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…