Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
*Lawrence Of Arabia* was first released the year I was born, so I never saw it in its full Panavision glory. As an adolescent, I discovered this film, by then a late-night TV staple, and sat mesmerized, on countless occasions, watching it in all it's truncated splendor, in the wee hours of the morning. The sweeping desert vistas, the epic battles, Peter O'Toole's incredibly blue eyes -- no television could ever do these things justice, and yet this movie put a spell on me. I absolutely loved it, and was ready to throw off Levi's and turtlenecks for flowing white bedouin-wear.
My obsession with the enigmatic T.E. Lawrence began shortly thereafter, and lasted about as long as my obsession with the enigmatic Marilyn Monroe and the mysterious Kennedy assassination, and a variety of other things linked only by the fact that they were newsworthy back when I was in swaddling clothes.
The movie, on the other hand, remained a lifelong favorite. Restored and re-released in 1989, *Lawrence Of Arabia* is now playing in Manhattan at the Paris Theatre, with a beautiful new 70mm print. Watching it there last week, I was struck by how well this remarkable, passionate film has held up over the years.
An unusually literate film, *Lawrence Of Arabia* has a wonderfully witty script by Robert Bolt, and deals with complicated psychological and political issues succinctly but with depth. The dark complexity of Lawrence, the gnarly entanglements of politics, British imperialism and racism all add to the unapologetic ambiguity of this epic tale of an unapologetically ambiguous man.
The cinematography is magnificent, as is the general artistry of this David Lean film. Naturally, the stunning Arabian landscapes, oceanic in scale, help, but more than that, Lean used the landscape as a dramatic tool, influencing countless future films and filmmakers in the process. He loads the landscape with emotions so acute and grand that even the mountains of sand can barely contain them. The sheer, austere vastness of the settings and the brilliant intensity of the light in this movie lead to a sort of hypnosis -- and a psychological understanding of the appeal that the forsaken place had for Lawrence, a man accustomed to the damp greenery of Oxfordshire, one of that breed of Englishmen in love with the desert. The massive scale of *Lawrence Of Arabia* would be unimaginable today, when far less ambitious movies cost half the GNP of Saudi Arabia -- the sheer magnitude and ambition of such an artistic undertaking rivals the hubris of Lawrence himself.
O'Toole's complex portrayal of Lawrence is splendid. He reveals Lawrence as a man both in love with himself and horrified by his own impulses and megalomania, an arrogant masochist who tested himself in the crucible of the desert, and found himself lacking. While most epic adventures like this focus on battles and horses and glinting swords, *Lawrence Of Arabia* contains some of the most psychologically intimate and acute scenes -- however cryptic they were -- ever committed to celluloid. And there are, of course, glinting swords and horses and great battles, although these are presented with an almost pacifist ambiguity and horror of war.
The cast of *Lawrence Of Arabia* featured the cream of the crop at the time: Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrar. Most surprising is Guinness' portrayal of Prince Faisal. Despite obviously blue eyes and black eyebrow dye, Guiness really, truly pulls it off and is utterly convincing as the Arab sheik. That's a bit of casting that would be a howler of political incorrectness today, but Guinness' performance is a reminder that great acting transcends race, while it also, perhaps inadvertantly, echoes the anti-tribalist theme of *Lawrence Of Arabia*.
Much of the complexity, the dark mystery, of *Lawrence Of Arabia* was no doubt lost on me as an adolescent. But one thing was not: *Lawrence Of Arabia* was the first adult movie that I loved, and it was the movie that made me love movies forever. Seeing it again, and on a big screen, was like seeing it for the very first time. Stirring, magnificent and gorgeous, it reminded me, after a summer full of assembly line movies, what movies should be, and what they can be. If you have any reason to be in New York City in the next two weeks, and even if you don't, do not miss *Lawrence Of Arabia*. I'm thinking of becoming obsessed all over again.