This review originally published at lwlies.com
In 1990, following the re-release of the newly restored 1962 cut of Lawrence of Arabia, the American Film Institute presented David Lean with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The award itself was presented by Steven Spielberg, who in his presentation speech spoke generously of the formative influence of Lean’s late-period epics on his own filmmaking career, citing Robert Bolt’s screenplay as, “The best ever written”. Whether we share Spielberg’s sentiments or simply choose to forgive an hyperbolic attempt at rehabilitating a major filmmaking talent, seemingly more susceptible to the undulations of critical favour than most, it’s interesting to note that the single line of dialogue upon which this monolithic pillar of cinema ultimately hinges is attributable to its director rather than Bolt.
It’s Lean himself who at the last minute dubbed the part of the serviceman calling out to Lawrence as he finally reaches the Suez Canal following a near-fatal desert crossing. We see the bizarre juxtaposition of a ship seeming to cross the desert on the horizon, hearing the soldier repeat from afar, “Who are you?”, the defining question in a film that paints an intimate portrait of psychological tragedy on one of the grandest canvasses in the history of cinema.
Of all the miracles readily apparent on screen; from Freddie Young’s cinematography to John Box’s dressing of the mirage sequence, or Peter O’Toole dancing in the sunlight aboard the crashed train (shot by Andre de Toth and Nic Roeg’s 2nd Unit) as Maurice Jarre’s score swells; from Lean’s single-shot orchestration of the raid on Aqaba to the visual onomatopoeia of cinema’s most breathtaking ‘match’ cut (sorry, Stanley); perhaps the greatest is that it even made it there in the first place. T. E. Lawrence was vehemently opposed to the idea of anyone adapting his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom for the screen, telling the writer Robert Graves in 1935 that, “I loathe the notion of being celluloided. My rare visits to cinema always deepen in me a sense of their superficial falsity… vulgarity, I would have said, only I like the vulgarity that means common man, and the badness of films seems to me like an edited and below-the-belt speciousness.”
Yet the legend of Lawrence of Arabia was one borne out of cinema, an heroic enigma that grew in public consciousness less from literary autobiography than from the travelling newsreel roadshows and lectures of Lowell Thomas, one of the few war correspondents with direct access to Lawrence, treading a path that had similarly mythologised figures of the Wild West on the other side of the Atlantic. By the time Sam Spiegel acquired the rights from the estate trustees in 1959, the story of Lawrence of Arabia had already become the stuff of schoolboy legend, cemented through various stage and biographical investigations (Lean’s own Prince Feisal, Alec Guinness, had even played the title role in Terence Rattigan’s Ross in the West End). Many valiant but frustrated attempts were made by previous rights-holder, Alexander Korda to bring Lawrence’s story to the screen throughout the 1930s and 40s, but myriad factors from script disapproval to international relations at the outbreak of war served to thwart them, leaving it to the propaganda machines of the Soviets (the 1930 film Visitor from Mecca) and Dr. Goebbels (Uprising in Damascus) to mount their own assaults on his legacy.
Lean and Bolt sought to demythologise Lawrence, to disavow any Kipling-esque, ‘Cowboys and Indians’ heroism for something that aspired to Shakespearean tragedy, happy to play fast and loose with historical veracity if it served their portrayal of a flawed, neurotic genius; a modern cinematic Hamlet. Theirs is no hagiography. If there’s one aspect that prevents Bolt’s outstanding screenplay from quite reaching the dizzying pedestal upon which Spielberg places it, it lies in its overstatement of Lawrence’s contradictions, the “no one ever knew him” assertion with which the film begins, building towards the answer, “least of all Lawrence himself”. Peter O’Toole’s performance never shies from Lawrence’s preening narcissism and arrogance - his barbarism, even - yet effects a remarkable counterbalance in his compassion and his emotional and strategic intelligence. T. E. Lawrence himself stipulated in an early contract that there should be no women in his screen story, and Lean obliges by keeping his alleged homosexuality close to the surface. Lawrence’s well-documented masochistic tendencies certainly leave the Deraa rape sequence open to performative interpretation.
Whoever T. E. Lawrence was, Lean’s masterpiece remains an interpretation of unparalleled ambition, it’s 313 day shoot lasting as long as the Arab Revolt itself. This new 4K restoration of the 227 minute Director’s Cut glistens in a way Lawrence of Arabia never has before, a concurrent Blu Ray release serving to mock even the most expansive home cinema set-up. It’s a film made for the cinema; a film, in fact, for which cinema itself was made, and there will be no more monumental, awe-inspiring big screen experience this year.