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HOOKED ON MYTH

Lawrence of Arabia is all about myth-making. Director David Lean and writers Michel Wilson and Robert Bolt condensed the saga of T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom into a romance of guerrilla exploits about an eternal misfit history still doesn’t know with assurance. Enigmatic, an educated loner, Lawrence himself helped shape the quandary facing the fact-finders because in the book, to which George Bernard Shaw gave his imprimatur, it’s possible the most famous scene he wrote—the Turkish Bey’s and his henchmen’s sexual assault of him while a prisoner—never happened. Numbers of historians and psychologists believe Lawrence manufactured the incident in order to provide an excuse for his alleged aberrant behavior—his sexlessness turned bloodthirst. And Lawrence would later offer subsequent accounts substantially different from his original harrowing text, most damningly that he allowed his captors to sodomize him. (Reading the account, the caveat of embellishment is signaled.) But the Turks have always made handy pederasts-villains, and Lean and his writers oblige. What they don’t provide is real clarity. In the first part we’re somewhat sure that Lawrence’s campaign is to coalesce an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during WWI. The second half deteriorates into confusion: it’s anyone’s guess what the hell the smirky geopolitical games are all about—for clarity’s sake, the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Agreement plotting a defacto takeover of Arab territory. (Didn’t stay secret for long: after the Tsar was executed during the Russian Revolution, the new government published his clandestine treaties, the arrogation among them.) Two omissions are staggering: the word “oil” is uttered only once in the first half as ambiguous metaphor and though Lawrence helped the Arabs conquer Damascus, he was unable to secure Arab independence at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. (Duly noting his resulting anger and depression and above all else his value, the British government would on many occasions placate him by seeking his cooperation in placating the Arabs’ justified resentment in being betrayed. Worthy of note, the 1919 Peace Conference set into motion two additional political determinations with ruinous consequences: at the behest of Britain, France and Italy, each complicit in aristocratic corruption, Germany was punished with economic strangulation and Ho Chi Minh lost his first of many petitions for Vietnam’s independence from France). Lean’s mythic sandcastle is built on the shifts of political treachery—everyone’s using Lawrence’s dream of Arab self-destiny to do the dirty work, thus sharing responsibility for the wus-turned-legend’s slaughterhouse rampages in the desert. As movie more than verifiable chronicle, Lawrence of Arabia remains arresting: duplicating what Lawrence loved about the desert, this epic is “clean”—visually elegant and eloquent. When Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence spends his first night in the desert, the camera is virtually painting the sand orange and the brush silver. Maurice Jarre’s score adding the touch of exotic, one night sequence exquisitely aggrandizes the sand hills to suggest forbidden mountainous terrain. Even the quicksand death and horrible massacres are amplified as “art.” More than fifty five years later, the pannings provided by Freddie Young and his crew Nicholas Roeg, Skeets Kelly and Peter Newbrook haven’t lost any of their awesomeness. Excepting O’Toole, Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali and Claude Rains’s Dryden, the thesping isn’t as impressive—it’s dangerously close to caricature. The comic Alec Guinness as Feisal, the bizarrely-nosed Anthony Quinn (doing his own makeup based on the real Auda Abu Tayi), the coughing José Ferrer and his sadists and the pompous Donald Wolfit embroider for effects; they’re Lean’s stereotypes to enhance his star-hero’s complexity. Arthur Kennedy is Jackson Bentley, subbing for Lowell Thomas whose photos and news accounts of Lawrence made him an international public figure. Naturally eccentric, sheathed in sun-bleached hair and fulgent blue eyes, O’Toole is quite perplexing; with depiction of Lawrence factually undependable, it’s the murky turmoil inside the actor that’s afire and spreads to his character, he’s able to glow through neuroses in ways few other actors achieve and probably this facet about him more than anything else permits helpless-to-understand viewers to go along with him. What we’ve accepted since: if we have to trek through inexplicable torment, he’s first choice to lead the way. Introduced on a camel, riding towards a protected well while bulls-eyeing a shot to the head of a water thief, Sharif establishes both star appeal and as Ali an authority soon lost involuntarily; his one payback is the opportunity to scream out “English” with less than respectful intent. In the third to last movie role of his long career, Rains is sardonic suavity as composite of British politick with Lawrence as protégé. As regards the controversy of the screenplay, the first was Michael Wilson’s, apparently concentrating on real historical events and political intrigues. As a blacklisted writer, he didn’t receive initial screen credit (since restored), just as he hadn’t received credit nor allowed to accept the Academy Award (also restored) for adapting Pierre Boullé’s The Bridge on the River Kwai for Lean. Unhappy with Wilson’s construct, Lean called on playwright Robert Bolt, who, using Wilson’s basic structure, changed its angle to attempt a more personal view of Lawrence. His major contribution—delivering loaded if too clever admonitions as dialogue—was shaped by his and Lean’s worries about getting too entangled in the aberrances lest they cause censorship problems and political fulminations. For all the difficulties in scripting, casting, long-suffering hardships during roughly a year and a half of filming, Lawrence of Arabia endures as the stellar accomplishment in Lean’s career of roadshow movie making. Though augmented by O’Toole’s star magnitude, Jarre’s music and Anne Coates’s editing, Lean’s partnership with cinematographer Freddie Young was the chief propellant. Recognizing the sensuous essence in  Lawrence’s wanderlust—that as a bonkers word wizard he entranced readers by a stratagem so controlling we become as hooked on geographic bliss as he was—Lean and Young understood the power derived from and the imperative to use Super Panavision 70 to embrace the fabled landscape. Oscars for best picture, director, musical score, film editing, sound, color cinematography and art direction/set decoration.

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 9/2017)  All Rights Reserved.