Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is one of those classic movies that I’ve always meant to get around to seeing some day. Conveniently, we now live very close to the famous Castro Theater, which shows all sorts of interesting movies. (I saw Vertigo there a while ago as well, along with a very strange film called I’m So Excited, but didn’t get a chance to review them before they faded.) On this occasion they were showing Lawrence as a double-feature with Dr. Zhivago, though I’m guessing very few people actually stayed for seven hours of movie.

Lawrence of Arabia is a three-and-a-half-hour story (with intermission) of British officer T. E. Lawrence’s efforts to unite the Bedouin Arab tribes against the Turks in World War I. Given three hours, you might expect that it gets bogged down, or goes into incredible detail, but in practice there’s simply a lot to tell.

The tone of the movie is very factual, by which I mean it mostly just lays out scenes very chronologically, almost mundanely. This isn’t Lord of the Rings, where every emotional response is displayed on the characters’ faces, the battles are epic, and the environments roll gracefully beneath the camera. Lawrence’s story is not made out to be epic from the start, and the cinematography reflects that “not-epic” feeling all the way through.

On a related note, there was fairly little music compared with recent movies. Part of this is the 60s: the occasional music cues meant to underscore the unforgivingness of the desert feel a bit campy and out of date now. But on the whole, the movie left us more free to choose our emotions, communicating its opinion through supporting characters’ veiled expressions and occasional close-up shots of Lawrence himself.

Calvin: I watched an old movie with Mom last night. It didn’t have any violence, explosive action, or swearing. There was nothing shocking about it at all.

Hobbes: Did you like it?

Calvin: It’s hard to say. Not having my emotions manipulated is such a weird experience.

(not that Lawrence was anywhere near absent of violence)

The movie has to deal with a dilemma: how can it show the struggle and toil of crossing the desert without feeling repetitious and losing its viewers? For the most part, I think they did a pretty good job of this, but there was one desert crossing where I simultaneously felt “that was it?” and “they’re not showing us anything new”. That said, it definitely felt like it set the bar for desert scenes, enough that they likely affected future movies, including a fairly well-known sci-fi movie from the 70s that starts out on a desert planet.

(I very much expected someone to jump up in front of Lawrence when he was using the binoculars.)

As for character development, the movie never even pretends Lawrence is an everyman. We’re introduced to him by being shown how he is different from all the other officers, and his initial behavior seems fairly shallow. In terms of heroic progression, it felt like he succeeded far too much in the beginning of the movie. In retrospect, perhaps it was no different from any other story in which successes come before a fall; it’s just that this movie has everything stretched out. All of this did, however, make Lawrence a bit harder to empathize with in the second half of the movie than he otherwise might have been, at least for me.

The movie ends (minor spoilers) with Lawrence just shipping out and going home, the Arab Union in Damascus seeming to have fallen apart. Not knowing my world history too well, I don’t actually remember what happens in Arabia immediately after that, so it was kind of an abrupt ending: an end to Lawrence’s involvement in the plot, but not to the plot itself, it felt. Then again, perhaps that was the point, and the movie was already past three and a half hours.

This whole premise—white man comes in and leads the native tribes to victory—is one that normally rankles quite a bit because of its presumption and arrogance, and also because it’s been beaten to death. In this case, though, I’ll give it a pass, because it’s based on a true story. It’s okay that this has happened in real life, and that someone then decides to make a movie out of it. I suppose we don’t know to what extent Lawrence shared his leadership with the other Arab leaders in real life.

What is unfortunate is the number of white actors playing Arab characters, but I guess that’s sort of par for the course in the 60s. (Prince Faisal is Obi-Wan Kenobi.)

So, overall? Lawrence of Arabia is a three-and-a-half-hour film that’s surprisingly unpretentious. It’s not slow, or boring, and nor is it fast and exciting. It doesn’t take too much effort to watch, and yet when you’re done you’ve seen a lot. In today’s world, where “Arabia” is no longer some exotic land, Lawrence has probably lost a bit of its mystique, but the based-on-truth aspect does help make up for that. Should you see it?

…could probably go either way, I guess.

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