Lawrence of Arabia Writ Large

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.

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17 Responses to Lawrence of Arabia Writ Large

  1. Jake Cole says:

    I was so ambivalent about the film the first time I saw it, frustrated by its length and how hard it was to get a bead on Lawrence. Last night I was enthralled by both these qualities. To see the sand shifting, always shifting, on a big screen gave such new dynamics to shots that were already impressive. It turns the whole thing into some strange dream.

    But I was overwhelmed by O’Toole. I think so many films would have played Lawrence in the Avatar/Dances With Wolves/etc. mode, lionizing his “Arabia for the Arabs” stance and exalting his ability to inspire disparate tribes into unification. Lean, Bolt, Wilson and O’Toole are smarter than that. They know that centuries of tribal warfare and blood feuds were not, and will never be, ended by some paternal white force. In a lot of ways, Lawrence embodies the imperialism he shows such contempt for. I love the subtle but unmistakable way O’Toole always stresses “I” when he speaks of battle plans. Never, “the Arabs” or even “we,” always “I.”

    But by the same token, Lawrence isn’t just an ironic rejoinder to white man’s burden heroes. That would be just as easy as playing him as a straightforward liberator. There’s so much conflict in O’Toole’s eyes: revulsion, bloodlust, fervor and weakness. He never seems to come to terms with what it really means to lead a revolution, nor how his hatred for senseless carnage exists side by side with his enjoyment of killing. I went in expecting to be roused by the big screen spectacle, but I walked out feeling really disturbed.

    • sheila says:

      Jake – yes, it is the elusiveness and the lack of clarity behind his motives that MAKE the performance. I forgot to mention his ego and vanity. Your comparison to Dances with Wolves is a good one. There, Costner was so pleased with his liberalism and his honesty that he did not even question that this guy might have some other motive. Not brave enough. O’Toole (and the script, of course) shows the man in his vanity – I love how the first thing he does when he puts on the robe is take out the shiny knife to see his reflection. (That was O’Toole’s idea.) The film allows us to think: “God, the guy has a savior complex.” It does not excuse him for it. It elaborates upon it. But still: that’s not all there is. His pacifism and diplomacy were confronted in the harsh world of the desert – and yes, he found that he had a knack for this warrior thing. Similar to the last shot of The Searchers, you know that even if this guy did go on to live a long life – he would never quite fit in to the cozy little British world again. (Not that he ever did. The opening sequence on the motorcycle shows that!)

      It’s just such a great character.

      • Jake Cole says:

        O’Toole really embodies Lean’s direction and epic storytelling, which can seem impersonal in all the transition shots but reveals a great intimacy, and irony, upon closer inspection. I watched Lawrence of Arabia back to back in fairly quick succession years ago, not liking it the first time and loving it, but not really getting it, the second time. Having since seen Bridge on the River Kwai, I was especially struck by how Lean elevated the British film (albeit with Hollywood backing) to the level of spectacle of American filmmaking, but then he undercuts his own cinematic glory with scathing portraits of a dying empire.

        I actually thought of Bridge in that early scene where Lawrence manages to sit in with Brighton and Faisal. For those who saw Bridge before Lawrence came out, the “discipline” Brighton so proudly touts as the backbone of British superiority has already been seen in perverse, curdled form in Guinness’ mad performance in that film (and maybe that explains the faint hint of recognition on his face as he hears it as Faisal). Lawrence only takes the critique to a new level, and the only clear aspect of this fantastically multitudinous film is how poor and fatuous the British look as “liberators.” And how great is it that an Irishman gets to subvert perhaps the last great icon of British imperialism?

  2. DBW says:

    Wasn’t that awesome? That word is used too often, but it absolutely applies in this case. I had never seen this on the big screen, and I had tears in my eyes a couple of times. I’ve always been amazed by his performance, but, on the big screen, it was even more…I don’t want to say indecipherable…even more elusive, enigmatic, and just frickin’ brilliant. I completely agree with Jake–today, they would have played Lawrence in a completely different, completely predictable manner–and had nothing like the magic this movie possesses. Not to mention they would use CGI, and lose more of the magic. The cinematography is even more amazing than ever seen this large. Just Wow.

    • sheila says:

      The scene where Lawrence goes back into the desert to get the guy who fell off his camel – and his little servant-boy sits waiting, watching the desert … and then when Lawrence appears, as Omar Sharif did, as a flickering mirage at the horizon – and then the race towards each other …

      It is a superb sequence and it always moves me, but tears poured down my face last night watching it.

      So glad you guys all went out and saw it, DBW – so great, right?? Was it packed? Tell me about the venue.

  3. Kent says:

    LOVE it on the big screen, not so much as digital home entertainment. You must be held prisoner in the dry dry desert and tortured by Turks within the confines of a darkened theater soaking up the sensual stereo track in surround sound to fully appreciate intermission/exit music and Coca Cola in the lobby! BTW Anne V. Coates said the match flame/desert cut was hers. :)

  4. Kent says:

    okay Sheila, but first… I need some water… water… water… Coates simply said she put it together in the editing room. She and Lean both claimed it, but she has never backed down… and the lady don’t lie.

  5. Howard says:

    Born on 1958 in a small provincial North English town I was too young to see it on its first release but I remember my father taking me to see it in the early 70′s at the big cinema in Hull – I’d be 13 or 14. I had no idea what I was going to see but as soon as the match was extinguished and it flashed to the desert scene with Lawrence and his guie looking over the ridge, I was hooked. I must have watched this film approaching 50 times in about 4 languages. I watched it in Polish about 2 yers ago and I knew almost every line. O’Tool’s performance surely is one of the greatest acting performances of the cinematic era, bar none. I also reccommend “My Favourite Year” – not an acting tour-de-force, but watch it and tell me you didn’t enjoy it and feel better after it and I’m a wombat. Also watch Great Expectations and “Bridge Over the River Kwai” and you’ll see where Lawrence came from.

    P.S. I love your blog(s)

  6. sheila says:

    Howard – Hi! Thanks! Yes, it is certainly a movie to go back to again and again. Absolutely love it.

    I come from an acting background. It was my training and my career for a while. It is mainly what I write about and my “way in” to films. This is how I write. I’ve been doing it for years. You’re new, so in case you were not aware of my slant, I figured I’d get that out of the way.

    Of course I have seen Bridge over the River Quai (why do you assume I haven’t?) and my friends and I can quote My Favorite Year from beginning to end. (“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star.”) I’m not saying “I don’t know how he did it, please someone explain it to me”.

    I’m saying I am interested in the mystery at the heart of his performance as Lawrence, and that it looked quite different on the big screen as opposed to the small (but then: I wrote that in the post, didn’t I?). Hang around my site a bit more, and get to know me a bit better: I am all about discussing the nuts and bolts of performance and I love mystery. The best performances usually have a mystery at the heart of them.

    That is what I am interested in talking about and exploring. It’s been my main avenue of exploration with Elvis as well.

  7. sheila says:

    Speaking of which – it’s gonna be on TCM tonight!

  8. Howard says:

    I am neither erudite nor literary, just trying to take part.

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