film -- Lawrence as a man who

: lacks a place to stand?

I think so, yes.

: Notice how Lawrence, early in the film, obliquely pits himself against, if

: not God himself, at least pious Muslim fatalism, emphatically declaring

: that "Nothing is written" and even making pronouncements about the

: success of his ventures ("I
shall
be at Aqaba. That
is
written... in here").

: . . . But of course he gets a nasty shock when the man he rescued

: against all odds is the man whom he later has to kill, and is hit again with

: those implacable words "It was written," and this time has no answer.

Just FYI, both the rescue and the execution are taken from
Lawrence's autobiography
Seven Pillars of Wisdom
, though they did not involve the same man.

: Yet when he conquers Aqaba his sense of his own destiny reaches

: messianic proportions (he even walks on water), a delusion that persists

: until the bubble is popped in the most thuddingly banal way possible,

: capture and torture.

Well, Lawrence's capture and rape by the Turks IS a matter of historical record (though some skeptics do question whether Lawrence just made it all up).

No, no, I didn't mean it was thuddingly banal of the filmmakers. I just meant, geez, what a letdown for Lawrence and those who believed in him. I mean, here's a man who crosses uncrossable deserts, puts out matches with his bare hands, faces gunfire with little more than detached interest, takes a bullet without flinching, becomes a figure of near legend in a matter of days, walks grandly and fearlessly amongst his enemies, then actually gets caught and still manages to go undetected, and eventually gets released -- yet the abuse he suffers at the last does what nothing hitherto had suggested could be done -- breaks him. Lesser men than he faced torture without breaking; if something were going to break Lawrence, you would expect it to be, you know, something grandly catastrophic. That it's mere capture and torture is, I'm sure, integral to the film's portrait of the man, and not at all banal of the filmmakers.

: The ironic thing is, his claim of invisibility is in a way vindicated: He's

: captured, questioned, stripped, tortured, and released, and the enemy

: never has a clue who he was.

Interesting point.

: Does his messianism crack when he confronts the Turkish column that's

: just massacred an Arab village, as the man for whom "mercy is a

: passion" cries mercilessly "No prisoners" and shoots in cold blood a

: uniformed soldier with his hands raised in surrender?

This, too, comes from Lawrence's autobiography, though it was the source of some serious controversy -- as I recall, Lawrence's brothers objected to this part of the film, and Robert Bolt wrote them a long letter in reply, quoting those portions of the autobiography that supported the film's portrayal of that incident.

: Or is this simply the culmination of his messiah complex -- is he now

: beyond good and evil?

I think the "crack" is definitely there when Lawrence looks in the mirror of his sword (echoing an earlier scene, when he was first given his Arab robes) and both he and the sword are caked in blood.

Thanks for the analysis. You've helped me clarify my thinking about the film.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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SDG wrote:

: But why is it greatly about these things? What is thoughtful and incisive

: about its meditations on nationality and personality, power and identity,

: destiny and free will, the illusion of power and the power of illusion?

This is an off-the-cuff and highly subjective answer, but perhaps because I keep going back to this film? Both in the sense of watching it again and again, and in the sense of frequently finding opportunities to quote it?

Admittedly, the time in my life when I first came across this film may be a factor. I was in my first year of university, and taking a special combined English-History-Philosophy course in "Force and Freedom", when the "director's cut" of Lawrence of Arabia came out some time around February 1989. It tapped into a lot of the themes we were dealing with in my course, and I saw it several times that year, and then several times again on video, and then several times again over the following years when second-run theatres brought it back. So it's had lots and lots of time to grow on me, but perhaps if I saw it for the first time now I would not be quite so impressed, I dunno.

: . . . even some supporters of the film have still felt that it was confused,

: or about something much less cerebral than the themes you mention.

That's kinda funny, because the last time I saw the film, I began to wonder if maybe the film was TOO cerebral -- the film has spectacle and it has intelligence, but I'm not sure how much "heart" it has.

: For example, Roger Ebert says that the story is "founded" on "David

: Lean's ability to imagine what it would look like to see a speck appear on

: the horizon of the desert, and slowly grow into a human being."

More to the point, I think, Ebert also says this:

I've noticed that when people remember "Lawrence of Arabia," they don't talk about the details of the plot. They get a certain look in their eye, as if they are remembering the whole experience, and have never quite been able to put it into words. Although it seems to be a traditional narrative film -- like "Bridge on the River Kwai," which Lean made just before it, or "Doctor Zhivago," which he made just after -- it actually has more in common with such essentially visual epics as Kubrick's "2001" or Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky." It is spectacle and experience, and its ideas are about things you can see or feel, not things you can say.

I don't think I've ever seen Alexander Nevsky, but I have seen (and enjoyed) 2001, and I think that film is BOTH an essentially visual epic yet also a film that entertains some pretty cerebral ideas. So, as with that film, so with Lawrence, perhaps.

: Desmond Howe (Washington Post) and Gary Kamiya (Salon.com) both

: praise the film superlatively but also sound like they're making excuses for

: it. Howe writes somewhat defensively, "Like 'Gone With the Wind' or 'Ben

: Hur,' 'Lawrence' is too emotionally overpowering for critical reservations,"

: and spends more than a paragraph on all the things one needs to forgive

: the film (though he says this forgiveness comes very easily).

He also focuses on stuff that I assume would have seemed normal in 1962 but now seems a little dated, like Alec Guinness's mascara -- since he mentions feeling young again in the last paragraph, I think he's speaking more out of personal embarrassment than anything else, and I think he's being more apologetic than he needs to be. And why do we need to forgive David Lean "for taking his sweet time"? The pace of this film is one of the things that I (and Ebert's associates, it seems) like about it.

: Kamiya says, "Some critics have assailed 'Lawrence' for being murky,

: muddled, unsure of what it is saying. There is some justice to this

: criticism. But this is that rare film whose weaknesses are not only

: swallowed up by its vast, disturbing ambition, but somehow become part

: of its strengths." He even says, "In one sense, then, 'Lawrence' is 'about'

: nothing but the desert."

But he then follows that sentence immediately with "But it is also about one of the most enigmatic figures in history..." and he concludes his article with: "Two mysteries collide in this film: The earth and the human soul. It doesn't resolve them. It couldn't. We can't. It is a telescope aimed at the unknown. It is a huge film." So whatever murkiness there might be in the film is ultimately, in some sense, a reflection of the murkiness of the human soul, as embodied by this Lawrence fellow. And the murkiness is, in turn, set within a vast desert that emphasizes, as Kamiya says, the fact that "we are all crawling around on a big ball of metal and gas hurtling through a void."

(I believe Lawrence himself notes in Seven Pillars of Wisdom that the founders of all three great monotheisms got their start by spending time in the desert. To say that this film is, in some sense, "'about' nothing but the desert" does not mean that it is a science film or a nature film, necessarily, but that it is about the vastness of the universe and the quest for humanity's significance, if any, within it, or something like that.)

: I'm not sure that one couldn't make a great film that was about nothing

: but the desert; but I'm reasonably sure that Lawrence of Arabia is not in

: fact that film. If it is great, and I think it is, its greatness must lie elsewhere.

Agreed.

SPOILERS

: Very interesting analysis. Any further reflections on the significance of

: this progression?

Not at the moment -- except maybe to say that his smug, superior sense of himself at the beginning, which is basically just a fantasy that is ironically kept alive by his powerlessness among the British officers, is then given a taste of real superiority when he triumphs in the desert; but then, when he is captured and raped, he discovers that the "real" superiority, or the "real" power, was itself an illusion too, and he tries too hard to become just one of the guys ("Jolly good about the squash court"); and when that doesn't work, he allows himself to be pressured into using his illusion of power for one last push on Damascus ... and this time, he is let down not by his enemies, but by his, well, not friends exactly, but the people who were supposed to be under his authority in some way. Does that help any, or am I just repeating myself here?

: No, no, I didn't mean it was thuddingly banal of the filmmakers. I just

: meant, geez, what a letdown for Lawrence and those who believed in

: him. I mean, here's a man who crosses uncrossable deserts, puts out

: matches with his bare hands, faces gunfire with little more than detached

: interest, takes a bullet without flinching, becomes a figure of near legend

: in a matter of days, walks grandly and fearlessly amongst his enemies,

: then actually gets caught and still manages to go undetected, and

: eventually gets released -- yet the abuse he suffers at the last does what

: nothing hitherto had suggested could be done -- breaks him. Lesser men

: than he faced torture without breaking; if something were going to break

: Lawrence, you would expect it to be, you know, something grandly

: catastrophic. That it's mere capture and torture is, I'm sure, integral to

: the film's portrait of the man, and not at all banal of the filmmakers.

Ah. But I wonder if perhaps you're missing what's really going on in that scene by referring to it as "torture". The film hints very, very strongly that the beating is just a prelude to "rape", and I wonder if rape (being penetrated by a man, which may or may not have awakened something in Lawrence's own sexuality), rather than torture, might explain why Lawrence's experience with the Turks strikes so hard against his sense of identity.

I'm sure you've heard the saying that if Peter O'Toole had looked any prettier in this film, they should have called it "Florence of Arabia". What I found striking, a few years ago, was when I saw the restored version of Doctor Zhivago, a film I had never really seen before, and realized that Julie Christie looked very much like a female O'Toole -- Lean photographs the stars of both films in pretty much the same way.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 4 years later...

Rather than starting a new thread, this seems like a good place to add a link to this article about David Lean's centenary, which discusses Lawrence of Arabia, and a great many of Lean's other films as well.

There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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  • 10 months later...

I think that this may be my favorite thread on the A&F boards. Like Peter, Lawrence of Arabia is among my top 3 favorite films. But like SDG, I have often wondered what the film is trying to get across to the audience. I really don't have much to add that hasn't already been covered, but this thread came to mind the other night after I had watched Patton on TMC, and asked myself at the end of that film the very question that SDG asked about LoA: What's it all about?

Patton ends with a voice over, which I think tries to sum up it's intentions:

Patton: For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph - a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.

It's not much, yet both Lawrence and Patton share this same outcome. Patton, who only lived another 6 months after the end of the European war, and had to serve out his final days in uniform behind a desk in Germany, suffered his "fleeting glory" by being placed in charge what he referred to as a "paper army", rather than going on to lead armies in the Pacific. Lawrence, who went on to be an adviser to Churchill in the early 20's, then joined the RAF, served out the remainder of his military career as a Lieutenant Colonel in the motorpool. He died shortly after his enlistment ended in 1935.

I do have one thing I'd like to add, an alternative to the idea that Lawrence (in the film) was broken by his torture at the hands of the Turks. Yes, he certainly suffers a defeat, yet is able to go on to and lead the Arab armies on the push to Damascus. To me, I think what ultimately breaks Lawrence is the inability for him to unite the different Arab tribes once they have taken the city. Lawrence seems more a shell of his previous self at that moment, when he cannot deliver what he has been promising from the get-go.

Edited by Baal_T'shuvah

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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  • 9 months later...
The House Next Door recently posted an extensive, fascinating discussion of this film. Definitely worth checking out. (Alas, many/most of the comments beneath that post dwell on the question of Lawrence's sexuality, which is certainly as valid a topic as any other, but still... there's other stuff to talk about here.)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Fantastic conversation. I've read several others over at that site (I believe they sometimes have a third person joining them), and they always open up a lot of new insights to the films they choose to discuss. I've never participated in this type of online conversation, and I wonder if they are just shuttling emails back and forth to one another, thus giving them time to give some thought to their responses. However they do it, they make for compelling reads.

(edit) I believe it was a discussion about William Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. that included a third person in the conversation.

Edited by Baal_T'shuvah

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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"In that respect, Lawrence of Arabia belongs as much to a very different continuity of films, from John Ford's 3 Godfathers to Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana or Gus Van Sant's Gerry, all films where the mystical and isolating quality of the desert plays a very important role. Lean crafts many minimal, forbidding sequences dominated by Rothkoesque simple landscapes, with two colors separated from one another by a horizontal line—pale blue on top and white on the bottom, often with the black specks of camels trotting across the sand."

What a great comment. I can very clearly remember watching this as a kid and flipping mentally back and forth between it and the pages of modern art in those art history books in the library that indeed displayed Rothko, Albers, and Frankenthaler paintings. Lawrence still hypnotizes me every time I watch it.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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LAWRENCE OF ARABIA may ultimately be "about" something. I never really bothered to consider it. I could certainly point to little moments here and there that touch on some very rich truths about human nature and identity. Is there some kind of coherent, intellectual argument behind it all? Maybe not, but sometimes, a good yarn is really just a good yarn, and the narrative journey is an end in and of itself. If LAWRENCE OF ARABIA doesn't have some kind of thesis or theme behind its narrative moments, I don't really care. When a film is as consistently beautiful, engaging, moving, and interesting as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA manages to be, then I can't help but admire it.

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  • 5 months later...

Jonathan Rosenbaum has re-posted his review from 1989. An excerpt:

Having seen the film only twice — once around the time that it first came out, and again recently — I find my feelings about it even more strongly divided than they were in the early 60s. To put things in perspective, 1962 was a year in which other prominent English-language releases in the U.S. included John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Howard Hawks’s Hatari!, Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town, Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, and Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

All of these movies seemed superior to Lawrence in one way or another back in 1962, and even today, I would still probably rank them all higher. Looking back at the spring 1963 issue of Film Culture — the same issue, incidentally, where the first version of Andrew Sarris’s highly influential auteurist manifesto, The American Cinema, appeared — I see in a chart of critics’ ratings of current releases that Sarris gave the lowest possible rating to Lawrence (”poor”), Peter Bogdanovich ranked it only a notch higher (”fair”), two other critics deemed it “very good,” and only William Everson and Dwight Macdonald considered it “excellent”; no one at all gave it the highest rating, which was “exceptional.”

This was of course during a period when the French New Wave was nearing the height of its glory, when Antonioni and Fellini were first acquiring mass appeal in the U.S., and when the New American Cinema was just beginning to make a pronounced impact — to cite only some of the excitement that made Lean’s achievement look relatively staid and conventional. Certain critics of this period like Macdonald, Stanley Kauffmann, and John Simon clearly thought otherwise, but because these same critics tended to disparage the majority of the movies that I cared most about (ranging from Ford and Welles to Godard and Resnais), it wasn’t difficult to take sides against Lean as the epitome of academicism, literary cinema, and “good taste” in the worst sense — all the signs of old-fashioned squareness that the best new movies were fighting against.

I find it hard to disavow the essential tenets of that position today. But something vital about the state of creativity in the cinema has changed since then, and compared with most recent releases, Lawrence of Arabia can only properly be regarded as a towering achievement (with certain reservations, which I will get to shortly). . . .

Ironically, although detractors such as Sarris called the film “impersonal” in the 60s, it can be seen today as one of the prototypes of the contemporary “personal” blockbuster in which the director’s own will to power is reflected in the ambiguous megalomania of the central character. This is a tradition that actually goes all the way back to such silent classics as Stroheim’s Foolish Wives as well as to The Ten Commandments and Hawks’s underrated Land of the Pharaohs. But Lean gave an increased intellectual respectability to this position that countless later directors have cashed in on, including, among many others, Werner Herzog (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), Francis Coppola (Apocalypse Now), Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and more recently Martin Scorsese (The Last Temptation of Christ), John Milius (Farewell to the King), and Terry Gilliam (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Thanks in part to Lean’s example, these films are about more than their ostensible subjects — they are also about the positions of their respective directors in leading hordes of people, dreaming big dreams, and reflecting on the metaphysical ambiguities of their power, all of which has tended to make most of these blockbusters bear an annoyingly monotonous and narcissistic resemblance to one another.

It is to the credit of Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt, however, that Lawrence of Arabia has a historical density and political and psychological nuances that go beyond those of its numerous successors. This is all the more surprising when one considers that, apart from Lawrence’s death in 1935 from a motorcycle accident, which opens the film, the time span covered in 216 minutes is only about two years — from the end of Lawrence’s stint as a lieutenant and mapmaker in Cairo in 1916, when he was dispatched to meet with Prince Faisal, until his return to England in 1918. Apart from the occasional allusion to Lawrence’s background, this leaves about 45 years in his life unaccounted for. . . .

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 3 months later...

I had the chance to see this on the big screen last night.

I've often heard it said, "You haven't seen LAWRENCE OF ARABIA until you've seen it on the big screen." Now I'm inclined to agree. On the big screen, LAWRENCE resembles a religious experience. The desert comes alive and threatens to envelop you as you sit in your seat. I've seen many epic films, but so few epic films attempt so many shots from such a great distance. The shot of the Bedouin attacking Aqaba, with the forces overwhelming the city, remains an extraordinary technical achievement.

And as a bit of storytelling, LAWRENCE remains as compelling as ever. If you want me to summarize what the film is about in one word, it's ego. It's a testament to the ability of sheer human willpower and self-belief (has there ever been a moment so terribly astonishing and exciting as when Lawrence saves Gasim from the "sun's hammer"?), but that human willpower at its strongest may not be able to change the world. Is that notion simple? Perhaps, but I'm not convinced it's ever been given a better presentation than it has here.

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  • 9 months later...

Rare 1919 Lawrence of Arabia Documentary Ready to be Rescued

The federally funded National Film Preservation Foundation has awarded grants to save 64 films, including a crowd-pleasing silent-era documentary about Lawrence of Arabia and home movies from Grapes of Wrath director John Ford, it was announced Wednesday.

For Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia (1919), writer, broadcaster and world traveler Lowell Thomas and cameraman Harry Chase shot dramatic footage of T.E. Lawrence, a captain in the British Army who led a Palestinian revolt against the Turks. Thomas then toured the world with the film, narrating it for audiences and turning Lawrence into a household name long before Peter O’Toole played him in the 1962 David Lean masterpiece. . . .

Hollywood Reporter, June 15

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUtd2E7qHMk

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 2 months later...

Terrific, but short interview with Lawrence of Arabia editor Anne. V. Coates. It sometimes really surprises me what films certain editors have worked on over the length of their careers. Coates was a fairly new editor when she cut LoA, for which she won the Oscar. The article doesn't mention it, but she has been nominated four more times, her last nomination coming in 1999 for Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (she lost to the editor of Saving Private Ryan). More recently, she has edited The Golden Compass and Extraordinary Measures.

By the way, here's a movie event I would love to attend...

“There’s a 50th anniversary coming up next year so I expect I’ll be going to one or two things,” says Anne V. Coates. “Somebody I know vaguely is trying to organize this big premiere in Wadi Rum, where we did the last battle in Morocco, in the open air and to get the king, the princes, Peter O’Toole, Omar [sharif] and everybody to come.”

I'd enjoy seeing this film get on some good sized screens next year, perhaps in some IMAX auditoriums.

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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  • 10 months later...

I sadly read this yesterday. An actor who deserved every one of his Oscar nominations, and at least one or two wins, but always came up empty handed. I'm going to be seeing LofA again at the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences screening room next week. I'm sure this will be a topic of discussion.

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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"It is time for me to chuck in the sponge..,"

Googling "to chuck in the sponge" points only toward sites reporting this quote. Has anyone else heard this phrase before?

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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