JB: Those are terrific observations, and they point again to the intimacy of this epic. Along those lines, another element of the film that we’ve yet to discuss in detail is its presentation of violence, or lack thereof. If this movie were remade today you could be sure of three things: (1) white actors wouldn’t be playing Arabs; (2) the movie would be shorter; (3) the action sequences would be longer. For something that is kinda-sorta a war movie, Lawrence of Arabia has very little warfare—and what is there isn’t frivolous or gratuitous. The brief air raid on Prince Fiesal’s camp isn’t there to provide an adrenaline rush but to show how ill-prepared the Arabs are to fight against armies with planes and heavy artillery. The storming of Aqaba—perhaps the closest the film comes to an action setpiece—is treated as a victory lap more than a battle. In fact, the scene is memorable for the guns that aren’t fired—the ones that face the sea and are useless in the defense of the inland attack. And then there’s the “No prisoners!” scene, which is the bloodiest of the film but is there to illustrate Lawrence’s madness. For all the killing we do see in that scene, as soon as the film has established that Lawrence is an active participant in the massacre, which includes the killing of those raising their arms in surrender, Lean cuts away from the attack, confident that the grisly nature of the battle can be depicted satisfactorily via shots of the resulting carnage.
Having said the above I don’t wish to give the impression that all battle scenes in modern epics are gratuitous. Movies like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers use battles the way Fred Astaire movies use dance numbers. But when it’s inconceivable to imagine Lawrence of Arabia being made today without extravagant action scenes, and when Lawrence of Arabia as-is doesn’t suffer from the omission of extravagant action scenes, it underlines just how superfluous and thoughtless the ubiquitous extravagant action sequence has become in many cases. Indeed, many modern filmmakers seem to employ these action scenes not because of artistic vision but, I suspect, because of a studio order to spend every penny of their CGI budget. For better or worse, overwrought CGI spectacles put butts in the seats. Just as it was fiscally advantageous but artistically dishonest to cast Guinness and Quinn as Arabs back in 1962, it is fiscally advantageous but artistically dishonest to fill out a film with thematically unnecessary action scenes in 2009. Sometimes being out of date is a good thing.
EH: Indeed. I’ve already praised the film a great deal for being such a low-key, introspective epic, lingering on long desert journeys rather than delivering over-the-top spectacle non-stop. Lean’s restraint with respect to the action scenes is part of that. It’s a shame that such restraint and artistic integrity are no longer the norm. I look back on my initial comments on this film, in which I compared it to relatively avant films like Gerry and Fata Morgana, and invoked the paintings of Mark Rothko as a reference point for its landscapes: can you imagine any contemporary mainstream war movie or epic that would evoke a similar range of references? The problem, maybe, is that genres have become more codified and calcified over time, to the point that audiences expect certain things from certain types of movies, and filmmakers seem to have forgotten that it’s possible to deliver anything different. So an epic made today has to have certain types of scenes, and a certain dramatic arc, or else it’s not recognizable as an epic at all—and the model that’s been accepted for epics today is more Ben-Hur than Lawrence of Arabia.
There is, of course, another model for the epic, one that’s not so much in play today—Mel Gibson excepted—but was very much current in the ’60s, when Lawrence of Arabia was made. I’m talking of course about the bibilical epic, and it’s a form that Lean frequently seems to be flirting with and acknowledging in making his own non-bibilical epic. The film is dotted with Christian iconography and knowing nods to the epic spectacles that Hollywood often erects around the Bible’s framework. Partly this is just an artifact of the setting: the Middle East, the desert, not so far from the birthplace of the historical Jesus and the other events depicted in the Bible. On another level, however, I think Lean is consciously evoking these antecedents, appropriating the grandeur and spirituality of these stories for his own hero. Certainly Lawrence’s first trek into the wildness of the desert, when he goes out at night and sits in the sand, silently watched over by two servant boys, is reminiscent of Jesus’ interludes of desert isolation. In New Testament stories, the desert is a place of self-examination and self-testing—it’s where Jesus goes to be tested by Satan, spending the famous “forty days and forty nights” in its dusty expanse—and it serves a similar purpose for Lawrence. He emerges from the desert more self-assured, with a purpose and a plan, ready to lead an army to Aqaba. Later, after Lawrence is shot in the shoulder, he touches the wound and then deliberately holds up his hand, his palm facing outward, the red stain in its center looking like the stigmata of Jesus.
These Christ allegories are interesting, and I tend to view them as just another of the many elements Lean is weaving into the complicated tapestry of this film. On the other hand, I wonder about what these subtle bibilical allusions—if indeed they were intentional and not just happenstance synchronicities—add to the film’s themes. What do you think?
JB: I think you’ve skipped over the most blatant Christ allusion of the bunch: the moment when Lawrence tries on his desert robes and holds out his arms, ostensibly to enjoy the spectacle, and strikes a crucifixion pose. But maybe that one is only blatant to me; I went to a Catholic high school and had an English teacher from the Jesuit priesthood who could find Christ symbolism in anything with perpendicular lines. That said, given that this story is based on some actual history—one can find photos of the real T.E. Lawrence that closely resemble the appearance of O’Toole’s version—I think that for the most part these are happenstance synchronicities, because in the end Lawrence isn’t very Christlike. Sure, I’d bet that Lean was aware of the similarities, and maybe made subtle adjustments accordingly. But I don’t get the sense he was driven to make bibilical allusions. If anything, perhaps Lean was trying to capture the flavor of films like Ben-Hur that are deliberately evocative of the Bible. Thus these are bibilical allusions by two degrees of separation.
Tracing allegories is always a tricky thing. Lawrence of Arabia does inspire thoughts of the Bible, and therefore allusions are there to be identified. But that’s different than saying that Lean is specifically alluding to the Bible. Going back to our previous references to the Iraq War and the subsequent occupation, it’s safe to assume that if Lawrence of Arabia were released as-is today, many would suggest with absolute certainty that the film is an intentional metaphor for America’s involvements in Iraq. Yet we know that couldn’t have been Lean’s (or the screenwriter’s) intent. It’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t assume that effect and intent are always united. To look at it from another angle: Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight might be the most ardent defense yet of the war-on-terror practices employed under the reign of George W. Bush. That is, to put it very simply and avoid a long tangent, Bush sees himself as Batman does in that film: skirting the laws for the good of the people; becoming vilified in the short-term in the name of prosperity in the long-term. Now, does that mean that Nolan intended to defend the Bush administration? Absolutely not. Nevertheless The Dark Knight does create a noble hero out of a character whose most controversial methods are right out of the Bush era playbook. So the allegory is there, but we shouldn’t decide it was intentional just because of the timing of its release.
But let’s get back to Lawrence of Arabia. At the beginning of your last comment you asked, in essence, if a “contemporary mainstream war movie or epic” could ever have the range of this film. It’s a good question, and my best answer is that the closest thing I’ve seen over the past ten years or so might be Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). Malick’s film doesn’t leap out as a natural companion to Lawrence of Arabia, but they have some similarities. First and foremost, they are intimate examinations of the effects of war—whereas Lawrence of Arabia focuses on one man, The Thin Red Line focuses on many. (“Every man fights his own war,” the very appropriate tagline reads.) Second, while Malick’s film has some of the ubiquitous Guys Getting Launched Into The Air By Explosions shots, it’s a film that puts more attention on the anticipation and aftermath of battles than on the battles themselves. Third, there’s the visual artistry—Lean and Malick movies are breathtaking to look at, and the filmmakers’ detractors sometimes suggest they are little more than that. I could go on, but in doing so we’d lose sight of this point: Does Malick make “mainstream” pictures? Not quite. Indeed these days it seems as if a film needs to be streamlined to be mainstream. And so if I were trying to recommend a recent “mainstream” (or close to it) picture that best conveys the size, aesthetics and intimacy of Lawrence of Arabia, I might go with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Of course, that isn’t a war movie. Nor is it a traditional epic. But it might be the closest thing we get to an intimate epic these days.
EH: There Will Be Blood is a good comparison point for all sorts of reasons, not least that both films concern themselves with monomaniacal protagonists, and that both films are introspective and “intimate” without ever really breaking through to the core of these unknowable men. The opening scenes of Lawrence of Arabia establish that this is going to be the story of a man who many people have heard of and formed opinions about, but who few if any have ever truly known or understood. Though the film then digs deeper into Lawrence’s character, suggesting a great deal about him—his white guilt, his conflicted bloodlust/pacifism, his idealism butting up against his more practical streak—he always remains a mysterious figure. Lean resists the impulse to explain too much, to make things too explicit, which is both frustrating at times and also the key to the film’s overall success.
Lawrence of Arabia is thus a contradictory and multilayered film, much like its ambiguous hero. It delves into Lawrence’s mind and motivations, but retains the sense of mystery that leads one man at his funeral to respond to the question “did you know him well?” with a qualified “I knew him.” Too many biopics pretend to know their protagonists so well that every act, every moment, can be explained and understood, and the result is that the essence of a real person is reduced to a simple and limiting interpretation. Lean’s film occasionally stumbles into this same trap, but more often allows Lawrence to simply exist onscreen, to move and act with a will of his own, avoiding pigeonhole characterizations. It’s a masterful balancing act, a description that could also apply to the film’s deft handling of both small personal moments and large-scale landscapes and action sequences. It’s a big film, but never so big that the details get lost.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.