I was 10 years old when I saw Lawrence of Arabia. It was an event. This was a big, big film. To this day, they don't come much bigger. It had an overture, if you can imagine. It was almost four hours long. It was filmed in Super Panavision 70 millimetre. It had a soundtrack, by Maurice Jarre, that would knock your socks off. It had an intermission -- because, so some clever press agent had managed to convince the world, the audience would be so thirsty by the time we'd crossed the Nefud desert and had taken Aqaba that we'd all be crawling down the aisles to the oasis of the concession stands begging for ice cream and orange crush.
Almost four decades later, on a recent grey and rainy Sunday, I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the second time. Friends of ours had noticed that it was playing at a local revue cinema. Our children had never heard of it, much less seen it. So we were invited for a brunch to be followed by an epic afternoon spent en famille with David Lean's masterpiece.
Now, I'm not a big fan of brunches -- not because I don't like buck fizzes and smoked salmon on bagels and French toast and the animated buzz of conversation that occurs when you have twenty or thirty cups of coffee with good friends before noon. It's just that I never know what to do afterward. There's something a little deflating about gassing yourself up with caffeine and alcohol and carbohydrates and then, after bidding farewell to fellow-brunchers, marching back into the world and finding yourself faced with . . . a Sunday.
If you share this complaint, allow me to make a suggestion. Have brunch. Then go see Lawrence of Arabia. Say what you will about David Lean's old-fashioned directorial instincts, they sure fill up an afternoon.
Almost forty years after I first saw the riding, wavering shape of Omar Sharif, as Sheik Ali Ibu el Kharish, slowly, slowly, slowly emerge through the desert haze at the well at Masruh; almost forty years after I first watched in horror as the young Bedouin, Daud, disappeared into the quicksand of the Sinai; almost forty years after I sat, spellbound by the spectacle of forty horses leaping off the side of Turkish boxcars and then being stampeded across the desert by Anthony Quinn -- after so much time, and after so many intervening films, I was amazed at how much of Lawrence of Arabia was still with me.
Scene by scene, the memory of each came flooding back. Time and again, I was a second or two ahead of a narrative I had no idea I could recall so vividly. Before seeing his face, I remembered that it was Gasim, the Bedouin Lawrence had saved in the Nefud, that Lawrence would have to execute in order to keep the peace between the feuding tribes of the Howeitat and the Harith. When, crouched beside a railroad track, the young Ferraj tucks a detonator into his belt, I winced immediately, already knowing what was about to happen. And when Lawrence and his Bedouin servant appear like dust-encrusted apparitions in Cairo and are told, after Lawrence has ordered two tall lemonades with ice at the bar, that "this club is for British Officers," I knew what Peter O'Toole's masterfully delivered reply would be before he uttered it: "That's all right. We're not particular."
Which brings me to what, forty years after its premiere, remains the most striking thing about Lawrence of Arabia. Now remember, this is a film that probably could have got by on the grand, sweeping scale of its landscapes, its period detail, its battle scenes and its majestic musical score. On their own, its budget and its cinematic logistics would have been impressive enough. This is a film that had a veritable rock of Gibraltar of a supporting cast: Alec Guinness, Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins, Donald Wolfit, Claude Rains. This is a film with a screenplay by Robert Bolt and cinematography by Freddie Young. To say nothing of being a film directed by David Lean. And still, all these extraordinary and spectacular qualities notwithstanding, Lawrence of Arabia is a movie about an actor acting. It is a film about the performance of a young, little-known Shakespearean actor with unearthly blue eyes who sank his teeth into a role as few actors ever have. One thing I had forgotten about Lawrence of Arabia is that the opening credits say, "Introducing Peter O'Toole."
So now, the morning after this year's Academy Awards, I find myself still thinking about my recent Sunday afternoon at Lawrence of Arabia. Thinking, for instance, that one of the reasons O'Toole's performance remains so unforgettable is that the character of Lawrence was allowed by screenwriter, by director, by producer, by actor, and, perhaps, by audience to be as complex, as enigmatic, as subtle, and as maddeningly contradictory as real people often tend to be. (As opposed, by way of contrast, to the characters in American Beauty.) I find myself wondering what young filmgoers of today will go to resee any of this year's contenders 40 years from now and discover, to their delight and amazement, that scarcely a single scene has been forgotten in the interim. And were I one of the celebrated talents who won an Academy Award last night, I would, as a small gesture of humility, remind myself that on this morning 38 years ago, a young actor with unearthly blue eyes did not wake up with an Oscar. e-mail:
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