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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 perhaps willfully 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 excuse for his alleged aberrant behavior—his sexlessness turned bloodthirst. And Lawrence would later offer subsequent accounts substantially different from his original text, most damningly that he allowed his captors to sodomize him. (Early into his retelling of the incident, a reader’s defense is triggered as caveat of embellishment.) But the Turks have always made handy pederasts-villains and Lean and his writers oblige. 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 moves into carnage, tribal squabbles and the very smirky geopolitical games related to the 1916 secret Sykes-Picot-Sazonov Agreement plotting a defacto takeover of Arab territory. (Didn’t stay a secret: after the Tsar was executed, the Bolshevik government published his clandestine treaties, the arrogation prominent among them.) Though Lawrence helped the Arabs conquer Damascus, he was bitterly disappointed in not securing Arab independence at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, one of history’s most consequential débâcles. Duly noting his anger and depression and above all his value, the British government would on many occasions placate him by seeking his cooperation in placating the Arabs’ resentments.

Lean’s sandcastle is also 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 reported slaughterhouse rampages. Duplicating what the misfit perceived about the desert, Lawrence of Arabia is arresting for being “clean”—visually elegant and eloquent; when Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is stretched out to enjoy the twilight, the camera is virtually painting the sand orange and the brush silver. With Maurice Jarre’s score adding the touch of exotic, one night sequence breathtakingly aggrandizes the giant sand dunes to suggest forbidden mountainous terrain. The pannings provided by Freddie Young, Nicholas Roeg, Skeets Kelly and Peter Newbrook haven’t lost any of their metaphoric awesomeness; even the quicksand death and horrible massacres are amplified as “art.” Some of 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 reports of Lawrence made both of them international public figures. Introduced on a camel, riding towards a protected well while bulls-eyeing a shot to the head of a water thief, Omar Sharif establishes star appeal and as Ali an authority soon lost involuntarily; his one payback is the fruitless opportunity to scream out “English” with less than respectful intent. In the third to last movie role of his long career, Claude Rains’s Dryden is sardonic suavity; as composite of British politick, he deviously turns Lawrence into protégé. Naturally eccentric, sheathed in sun-bleached hair and fulgent blue eyes, O’Toole is plentifully perplexing; with depiction of Lawrence factually undependable, it’s the murky turmoil inside the actor that’s afire and spreads to his character, 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. 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 (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—was shaped by his and Lean’s worries about getting too entangled in the various 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. Augmented by O’Toole, Jarre’s music and Anne Coates’s editing, it’s conservative Lean’s kinship with cinematography that remains 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 Freddie Young understood the power derived from and the imperative to use Super Panavision 70 to unleash and embrace the fabulist in the mythic landscape. (Opening 1/16/1963 at the Cinestage, running 36 weeks.)

Oscars for best picture, director, musical score, film editing, sound, color cinematography and art direction/set decoration.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 10/2018)  All Rights Reserved.