Seeing David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen in a packed huge movie theatre was awe-inspiring and also quite interesting. I know the movie quite well, and have seen it and studied it at home. I recognize its power, I love its humor, its spectacle, and some of the images are burned in my brain forever, as I suppose is the case for everyone who loves this movie. The ship floating above the sand dune. The first approach of Omar Sharif. The famous cut between the lit match and the blazing Arabian desert. Famous images, part of the lexicon of our culture. Film as a high art, film as entertainment. What I had anticipated, in seeing it on the big screen, was to really get a sense of the scope of the frame, the hugeness of the images, built for a giant cineplex. I was also anticipating to be blown away by Maurice Jarre’s incomparable score, one of the best scores for a movie ever. All of these things were true. The massiveness of the desert, its glimmering watery mirages, the way the actor’s heads go above the horizon, even when they are in the foreground, highlighting the unearthly flatness of it all … is meant to be seen on the big screen, there’s just no other way around it. I felt like I had never seen the movie before. The score is even more impressive, blasting out all around us, and it pierced me with its emotion, drama, and boldness. It makes me miss real scores. The Jarre score is the high watermark, for sure.
But what really struck me, what I am really left with, and what I had NOT anticipated, was the sheer mystery and odd-ness of Peter O’Toole’s performance. Believe me, I have noticed it before, and I think that is one of the reasons the film is so compelling and bears up under multiple viewings. You cannot get to the bottom of Lawrence. His motives fluctuate and glimmer, like the mirages at the horizon. You think you have a handle on who he is, and then … in the next moment … you’re not so sure. It’s a unique performance. There is no romantic entanglement to muddy up the waters. We see him only as a political strategist and seducer (the scene with Anthony Quinn when Lawrence tells Quinn he will join up with them “for his pleasure” is the closest thing to a love scene in the entire picture), and yet he is not the typical do-gooder hero, despite his heroic actions on behalf of other people. From whence did his ideas spring? Why? Wherefore? How did he “get the idea”? It is not made clear.
Is he one of those “sand-mad Britons”? The accusation is thrown at him from various sources. He’s “gone native”. But he hasn’t. With his bright blonde hair and blazing blue eyes, he could never truly go native. But something drives this man forward, something eats him up inside … and seeing the performance on the big screen was a true revelation, in terms of the depths O’Toole plumbs. It goes to the center of the earth, whatever it is he is doing as Lawrence. His language is often oblique, and yet often direct. He keeps personal feelings out of it. And yet he vibrates with the intensity of his own personal convictions. He is courageous and reckless, and careless to the point of self-destruction. He is not swaggeringly macho. In fact, he is the opposite. In one scene, when he goes back to Cairo after his three months in the desert, he is called over by two commanding officers, and he literally SKIPS over to them, his hands flipped up at the wrist, for all the world like a 6-year-old girl. He SKIPS. How did he get away with that? Why did Peter O’Toole make that choice? It’s fanTAStic and looks much much different on the big screen. Unlike other performances that may be great but are easily explained (say, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, for example), O’Toole’s becomes more mysterious the more you watch it. But it’s all there in his haunting bizarre eyes, which seem to take in all that is before him, but also appear to be always looking deeply inward. At what, we can never know. O’Toole is playing The Man, but he is also playing The Myth. Lawrence was both, in his own life, and in our memories of him. O’Toole’s voice remains gentle and whispering, so that when it gets guttural or commanding, there is a shock to the viewer. When his emotional power is unleashed, the sensation sitting there in the dark is like being grabbed by the throat. When he is forced to execute the man he saved from the burning anvil of the desert, I heard a woman behind me gasp and moan to herself. Yes. That is the visceral power of what O’Toole brings to that horrifying moment. In that moment, everything changes for him. The tribal reality, something he tried to help them fight against, was inside him. It had to be done. But in that moment, he seemed to lose something of himself. Forever. He was never the same again.
Like I said, all of these things are obvious when you watch it at home. But the experience changes when seeing it as it was meant to be seen. The performance actually seemed to change, once the venue changed. It expanded to fill the space. This is not always the case with famous performances. But this one was built for a huge screen. O’Toole knew what to do, intuitively, to draw that camera in, into his soul. But what really struck me was how much is still not known. How huge and palpable the performance is, and yet how un-pin-down-able, at the same time.
There is also the consciously “fey” quality O’Toole brings to it, which also reads quite differently when seen writ large. It’s not that it’s not there on the small screen, it’s that it expands to take up more space in the cineplex. It is overt, not covert. If I had to label it, I would say he was clearly playing a gay man. O’Toole embodies it as a character trait, never explained or delved into, it has no place in the story itself. But it has its place in O’Toole’s eyes, and in his manner with other men. Power politics is often a case of seduction. Power politics also requires that you allow your potential enemy to “save face”, to have a way out. To get someone to your side, you must show them their own self-interest. It cannot be, as the British are so often portrayed in the film, as white people condescendingly telling the quaint Arabs what is good for them. Ironically, Lawrence is doing the same thing, only his concern is that the British assure the Arabs that the British have no interests in Arabia. He says it multiple times to his superiors. You can tell he is not taken seriously. But this is a matter of life or death to Lawrence. He knows what he is doing. The tribal warfare must end. As long as the Arabs continue to bicker amongst themselves, they will always remain a “silly small” nation. If they band together, though … they could actually expel the Turks. This is the future he wants the Arabs to see. Similar to Gertrude Bell, another sand-mad Briton, who was partially responsible for creating the borders of current-day Iraq (and she is buried in Baghdad), Lawrence was in love with the Arab culture, felt far more comfortable with the sheiks than in the officer’s mess, and felt that great things would happen if the Arabs could decide to fight for their own self-determination. Good intentions often have unintended consequences. Gertrude Bell fought hard for the people of what is now Iraq, and fought hard to fight for their interests in her dispatches back to Britain. But isn’t this just another way of meddling? And don’t we see now what problems these arbitrary borders, created with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, have caused? Ask the Kurds about Gertrude Bell. But again, who could really know that at the time?
O’Toole seems to suggest, and again, it comes from the depths of the earth, and is merely suggested rather than spoken out, that he DID know what was coming, and he sensed the perilous quality of the revolution he was helping to foment. None of it would work if the British didn’t remove themselves once the Arabs took over. Lawrence could have been played as a naive well-meaning revolutionary. In O’Toole’s hands, he is not. He is a tormented individual, who seems (at least that’s what I saw in his eyes, projected enormously in front of me) to see the future, he senses what is coming, he senses the helplessness of what he is trying to achieve, and he knows that, ultimately, it will fail. And yet this does not stop him (indeed it spurs him on) to continue fighting for the strategic position of the Arabs, and he continues pleading/demanding his case to his superiors. But he stands in the courtyard in Cairo, draped in dirty white sheikh’s robes, and all of the other military men clamber at the window to stare out at this odd bird, and in the pose he takes – one foot up on the lip of the fountain, arm draped over his knee at the elbow – he looks like his own Statue of Himself, erected years after his own death. Ozymandias, crumbling to dust in the desert. It is a self-conscious pose (Lawrence is one of cinema’s most self-conscious characters), and yet filled up from within. The Man has become The Myth. It is a heavy burden to bear. It crushes Lawrence. The knowledge of the future, and its pains and tragedies, flicker through his blazing eyes. He knows where we all are going.
The mystery, though, and it’s a wonderful mystery, is how Peter O’Toole manages to do all that. It is not a mystery that is meant to be solved. The mystery stands, unsolved, onscreen. Not only that, but the mystery grows larger, more inexplicable, more pronounced, when the screen gets larger. Peter O’Toole’s majesty expands to not only fit the space, but beyond it. It explodes out into the movie lobby, onto the street, reverberating around the blocks outside the movie theatre. It followed me home last night. It entered my dreams. It is still with me this morning.
It remains one of the greatest cinematic performances of all time.