Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Dreaming in Technicolor. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Running at 216 minutes, the quintessential epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and extravagant features in film history. Directed by David Lean, who received much clout and admiration after the award winning Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), spent approximately a 15 million dollar budget constructing the lavish sets, paying for an inordinate amount of 70mm film strip, and doing everything without the advent of computer technology. Shooting in both Spain and the Arabian Desert, Lean turns to grand landscapes which speak for themselves, captured with much detail and great authenticity.
The film is considered by many to be a great cinematic achievement, though much of it would be considered filmed theater.
The film is considered by many to be a great cinematic achievement, though much of it would be considered filmed theater. The desert serves as a grand stage where the actors in lavish dress, appear in dramatic fashion. It is obvious that they are in roles; Arabians played by whites with perfect English does not go unnoticed. This is not exactly a fault, much of early cinema was the attempt at filmed theater, and since the story was originally shown on the stage, it makes sense that Lean approached it with a theatrical agenda, even including music during the opening and intermission for attendees to use the loo.
There is something lost, however, when a film borrows too liberally from the other arts: it removes itself from cinematography. Instead of utilizing the camera as a means of creating drama, a theatrical film relies primarily on acting performances. One scene wherein Lean features cinematography is the young Arab boy’s death. The shot transitions from a close up of Lawrence’s devastated face to a long shot wherein the left of the frame reveals the empty space in quicksand where the child has sunk. Emotion here is conveyed entirely through the camera’s eye. Throughout most of the film, however, the camera is not used in such effective ways, it is instead given the perfunctory role of capturing dialogue and acting. Furthermore, the set—i.e. stage-often feels overly controlled, as if props rather than natural elements of the story. Critic Pauline Kael once said, to devastating effect, that David Lean’s work was “ploddingly intellectual and controlled”, and in many ways this is most true of Lawrence of Arabia. It is therefore much easier to respect Lean’s ambitions than it is to be truly moved by the filmmaking itself.
In its entirety, Lawrence of Arabia feels rather mythical-fictional than archaeological/ethnographical. Though it supposedly documents the actions of a living person, the film wears its fictional rhetoric on its sleeve.
Shot in 70mm Technicolor, the film boasts deep focus, deep space, and a rich colour palette. Set in the present day 1960s, the first scene of T.E. Lawrence racing his motorcycle is a brilliantly shot tracking scene bursting with life. The tracking here would be paralleled in a later scene when a boy on a camel races towards our hero. The softer tones of the desert landscape and the painted sun are equally expressive, as are Peter O’Toole’s white garb and blue eyes. Along with the use of deep focus cinematography, David Lean nods to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), by creating a story within a story, where the first scene shows our hero dying and the next a reporter searching for his life’s meaning. The rest involves a multi-layered examination of the man’s most enormous feats as well as its effects on himself as a person.
A quiet, humble Englishman with certain homoerotic tendencies, T.E. Lawrence approaches the Arabs first as a genius of strategy and warfare. His inner demons surface as warfare leads to death, both directly and indirectly at Lawrence’s hands. In an impressive scene, Lawrence kills the man he once saved, fulfilling role as both creator and executioner. The stark blue background matched with the cold blue of his eyes, Lawrence shows what he is capable of: killing a man. He fears what he might become; he fears his own extraordinary capacity for killing and for leading men in war. He self-deprecates while others claim him a hero, giving support to his latent god-complex. After a vicious beating and rape, he tries to walk away from it all, but he cannot escape what is written. He is instead sent towards his ultimate destiny as a heedless, unflinching war leader. When he is unable to truly bring unity between the blood-feuding Arabs, he realizes his powerlessness in the situation. Though revered a hero, he is humbled and ashamed of his actions.
Lean utilizes a grand orchestral score to lend the film further epic-ness. Moments wherein the landscape is presented as glorious exalting nature are complemented by the soundtrack, while Lean chooses to bring silence or pause in the orchestral score during times of psychological inquiry. The silence allows diegetic sounds such as sand blowing or lip quivering to come into focus. It is all done to great effect.
In its entirety, Lawrence of Arabia feels rather mythical-fictional than archaeological/ethnographical. Though it supposedly documents the actions of a living person, the film wears its fictional rhetoric on its sleeve. It has a commitment to the fictional and does not feel the need to complicate its nature by attempting to show us the past. This is a cinematographical achievement. It is through this commitment to the aesthetic that the film is forgiven for certain inaccuracies and political incorrectness. Everything is bizarrely clean and Peter O’Toole has a ton of makeup. Even when he is dirty, he is dirty with makeup. This is not neorealism; this is staged cinema, a small step away from theater. It is a monumental epic which brings to screen a fictional-theatrical rendering of a man and the fascinating events surrounding him. It does not claim to be anything else, and this is its greatest achievement.
Running at 216 minutes, the quintessential epic, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), is undoubtedly one of the most impressive and extravagant features in film history, easier to respect than to be truly moved by.