#698: "Lawrence of Arabia" Excerpt
JL: Adam, at intermission of Lawrence of Arabia yesterday, your son Holden joked that we were getting the 4D experience.
JL: We're in the midst of a sweltering last gasp of summer here in Chicago and the Music Box Theatre was having trouble with the A/C. So things were a little warm - far more humid than the endless deserts of the film, but it certainly added to the sensory experience of seeing 1962's Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen in 70mm. It was also I think appropriate for Lean's style of cinema. We'll get to some of his smaller stuff in our top five lists I'm sure but mostly he was known for movies with broad, sweeping shoulders that fully immersed you in their environments and adventures. Lawrence of Arabia, which traces British soldier T.E. Lawrence's military campaigns in the Arabian Peninsula during World War One, clocks in at about three hours and 45 minutes and was filmed mostly in Jordan and Morocco in super Panavision 70.
AK: Now can I stop you right there because I feel like maybe I was duped a little bit. Did one of you? You or Sam? try to convince me that this movie was only about three hours long for some reason I had it in my head that it was like 170. I had no idea it was 216.
JL: It wasn't me. I knew it was over 3, but it was still longer than I thought.
AK: Oh yeah
JL: But that could have been the heat.
AK: Could have been.
JL: Either way, watching it, you couldn't help but feel as if you're in that desert sands stretching as far as the eye can see or at least as far as the massive screen will let it. So even in 2018, audiences are eager to return to Lawrence for that visceral experience. I think even more so at an age when many of our movies are overrun with green screen technology and filmed in warehouses. That's the obvious reason it's regarded as a classic. What I'd love to hear, Adam, is if after just watching it again, there are any other reasons Lawrence of Arabia strikes you as special besides its bigness. What are the little things or at least the non-70mm things that Lawrence of Arabia still has to offer?
AK: Well there were a couple of big surprises for me this time and this is the second time I've seen it the first time on the big screen. I don't even remember how long ago it was, maybe six or seven years ago. Watched it at home one Sunday afternoon. I don't know what it was exactly, but this felt to me like I was watching it for the first time and it was a wonderful experience despite the balmy temperatures there in the Music Box Theatre. But there were two surprises for me this time: one related to form the other to content. The formal element is the way he cuts between scenes. Simply, his transitions. Like throw out all the all the grand shots and the epic scale of it all, the grandeur of it all, just those transitions. And some people might be listening who know Lean's films well and thinking "Really? That was a surprise for you? That's kind of Lean's thing." But I wasn't aware that going into Lawrence of Arabia despite the films I've seen. Looking back at my notes for Doctor Zhivago when we reviewed that here on the show and preparing for the top five that became more evident to me but I hadn't done either of those things before I saw Lawrence this weekend. And I was just blown away by the cutting. And it's so much more than just the really famous match cut near the beginning that I'm sure we'll talk about a little bit more as we get into the show. But the use of sound in those cuts, the way we get a photograph the reporter is taking a picture of Laurence and the flash. The cut comes right on that flash and we get that burst of light and sound and then that matches the burst of sound of a horse galloping in the next shot as a horse with a messenger on board is coming with a message for Lawrence. And maybe the more showy one - and film is just full of these great touches - but the more showy one being where that same reporter is showing his business card to one of Prince Faisal's men and then in the next shot that card is in Prince Faisal's hand. So maybe minutes past it might have been hours that passed or maybe even a whole day and it's all gone simply in one cut. And I wonder if there are people listening, many filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers out there who have maybe never felt compelled to study lean, maybe they had a perception of his style of filmmaking as old-fashioned and on this grand scale that doesn't appeal to them. And, based on stuff like that, Josh, they're missing out because those editing choices are just great storytelling that I think apply to all cinema no matter how big or small.
JL: Well they feel very modern to me in watching it as well. It struck me as something that maybe you just see more often now in contemporary films and in the moment does seem out of place with something that's regarded as maybe you hear about the running time and you know that a lot of it does - is the tracing of travelers across vast landscapes - and I think there are good reasons for that, but I would never describe this as a languid film?
JL: Or that it drags in any way and I think a big reason for that are some of those cuts that you picked up on for sure.
AK: The content surprise for me though it does ultimately dictate so much of the form as well is how sad the movie is. Did you remember how sad Lawrence of Arabia was, how complicated and how tragic a figure Lawrence really is?
JL: I did not at all because I think I saw this the last time when I was much younger than I initially thought. I at one point thought I had seen this in a restoration on the big screen before and maybe I did in the 90s or the 80s, I'll have to look when that happened. But really what I think I was remembering was seeing it on television because my picture was just of 'Lawrence the Adventurer.' As somebody a small boy would look up to and think "I want to be like that guy." You know, I want to have these adventures that he had. And I had completely forgotten about the mournfulness. Now, it did strike me as very much of a piece with "Doctor Zhivago."
AK: Yeah totally.
JL: It's a huge element. And that's a film as you mentioned we just saw for the first time in the last few years.
AK: I think "Bridge on the River Kwai," too. You can link elements to Colonel Nicholson, make connections.
JL: For sure. But Lawrence shares a lot of tracking of images over the results of warfare, the devastation the loss that "Zhivago" has and it really struck me that even in the characterization of Lawrence there's definitely a tragic element that I had forgotten.
AK: Yeah, I think I still thought of him even having seen the film as I said six or seven years ago as this kind of colonial heroic figure and the film is going to be this affirmation of what a proper Englishman is capable of with the right education and the right spirit. And not only does the movie constantly subvert those notions, any idea that he's this kind of white savior who is going to deliver freedom to the savage Arabs is absurd - even though at one point that's what Lawrence states as his own mission. But he's a broken man, a totally broken man by the end of this movie and actually well before the end of the movie. I keep thinking about O'Toole's demeanor, everything about his performance on his first trip back to the British base in Cairo after he's kind of the conquering hero and he comes back. He's covered in sand and dirt. He's exhausted. He's wearing clothes that aren't natural to him, aren't natural to this environment at the British base. And yet, he's comfortable; he's totally in command of himself. He's talking to the general, General Allenby, with his leg up on the fountain and he's dictating the terms of everything - even if he's probably not as in control as you like to think he is; he does have that kind of authority. And then you compare that to his return to Cairo. The uniform now doesn't fit. This is much later in the film. He almost looks like a kid playing dress up as a soldier. You know the legs don't go all the way down to the shoe; and he's shaky. He is suffering from some kind of trauma at this point and he even moves awkwardly like a kid who doesn't know how to behave around these men. And of course then we can go to the very end of the film when he's around his own people again at the base in Damascus and Prince Feisal played by Alec Guinness here says what is undoubtedly true, something like what he owes him is "immeasurable." But Lawrence doesn't even hear it. He's walking out of the room, he's not even in earshot when he says it and it's hardly a moment of triumph. So I think back to the prologue, the beginning of the film, where it opens with his death and of reporters asking questions. Did people know him. How well did they know him. Give us a comment about him. And one of the men questions whether or not he really deserved to be buried there I guess at Westminster, with all that pomp and circumstance. And I really took that at first here as just that clever device: OK, so now Lean's going to show us…
JL: How he did deserve it.
AK: Why he really did deserve it and maybe some aren't going to fully appreciate his legacy, but now as viewers we're going to get to see the truth; but the truth really here, like Lawrence himself - I think Faisal says that at one point, he says that Lawrence is a double edged sword. And I didn't expect Lean to make the swords so sharp on both sides.