Although The Boy had seen (and loved) this movie when it was aired for its 50th anniversary, this was The Flower’s first viewing of the film and she was, as she put it, surprised. It is, I agreed, a rather surprising film. The opening sequence has Lawrence dying in a motorcycle accident, and then features a funeral where a wide variety of viewpoints are expressed, most commonly “I didn’t really know him”. And here is a 220 minute film, after which, the audience isn’t really sure they know the man—nor even if the man knew himself.
I’m not sure if she liked it. I think she did. I think she thinks she did. But it wasn’t what she was expecting. Lawrence was a complicated man. If I had to describe him, it would be as someone who saw the opportunity to do a great good, but who then touched off a sort of megalomania in himself that was definitely not good. I can’t fault him for it: A certain amount of megalomania (or something very close to it in appearance) might be necessary if you are doing grandiose things, like leading a people out of slavery.
And the fact that he fails, finally—the British did take over, the Bedouin never really could get past their tribal roots, nor have the Arabs done that yet, really—doesn’t really diminish the scale of what he was trying nor the successes that he did have.
Cinematically, it’s the sort of film that maybe shouldn’t work, though it does, and is virtually unthinkable today, on so many levels. It’s a historical drama and, as we all know, history is very problematic. It portrays Arabs as backwards savages. It portrays a white man trying to save them (and failing because they can’t grasp what he’s getting at). Women are hidden (Bedouin culture), or (briefly) cheerleaders, ululating on the hills. Or, they’re raped and brutalized, leading to a brutal slaughter. The only actual Arab in the cast is Omar Sharif.
And that’s just the content.
The style is long, sometimes static shots of the desert, as a figure emerges from the distance. It’s amazing how compelling this is, how an audience of moviegoers will strain their own eyes trying to make out a shape on the horizon (which, y’know, you can’t do because it’s a film and it’s not in focus until it’s focus, but still you try), and how effective this is at creating a sense of scale, privation and just plain reality.
Also: It made $70 million at the box office, which I think pretty comfortably put it at #1 for the next couple of years: El Cid, another highly problematic film released earlier that year, made a whopping $30M at the box office. The next year would see the release of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, which would come close by making $60M. But it wouldn’t be until the following year, with From Russia With Love that another film would pass Lawrence (with nearly $80M). Well, okay, the numbers are a little dodgy, as Hollywood’s numbers always are—gotta screw everyone!—and Box Office Mojo says the movie only made $45M, but the point stands. It was hugely popular.
There aren’t a lot of 3:40 minute movies I can bring myself to watch, but once again, I feel like this is a movie I could easily watch again. The Boy, too, was very excited by it, because there was so much he had missed the first time around. It is just an amazing picture on so many levels.
Ben Mankiewicz said there was a $100,000 screen-test done with Albert Finney. You look out on the desert and see the hundreds, maybe thousands of people, all camping out in the desert. (There probably were some mattes in there, but there were definitely a LOT of people, too.) You hear Jarré’s unforgettable score, with the theme played approximately a zillion times in the four hours, and you just get an amazing sense of competence at every level combined with no meager aesthetic brilliance.
It is a wonder.