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Posts Tagged ‘Peter O’Toole’

Well, here we are again: another year is about to drag its sorry carcass offstage, and the mind inevitably turns to the end-of-year best list, which it is surely morally incumbent upon all critics to produce, even amateur pretend ones. That said, I haven’t given it a great deal of thought yet, and there isn’t an overwhelmingly obvious candidate from amongst the films I’ve seen this year.

Candidates obviously have to be new films, which is probably just as well, or there’s a very good chance my top movie of 2012 would be one of the revivals I’ve seen this year, all of which have been good, and in a couple of cases revelatory. One should take a moment to feel grateful for the opportunity to see films like Touch of Evil, RoboCop, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp back on the big screen where they belong – and, to round the year off in majestic style, we have the golden anniversary re-release of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

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The 50th anniversary print is being displayed in the same format as the original release, with an overture, intermission, entr’acte (although to me this just sounded like the overture again), and so on. Thankfully there were no adverts, but even so I laid in a supply of iron rations and informed my next of kin of where I would be before setting out for what promised to be, if nothing else, one of the best value-for-money cinema experiences of the year.

The film opens with a brief overview of the questionable handling characteristics of the Brough Superior SS100 motorcycle, then begins in earnest in Cairo during the First World War. Here we meet Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a junior officer in the British Army. Something of an outsider, awkward and distant, Lawrence’s superiors are fairly happy to lend him to the Arab Bureau for an extended secondment: he is to travel into the heart of Arabia and make contact with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), an Arab leader engaged in a revolt against the Ottoman Turks in the region.

But Lawrence’s loyalties seem to be in question – is he there to serve British Imperial interests, or those of the Arab tribesmen he finds an immediate rapport with? Or is the furtherance of his own personal agenda – whether that be a thirst for a glory, or to sate darker appetites – really his driving objective? Whichever: his plan to outflank the Turks through a forced march across the most hellish part of the desert seems like the creation of a driven man…

For a film which concerns itself with a peculiarly national and historical subject, Lawrence of Arabia seems to have branded itself deep in the heart of global cinema. One gets a sense of generations of films being made in its shadow, by even the most American of directors, all trying to capture the magic that dwells here. But it some ways it’s not just the subject matter – a hero of the British Empire, and the politics of empire-building – but the very style of the thing that makes this so unusual: there are all sorts of reasons why Lawrence of Arabia wouldn’t get made in this form today, but one of the most obvious is that there isn’t a single speaking part for a woman in it, and women generally are a marginal presence throughout the film.

Including the intermission, this restored version of the film clocks in at a hefty four hours in duration, but you notice the length much less while watching it in a theatre. The intermission itself occurs about two-thirds of the way through, and – in addition to helping alleviate some of the stress placed on all-too-mortal flesh – does the film a great service by dividing it into two quite distinct parts. This split obviously isn’t there when you watch it in any other format, and possibly as a result I’ve found this film slightly unsatisfying on previous occasions.

The first two and a bit hours of Lawrence of Arabia comprise one of cinema’s greatest adventures: Lawrence’s first journey into the desert, his initial encounter with ambitious Arab leader Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), his decision to march on Aqaba and the perils of the attack itself. Is there a more overwhelming sequence in all of film than the initial scenes of the desert, miraculous cinematography in perfect harmony with Maurice Jarre’s soaring, passionate score? One has to keep reminding oneself that this was made the hard way – no digitally enhanced crowd scenes or backdrops back in 1962. Simply as a logistical achievement, this film is breathtaking.

There are so many memorable moments – Sharif’s first appearance, Lawrence risking his life to save a man who he later has to execute to save his plan, the first sight of the Suez Canal. And yet it is much funnier than I remembered, too – ‘This club is for  British officers,’ Lawrence is told when he and an Arab companion, fresh from the desert, try to get a drink. ‘That’s all right, we’re not particular,’ Lawrence replies.

This section almost works as a self-contained narrative in its own right, beginning with Lawrence leaving Cairo as a despised fool, only to return in triumph as a hero. It’s much more focussed in terms of story than the second section, but even here the question of Lawrence’s own character is repeatedly raised – does he have a death wish? Does he have spiritual delusions? He does not want servants but worshippers, someone observes.

The second part of the film is darker and much less of a straightforward action movie, dealing with both Lawrence’s burgeoning legend and the realities of war, both personal and political. The narrative is not quite so strong here and knowledge of the period is perhaps more necessary. The contradictions in Lawrence’s character again come to the fore, but the film – perhaps understandably – shies away from any sort of definitive answer, content to let O’Toole’s transcendent performance do the work, and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. Certainly, this is not a hagiography: there is a massacre towards the end of the film which Lawrence is depicted as fully participating in, while his attempt to ensure independence for the Arabs is also shown as a dismal failure. The infighting and squabbling attendant upon this attempt to make the Middle East democratic seem darkly prescient today, almost ringing down the ages to us now.

You can probably take issue with the overall historical accuracy of Lawrence of Arabia, and many people have, but this seems to me to be a film about the myth of the man as much as the reality – about how such myths get started, why we need them, and their effects upon the people they are based on. That it is blessed with a thoughtful, quotable script, magnificent direction and cinematography, superb performances from practically the entire cast, and  – of course – that score almost goes without saying. Lawrence himself remains an enigma at the heart of the film, but then again that is surely the point. They don’t make them like this any more – but then, they hardly ever did.

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