Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

It’s funny how a man with such a plain name could leave such a huge mark upon film history.  I was most pleased to learn that Lawrence of Arabia was directed by David Lean, whose fascinating film The Bridge on the River Kwai provided insight into various complex issues while retaining a dynamic visual flair.

Lawrence of Arabia is a continuation of many of the themes addressed earlier in Kwai; for instance, both films focus on how people relate to war, how people act during war and how war can change one’s perspective on duty and nationhood.  Also emerging from Lean’s meditations on war is the grey area between friendship and conflict and what arises between the two.

It feels as though Lean says that unity is often a product of conflict.  I know it’s true from my schoolyard years that a deep animosity can result in a great friendship, possibly beause of the intensity of feelings one invests in a hatred of another.  In Kwai, Nicholson and Saito gradually develop an understanding of one another, and in Lawrence of Arabia, it is the somewhat mistrusted outsider who leads the Arabic tribes to unity.  Amidst this clashing of cultures and the conflict of the tribes, Lean manages to find a way for his characters to rise above petty squabbles and suggests that it is natural for humankind to join together for the greater good.

In saying that, all is not rosey for the Arabic tribes at the close of the film.  Intense bickering dominates the council as the Western model of governance fails to serve the needs of the tribal Arabs.  One gets a very visceral sense of the fierceness of the Arabic people, and a renewed respect for a part of the world which is today so fraught with jumbled representations it is near impossible pass a legitimate judgement upon.

Lean’s casting in Lawrence of Arabia is stunning.  He casts Alec Guiness, the lead from The Bridge on the River Kwai, is a supporting role as a Sheik Prince, and his blackened face make-up would be horribly racist were it not for the superb performance he gives.  And Peter O’Toole, whose name has become synonymous with the role of Lawrence, gives a quirky performance best remembered for the stunning shots of his luminous blue eyes.

No mistaking, the film is long.  It’s an epic, afterall, but it is quite a massive epic. Thankfully there is consistently amazing cinematography (who knew there were so many ways to film a desert?) and an equally resplendent musical score.  Here’s a question though – if this film were a work of fiction, would we still consider it a masteripece?  We could well read the film as a racist tale about a colonial outsider uniting the tribes of ‘lesser’ desert-dwellers, were it not that the film is a true story.  Actually, does the fact that it is a true story change anything?  I think it does, but I’m really not sure why…

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

In The Bridge on the River Kwai, a battalion of British soldiers are ordered to surrender themselves as prisoners of war.  As hostages they are pushed by their Japanese captors into physical work and forced to construct a rail bridge for their war enemies.  During the course of the film the bridge comes to take on a symbolic dimension; amongst other things, it represents the need for faith and strength when faced with the problem of adversity.

I think that my key response to this film rests in it’s similarities to Frank Lloyd’s incredible winner from the 1930’s, Mutiny on the Bounty. Both are fascinating studies of control; how does one assert and maintain one’s position of power?  In The Bridge on the River Kwai we watch, for the better part of the film, the English Colonel Nicholson and the Japanese Colonel Saito jostle for power in the form of the word of law to, as with Mutiny on the Bounty, an assertion of power through violence against bodies.  In some instances this violence is in the form of actions against the body, such as Saito’s beating and long imprisonment of Nicholson, and in others it is through the physical task of building the bridge, thereby enforcing the idea that the body, and by extention the self, belongs to a higher being or entity.

This idea of self runs through the film as a dichotomy between east and west.  Saito sees himself as being governed by a higher authority, employing the idea that the whole is greater than the sum, and thinks that his prisoners should follow suit.  Nicholson works hard to keep his officers from having to work, thus asserting the clause of the individual.  What is playing out is not just a clash between war enemies, but a clash between cultures and attitudes toward subjectivity: how does one ‘bridge’ this gap (see what I did there)?

A stunning performance in this film from Alex Guinness, who won a Best Actor award for his role as Nicholson, but even finer still in my opinion is the amazing performance from Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as Colonel Saito, whose raw and intense acting might well be my favourite across these pictures thus far.

The film’s climax puts us into a difficult position.  We should by now have learnt that the sum is greater than it’s parts.  The bridge over the river has been an instrument for the soldiers to get them through their imprisonment.  When the climax hits, it’s no wonder Nicholson responds with such passionate anguish.  He’s stuck between his personal feelings – pride and accomplishment at having completed his task – and the greater good of his own nation – knowing that Britain, and himself by extention, must destroy this bridge if they wish to win the war.  Thus, in the film’s final moments we see a crystalisation of the heart of the film’s major thematic conflict – the individual, or the group?

I wonder if I sense a faint whiff of 1950’s anti-communism here.  And fair enough too – it’s important to open a dialogue about these things, and On The Waterfront never really did justice to higher questions of unionism and capitalism. But whatever we’re supposed to take away from it, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a focussed, fascinating and compelling film.