It’s worth pointing out that the sequence in which Sherif Ali approaches from the distance is a little less than two minutes long and it has about twelve cuts in it, depending on when you start counting. In other words, it’s a cut every ten seconds or so. Even by today’s rapid-cut standards that might not seem especially patient—and in interviews Lean expressed regret that he used any cuts whatsoever—but it plays patiently because of the silence (no score) and the stillness (the characters hardly move). As a firm believer that painstakingly infrequent cuts can be just as distracting as too many, I think Lean’s scene finds the right balance. The reaction shots of Lawrence and his guide, Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin), make it clear that this approaching stranger is something to fear, not to simply regard with idle curiosity. At the same time, the wide-angle shots of the dark figure on camelback instill us with an understanding of the desert’s massiveness; we can sense how far the mysterious stranger has traveled, which makes it all the more terrifying that Lawrence and Tafas have been discovered amidst this vastness.
Each time I see that scene it strikes me that I’m watching cinematic perfection. That isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t another way of shooting that scene or to imply that it’s the greatest scene in cinema history. What I mean is that the scene is without fault. And yet the scene I just described to you isn’t the scene I saw the first time I came across Lawrence of Arabia on TV so many years ago—mutilated in fullscreen and blurry on top of that. To watch the film now on DVD, or to catch it on the big screen as I’ve had the pleasure to do, is indeed to watch a speck morph into a discernable figure. It’s beautiful. Alas, as I originally saw it on TV, Sherif Ali was too small to be recognized or was cropped so closely that the immensity of the stage was lost. Scenes like this one make me grateful for the technological advancements of the past twenty years, while also causing me to cringe at the thought of some platform-agnostic kid discovering this movie on his iPhone. Lawrence of Arabia is the rare film that demands the largest screen you can find and earns every inch you give it.
EH: Yes, in that respect it’s like Jacques Tati’s Playtime, another film that demands a large screen due to its use of scale and fine detail: they’re both films that are big and yet frequently ask us to focus intensely on the smallest minutiae within their massive frames. The particular scene you mention is definitely a great one, and I was thinking of that moment, especially, when I cited Fata Morgana earlier. Lean is evoking the hallucinatory quality of the desert. At first, it’s Hitchcockian and creepy, then lulling and seductive, as when Lawrence is hypnotized by the bobbing shadow of a camel’s head drawn out across the shifting sands. Ultimately, as in Herzog’s later film, all these images of the desert represent an inner landscape as well as an outer one: Lawrence’s loneliness, isolation and hysteria externalized onto the expanses of sand and sky.
I could gush a great deal more about all the stunning scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, because there are so many sequences where I’m simply blown away by the power of Lean’s imagery and his ability to define a character so precisely and memorably through purely formal, visual means. At this point, however, I should probably admit that the film didn’t have me quite so rapt for its entire running time. Certainly, it’s a great film, but the things I loved about it seemed to be most present in its first half, while in the second half Lean starts to fall into some of the same traps that we identified as affecting other classic epics. We’ve praised Lawrence of Arabia for not being a “what happens” movie, but in the second half, Lawrence shuttles back and forth between his nomadic desert lifestyle and the British high command based in Cairo, and, well, a lot of stuff just seems to happen. Lawrence returns to Cairo, vows to abandon his guerilla war, then reunites with his army anyway, then returns to Cairo, and so on. The second half hardly falls apart or anything—it remains a well-crafted, satisfying film—but I felt a little bit like I was just watching Lawrence change outfits over and over again, from his crisp military uniform to his rugged Arab garb. Lean has much more subtle touches than his tendency to express the shifts in Lawrence’s character through wardrobe changes.
I feel similarly about the introductory framing scenes, which take place at Lawrence’s funeral and thus establish the remaining three-plus hours of the film as a really long flashback. It’s a clumsy device, and arguably doesn’t add much to the film besides positioning its primary action, and by extension the specter of colonialism, as a thing of the past. So what do you think? Does Lean’s subtlety and restraint sometimes give way to more conventional bombast and overbearing impulses? Is the film’s uneven dramatic arc, with its “stuff happens” second half, simply a result of the shape of the real Lawrence’s life? Does the flashback framing serve to distance us from the events of the film and thus prevent its implicit anti-colonial critique from hitting too close to home? Or do you see all this differently?
JB: I never considered the possibility that the framing device is there to dull the anti-colonial criticisms, but I’d certainly agree that it has that effect, even if that isn’t Lean’s explicit intent (though maybe it is). More so, I think it’s there to establish Lawrence as a tragic figure—cheaply garnering our sympathies by showing us his death from the get-go in order that we might be less judgmental later on. But there is a deeper effect. As with the scene at the well, Lawrence’s motorcycle crash establishes his vulnerability—a vulnerability that he spends the much of the film trying to deny. To put it another way, the crash instantly brings us to the same conclusion that Anthony Quinn’s Auda Abu Tayi only comes to after no gold is found in Aqaba: “He is not perfect.” Furthermore, the scene outside of Lawrence’s funeral establishes through the diverse reactions of the mourners that what follows will be somewhat mythical, as no one can agree on how to remember him. The man who only shook Lawrence’s hand is honored to have done so (unaware that he also cursed him); the general is annoyed at the attention Lawrence received; and the American journalist is still capitalizing on Lawrence’s celebrity in an effort to create his own. That’s my long way around to agreeing with you that the framing device is clumsy and unnecessary, while acknowledging that it’s cleverer than it might first appear.
I agree wholeheartedly, however, that the second half of the film is more historical (by which I don’t mean factual) than emotional, and thus it’s less compelling. (The latter half of the film also irks me because of the grating performance of Arthur Kennedy as journalist Jackson Bentley by way of The Stereotypical Brash American. But I digress.) Then again, the latter half of the film includes two of the film’s most emotionally piercing moments: Lawrence’s rape at the prison and his subsequent “No prisoners!” battle cry. Oh, that battle cry! Lawrence of Arabia is the film that often pops to mind when I bemoan how CGI has cheapened the epic by inserting flat digital figures where beautifully three-dimensional human extras once stood, and by creating fantastical green-screen worlds that never have the depth of real locations, but even the closeup of Lawrence shouting “No prisoners!” shows the richness of good old-fashioned filmmaking. I mean, really, just look into O’Toole’s eyes in that moment. You can’t computer-generate emotion like that, though David Fincher sure tried in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of CGI, and I’m not blind to its numerous practicalities. But I can’t be alone here, you must agree with me: One of the reasons this film is so affecting is because we can feel, consciously and subconsciously, its relative reality. Right?
EH: It depends on what you mean by reality, I guess. If you just mean that the film was shot mostly on location, without recourse to fancy effects or trickery, then yes, it’s rooted in reality. But in its way the world of Lawrence of Arabia is just as artificial, just as stylized, as the lurid CGI backdrops of Benjamin Button and 300 and other modern CGI epics. Think of all those shots of the sun rising into a blood-red sky, or the hallucinatory desert mirages we’ve already mentioned. I get what you mean about the nefarious effects of CGI when it’s used indiscriminately, but I wouldn’t say that Lawrence is more real, exactly—more physical, maybe, since CGI environments often have a certain flatness of texture. In the broadest sense, though, artificiality is central to the epic genre, along with ahistoricity and big gestures: like all epics, Lawrence is, as you say, a myth, a legend, blown up from the raw facts of reality. Its relationship to reality is complicated.
As for this film’s second half, it sounds like we agree that it’s not as strong as the first half, but that it does have its high points. In fact, even Kennedy’s obnoxious reporter has at least one good scene, not coincidentally one without any spoken dialogue, its power attributable only to the film’s editing. It’s the scene where Bentley is observing a battle scene and keeps popping up like a jack-in-the-box to take pictures; Lean intercuts these scenes with the violent action, letting the rhythms add a humorous, satirical bite to the reporter’s gleeful documentation of the carnage.
I also agree with you about Lawrence’s encounter with the Turkish commander, which was based on the real-life Lawrence’s assertion that he was captured and raped while in Arabia. This scene is a perfect demonstration of Lean’s knack for visual storytelling: the scene’s emotional undercurrents and homoerotic subtexts are encoded in the mise en scène. Lawrence is held down on a bench, while the officer voyeuristically watches from the next room, just visible at the rear of the frame, half-hidden behind a door, his presence betrayed by his sickly cough. The sadomasochistic and homoerotic components of the scene are communicated entirely non-verbally, in the subtle, sinister aura that builds up throughout the scene, in the arrangement of bodies within the frame and the aural connections between different areas. This kind of thing is what sets Lawrence of Arabia apart more than its freedom from CGI over-reliance: its firm base in classical, formally engaged storytelling.
JB: Well, you’ll get no argument from me that Lawrence of Arabia engages in some rich, classical storytelling. And I want to come right back to that, and to the rape scene. But, let’s back up a second: the world of Lawrence of Arabia feels “just as artificial, just as stylized” as that of 300? Really? You can’t be serious.
EH: Hah! I did say “in its way.” So if you want me to qualify my initial assertion, I’ll admit it’s an overstatement (and I’ll further stress, just to be clear, that I find 300 a really lousy movie). My point was that effect matters more than the tools used: a given unreal-looking landscape might be CGI-generated or photographed from a real location, but does it matter if the final effect of both is of overt unreality? Certainly Lawrence is a much more realistic-looking movie than Benjamin Button and 300 and many other modern CGI epics, but Lean is frequently aiming for effects just as stylized. All those desert landscapes are filmed subjectively rather than realistically; warped and sun-hazy, conjuring up absurd images like the boat that rises out of the desert at one point, a sudden non-sequitur, during Lawrence’s somber ride back to Cairo from Aqaba. The skies above Lawrence are frequently full of hues so bright and layered that they hardly look naturalistic: more like CGI, or the kinds of equally artificial matte paintings favored by classical filmmakers like Hitchcock or Powell and Pressburger.
Basically, I’m saying that CGI doesn’t have a monopoly on artificiality, and that just because something was shot on “real” locations doesn’t mean it’s necessarily aiming for (or achieving) realism. As different as Lawrence of Arabia is from more modern epics, it does share that common ground in its emphasis on larger-than-life aesthetics.
JB: Hmm. I suppose. But as “absurd” as the image of the massive ship cutting through the desert might be, that image, so far as I know, wasn’t achieved with any kind of special effects trickery. Instead Lean just found the right place to situate his camera next to the Suez Canal. Thus, I have a hard time buying the argument that the shot isn’t realistic. Fantastic? Sure. But it’s rooted in realism. Having said that…
To your larger point, I wholeheartedly agree that it’s the ultimate effect, the image, that we should focus on, and not the means by which it is achieved. If I played Moses and handed down ten commandments for moviegoers, that directive would go on the first tablet. Still, I’d like to suggest that most of the time we instinctively know the difference between a shot that is stylized using tangible, three-dimensional “reality” (the ship in the Suez Canal) and a shot that is stylized using computer-generated effects (anything from 300), and that our awareness of that reality influences the effect. Perhaps younger audiences who have grown up with CGI don’t notice a difference; show Lawrence of Arabia to a 13-year-old and he or she might assume most of those shots are digitally enhanced. But I’m not that 13-year-old. While I’m young enough to have been raised in the Star Wars era, I’m also old enough to have been raised on the original Star Wars trilogy. By that I mean that I started watching movies during a time when George Lucas still filmed on tangible sets rather than doing everything in front of a greenscreen. Over the past ten years I’ve argued to Star Wars fans who are underwhelmed by the prequels that the biggest difference between Lucas’ trilogies isn’t the writing, acting or story but the shift away from tangible, instinctively “real” environments to digitally created ones. The difference between the effect of presenting a character who is walking through the desert and presenting a character who just looks like he’s walking through the desert can be quite significant, at least on a subconscious level. The more actual reality that is in any given shot, the less the audience has to work to bring it to life. We may not think about these things when we’re watching a movie, but nine times out of ten I think we feel them. That’s why I think the actual reality of Lawrence of Arabia is part of its magic.