Lawrence of Arabia

Nashville Scene


REVIEWED: 06-15-98

Hollywood promoters are trying to convince us that we're entering a new era of huge films with huge subjects (and huge budgets and huge running times). If only Hollywood could add one more item to the list of epic qualifications: larger-than-life heroes. Lawrence of Arabia, showing Monday through Thursday at the Watkins Belcourt, represents the pinnacle of an earlier epic tradition, one that exalted complicated and pivotal figures in history and made them the fulcra of enormous filmmaking endeavors.

Director David Lean plucked from obscurity a young actor with burning blue eyes, Peter O'Toole, and made him a star as T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who became the leader of an Arab revolution during World War I. The enigmatic Lawrence had long fascinated biographers and historians, but making a successful film out of his complex, contradictory story required the services of England's very best talents: screenwriter Robert Bolt, cinematographer Freddie Young, composer Maurice Jarre. After two years of filming in the Arabian desert, they produced a majestic vision of one man against the endless sandy horizon, bridging heaven and earth to call down cosmic forces in a single fantastic, fleeting moment.

Many critics complain that Lawrence is historically inaccurate, that it fails to depict intelligibly the forces of war, and that its portrait of Lawrence himself is selective. Yet Lean understands that art is a selection of possibilities for realization out of the infinite and chaotic environment; it is not and never has been simple dramatization, recreation, or hagiography. His film, made in 1962, prefigures the rise of the antihero in the cinema of the late 1960s and '70s. Lawrence goes to Arabia almost by accident, proves himself to the Bedouin tribes (represented by Omar Sharif's Ali) by sheer instinct, and falls fatally in love with the desert--which, as an Englishman, he cannot possibly survive. His heroism is in spite of himself: He has no outstanding qualities other than his unsuitability for army life. Yet Lean believes, and makes us believe, that astounding forces of necessity and chance converge on this slender figure, raise him up to lead armies and nations, and then cruelly abandon him.

To see the 221 minutes of Lawrence of Arabia in a theater, in all its widescreen glory, is to fall in love. Lean portrays the national character of the British--their inability to see past small details, their amused incomprehension of other cultures, and their tenacious Anglocentrism--with great warmth and good humor. Ancillary characters played by Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins, and Alec Guinness have a dry wit that enlivens Young's tableau-like compositions. Jarre's music swells unforgettably; Arabia is beautiful in its timeless emptiness. Yet it is earnest, bloodthirsty, suicidal Lawrence who captures our hearts.

The neo-epics of the '90s betray no understanding of T.E. Lawrence's appeal. Perhaps we suspect, but do not want to admit, that if heroism catches us as it does Lawrence, it will be by accident and beyond all our imaginings.

--Donna Bowman

Capsule Reviews
Lawrence of Arabia

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