Thursday, 30 April 2009

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

If A Hard Day's Night signalled the launch of the Swinging Sixties, then Lawrence of Arabia was a glorious by-product of that era, perhaps the greatest ever use of 70mm widescreen to convey the vastness of the desert landscape, as well as being one of the first "intellectual" epics with a little of the old school technique about it too.

David Lean, born one hundred (and one) years ago last month, probably reached the peak of his career with this film, the one for which he is most remembered. He took on the epic project following the success of The Bridge on the River Kwai - a slightly audacious war story of British prisoners surviving in the jungle by building a railway for the Japanese. It shared certain elements that were also utilised in Lawrence: namely, the supreme irony of British soldiers triumphing in something very foreign to them (even anti-British), in a very British, no-nonsense way.

It was a brilliantly cinematic film, displaying Lean's consummate storytelling skill (as previously demonstrated with earlier films like Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter) - although personally I felt it had its flaws, dragging on for nearly three hours and sidetracking half-way through to focus its attention on William Holden's character Commander Shears, instead of the much more interesting duel of wits between Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) in the Japanese prisoner camp.

Three years later however, with Lawrence, Lean had ironed these deficiencies, and found his true metier in a location that suited him so perfectly that he could hardly bear to leave the desert once most of the principal photography was complete. But thanks to producer Sam Spiegel - who seemed the ideal general to reign in his Lawrence-like extravagance - as well as scriptwriter Robert Bolt, and a star performance by Peter O'Toole, Lean was able to create a near masterpiece.

There's something magical about the allure of the desert in this film - a tribute to another sadly missed talent of recent days, Maurice Jarre. His score, combined the brilliant photography of Freddie Young, were two key elements that still make this epic shine through the ages as a timeless film.

The story that emerged for filming however, was a bumpy journey, that started as far back as the 1930s, when a film version of T.E. Lawrence's semi-memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom was planned by Alexander Korda. The project fell through, but with various other dramatisations such as Terence Rattigan's play Ross (with Alec Guinness) very much in the domain, it was only a matter of time before someone with the cinematic skills would come along to make a film version.

Lean was able to take on the project with two recent collaborators on Kwai: producer Spiegel and scriptwriter Michael Wilson, the latter eventually abandoning the association because of difficulties with surviving members of the Lawrence family, and then further creative difficulties with David Lean; step forward acclaimed playwright Robert Bolt, to write the dialogue and re-emphasize some of the characterisation based on Wilson's original blueprint.

For the all-important title role, an international assortment of actors were considered: Lean had been very keen for some years to work with Marlon Brando - an association which sadly never came to pass - but after much digging, Lean and Spiegel felt they had their man in Albert Finney; a sudden hot property from the innovative working-class drama Saturday Night Sunday Morning, Finney was however reluctant to be tied to a major film contract, working exclusively in "epics", and declined the lucrative offer, in spite of a major screen test where he recited scenes from Seven Pillars of Wisdom (right). It could with the benefit of hindsight be considered a career-ruining move - not that Finney has done too bad in the years since - almost as well, arguably, as Peter O'Toole.

But it was O'Toole who barnstormed his way into the role late in the day, balancing the sensitivity of Lawrence with his own extravagance which Lean helped to nurture. When it came to casting the all-important Arabian key figures in the saga, again, the search was international; American Anthony Quinn was a splendid Auda Abu Tayi (good enough to be uncannily mimicked by Bernard Bresslaw in Follow That Camel), and for the main Arab role of the mysterious Sherif Ali, eyes were turned eventually towards Egypt's biggest film star of the time, Michel Shalhoub - much better known as Omar Sharif, for whom Lean fashioned a whole new star in the making, giving the Egyptian charmer a moustache and a suave Valentino-like aura which soon won over millions of female admirers (in this and later Doctor Zhivago) on both sides of the globe.

Indeed, there are few greater cinema entrances that Sharif's first appearance on the desert horizon where Lawrence and his guide Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin) suddenly discover they are not alone.

Aside from all the breathtaking visuals - and let's face it, the desert is the real star of the film - what gave me a greater appreciation of Lawrence of Arabia when I saw it in its entirety (on its restoration in 1988) was the richness of the supporting cast, not least the urbane presence of Alec Guinness (top billed in the credits) who doesn't appear very often, as nor do Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Arthur Kennedy (replacing Edmond O'Brien as the American journalist based on Lowell Thomas), or Howard Marion Crawford (in a clever recurring cameo) but their presence is more than welcome. Guinness in particular, exudes charm and quiet authority as Prince Feisal, and almost looks like Obi-Wan Kenobi's Arabian half cousin. His performance is the forgotten gem of Lawrence of Arabia, alongside the deserved acclaim for the likes of O'Toole and Sharif.

Historically speaking Lawrence of Arabia leaves a certain amount to be desired - T.E. Lawrence himself worked skilfully to try and cover his tracks by rewriting Seven Pillars of Wisdom (from which most of the ideas in the finished script were taken from) so how much of the historical fact remains in Lean's film is very much open to doubt. It's unlikely, I think, that Lawrence was quite so narcissistic or as temperamental as Peter O'Toole is. Nor do I suspect was he quite so passionately in favour of the Arab cause as implied in this film. While it's true that the actual Lawrence was very disillusioned by the way in which political and economic control of Arabia was divided up between the English and the French after the First World War, the notion that Lawrence was also personally leading a revolt on Damascus to let the Arabs to take charge, just doesn't wash. I suspect he would have been much more of a mediator than a revolutionary.

But what did it matter...the legend, as they say, is greater than the truth. And in Peter O'Toole, the Lawrence legend received perhaps its definitive treatment, whilst still leaving the vacant central question mark of Lawrence's real identity. Robert Bolt and David Lean play it ambivalently, covering Lawrence's mixed-up sense of patriotism (desert lover or exiled Englishman?), his illegitimacy, and his homosexuality (in his infamous capture by the Turks in Deraa - the watershed in his desert crusade) in certain intriguing ways: "Who are you?", asks a motorcyclist (the voice of David Lean himself) when he reaches the Suez Canal, and then also at the very end, when the newly promoted Colonel Lawrence is driven away from the desert by an ordinary Tommy (Bryan Pringle) who says to him, "Well sir, going home!", to which Lawrence gives a stammered query: where is his home?

So in terms of the psychology and background of the hero, the film sheds little insight, but what does it matter after three and a half hours of glorious spectacle combined with historical drama.

Television cannot do justice to a film the scale and breadth of Lawrence of Arabia; it has to be seen in the cinema. I can count myself fortunate enough to have seen it twice in this manner. The first was at the Warner Brothers' cinema in Leicester Square, and I can well remember the queue for soft drinks at the cinema during the intermission (not surprisingly!) The other, greater memory, is how this is a film that hardly seems to date at all from first release: the desert still looks as breathtaking as it always did, the drama still as potent and compelling as it was in 1962.

Omar Sharif's original robes for Sherif Ali (in the David Lean exhibition at the National Film Theatre)

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films