[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: "It's the pictures that got small." Those words make up the second half of one of the most famous quotes in movie history. They are spoken, as any good film fan knows, by Norma Desmond in 1950's Sunset Blvd., and yet I think of them each time I watch Lawrence of Arabia. Released in 1962, David Lean's poetic biopic is epic by every definition of the word. It's long—216 minutes, plus intermission. It's grand in subject—using its title character to draw us into a historical war movie in disguise. It's emotionally hefty—focusing on an aimless man who finds himself through great struggle, only to lose his sanity within his new identity. As if that weren't enough, it's held together by a sprawling Maurice Jarre score. But what best qualifies Lawrence of Arabia as "epic" in my mind is its visual enormity, pairing some of the most awe-inspiring panoramas cinema has ever provided with some equally striking closeups.
Thus far in The Conversations we've covered some truly modern epics (Michael Mann's Heat comes to mind) and some modern films that evoke the spirit of epics past (The Last of the Mohicans, perhaps), but this is the first time we've discussed what could be called a "classic" or "traditional" epic—a film that doesn't just represent the term but helps to define it (which isn't to suggest that 1939's Gone with the Wind or 1915's Birth of a Nation didn't get there first). For reasons I'll describe later, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that took me a few viewings to fully appreciate, and yet I've been a passionate fan of it now for at least 10 years. In contrast, you hadn't seen Lawrence of Arabia until you watched it for The Conversations.
There are numerous topics that we must cover before this discussion is over, a few of which have everything to do with when this film was made (before CGI technology was available and before adorning white actors in brownface was taboo), and picking a starting point is a bit daunting. So let's begin here: Lawrence of Arabia is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. For what it's worth: it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning seven, including Best Picture; it was No. 5 on the American Film Institute's initial top-100 list, released in 1998; and it's No. 3 on the British Film Institute's latest top-100 list. With that as a snapshot of the movie's acclaim, I'm curious: When you watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time only recently, did it strike you as a great film, a classic and an epic? Did it live up to its reputation? Or did it leave you underwhelmed despite its enormity?
Ed Howard: As you suggest, it's hard to know where to start with a movie like this, with its reputation as one of the greatest movies ever made. It's up there on a tier with Citizen Kane and Casablanca as a movie that everyone is supposed to see, and that kind of canonization can be stifling. I'm not sure any movie can live up to a reputation like that, but Lawrence of Arabia certainly didn't leave me underwhelmed, even though these kinds of sprawling old-school epics are usually not to my taste. What I appreciated about the film was how subtle it was, how introspective it was for an epic. In some ways, a lot of it doesn't even feel like a conventional epic. Sure, it's long, and filled with those widescreen crowd scenes that are pretty much the aesthetic bread and butter for the genre. It's even packed with Biblical allusions and Christ allegories, aligning it with the grand religious tales, from The Ten Commandments to The Passion of the Christ, that always seem to be prime subjects for these spectacles. But what sets Lawrence of Arabia apart from typical epics (which generally underwhelm me) is its texture. David Lean has a real eye—and ear; the film's soundtrack, beyond its bombastic score, is stunning—for details, for carving out emotions and themes from the smallest touches.
That's why, for me, the film works best not in the moments when Lean is aiming to overwhelm with bright, busy frames bustling with activity, but when he's crafting more subtle effects. For a grand epic, much of the film's running time is actually dedicated to stark, minimalist sequences of wandering through the desert. In that respect, Lawrence of Arabia belongs as much to a very different continuity of films, from John Ford's 3 Godfathers to Werner Herzog's Fata Morgana or Gus Van Sant's Gerry, all films where the mystical and isolating quality of the desert plays a very important role. Lean crafts many minimal, forbidding sequences dominated by Rothkoesque simple landscapes, with two colors separated from one another by a horizontal line—pale blue on top and white on the bottom, often with the black specks of camels trotting across the sand.
Images like that define Lawrence of Arabia for me. Sure, there are plenty of more traditional epic moments: big battle scenes and rousing speeches and military parades and big trains of soldiers winding through the desert. I like the film more, though, when it's not trying to be big, when it's working on a smaller scale within its huge canvas.
JB: What you're getting at here is the way that Lean uses the enormity of the film's landscape to enhance the intimacy of his storytelling. Those initial shots of Peter O'Toole's Lawrence riding through the desert are awe-inspiring, to be sure, and any director with half a brain would jump at the chance to shoot in front of such exotic backdrops, but Lean is out to do more than capture stunning scenery. By showing Lawrence effortlessly carving his way through the rugged desert as if it's his own playground sandbox, Lean conveys Lawrence's early romanticism of the desert, his yearning for adventure and his sightseer's naiveté. At the onset, Lawrence treats the desert as if it's a fantasy camp, getting so lost in the majesty of his surroundings that he becomes blind to their inherent danger. (It's a symbol of the way he will oversimplify his political maneuvers later on.) By capturing Lawrence at a distance, rather than relying on closeup reaction shots, Lean entices the audience into making the same mistake, so that we too fall under the spell of the desert's breathtaking magnificence.
That's just one example, but over and over again the epic grandeur of Lean's film serves to illustrate its core character analysis. In that respect, Lawrence of Arabia has more in common with There Will Be Blood than with an equally massive epic like Ben-Hur, the latter of which is more about what happens to the title character than about how the character is affected by what happens. Beyond the film's grand canvases, those sprawling crowd scenes serve a deeper purpose, too. Common at the multiplex are battle epics in which the enormity of the hero's phalanx is representative of the character's strength and leadership, thanks in part to the ubiquitous pep talk on horseback that always leads to a warm round of huzzahs. Here, though, Lawrence's madness grows in proportion to the size of his army, as he routinely misinterprets their group strength for his own. In saying that I don't mean to imply that all those army-on-the-march shots aren't also generally indicative of the era in which Lawrence of Arabia was made—a time when Americans still loved the Western and thus directors had a fondness for filming men on horseback (or camelback, in this case). In that sense, many of Lean's crowd shots are as characteristic of the early 1960s as rapid-fire editing is characteristic of modern filmmaking. Still, those sprawling crowd shots routinely tell us something about the psychology of the main character, which puts Lawrence of Arabia in stark contrast to so many modern epics in which the vastness of the crowds suggests little more than an effort to spend every dime of the CGI budget.
EH: I'm glad you made that distinction between the "what happens" kind of epic and Lawrence of Arabia, in which what happens is nowhere near as important as who it happens to and how it affects him, and also how it's presented onscreen. One of my main problems with the conventional epic is how much of its emphasis is on plot. So many of these films play out like someone breathlessly blurting out an incredible story: "and then this happened, and then this happened, and then... !" (Maybe the fact that so many epics are Biblical, and thus conform to a well-established narrative mold and static character motivations, contributes to this impression.) In contrast, Lawrence of Arabia lets long stretches of time go by where, actually, not much happens at all. Lean has the self-assurance to know that he has a large canvas to work with here, and that if he wants to spend ten or fifteen minutes simply watching Lawrence and his army wander through the desert, suffocating under the hot sun, it's okay. Lean doesn't feel the need to cram every second of the film's nearly four-hour running time with incident, just as he's comfortable with the judicious use of minimalist, near-empty frames. The protagonist might in one shot be an indistinguishable black dot in a forbidding landscape, while in the next the camera might stare, in closeup, into O'Toole's haunted blue eyes.
It's this sensitivity to the effects of scale that makes Lawrence of Arabia great. To borrow a musical metaphor, Lean has a sense of dynamics. He's not just doing what so many epics do, always blasting at top volume with everything piling up. Instead, he balances quiet, introspective interludes against the sporadic big battle scenes; the film's rhythms ebb and flow like a piece of classical music, shifting from low-key movements into periodic bursts of bombast. Many epics treat form superficially, but not Lawrence of Arabia, which is very formally sophisticated. For Lean, to be epic doesn't mean to be big and overbearing all the time, but to span a wide emotional and aesthetic range.
A perfect example is the scene where Lawrence returns to the deadly stretch of desert known as "the Sun's Anvil" in order to rescue a missing man. This scene is structured not as a frantic action race, but as a long and languid period of waiting. For the most part, we don't even see Lawrence himself as Lean cuts between the soldiers back in camp, waiting expectantly without really thinking their leader will return, a lookout at the edge of the desert, and the missing man, sweltering beneath the hot red sky. The sequence is dominated by long-range shots of the empty, static desert, and only at the very end does Lean introduce any movement and bombast, as the camera takes on the perspective of the lookout, speeding across the desert toward the distant blur of Lawrence approaching on camel. The white, unchanging sand rushes by beneath the camel's hooves, as the black wavery splotch in the distance begins to resolve itself into another rider, and finally Lean pulls back for a striking wide shot of the two camels as they pass one another within this great expanse of nothingness. It's a great sequence, and a recognizably epic, spectacular one as well, but it's set up by Lean's patience and ability to build suspense gradually.
JB: Agreed. That scene you cite is a terrific one, and the incredible thing is that it isn't even the film's most patient or suspenseful presentation of a man emerging out of the nothingness. That honor goes to the scene at the well, when we are introduced to Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), which plays out remarkably similarly to the famous crop-duster scene in North by Northwest. In this case it's O'Toole in Cary Grant's role, and Lean designs the scene as Hitchcock would have: with devious patience that creates excruciating unease. Hitchcock's brand of suspense is notable for the way it instills not fear but vulnerability—Grant at that bus stop in the middle of nowhere in North by Northwest, Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho, Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair in Rear Window, and so on. As Lawrence stands by the well watching that hazy apparition turn into a distant figure and then into a discernible silhouette, his vulnerability is palpable. In that instant the anonymous figure makes an entire desert seem rampant with danger, just as the entire ocean seems deadly in Jaws once we've laid eyes on the shark. It's a tremendous scene, and even though Lawrence leaves his first encounter with Sherif Ali with his bravado intact we get our first indication that Lawrence's sense of superiority is foolishly naïve.