Thursday, September 17, 2015
It's often said -- in fact, it was said in today's San Francisco Chronicle -- that Lawrence of Arabia is one of those films that must be seen in a theater. That statement kind of gets my back up: If a movie's story and performances are secondary to its spectacle, is it really a good movie? As it happens, I first saw Lawrence in a theater in the year of its release (or at least its European release, which was 1963), but it was a theater in Germany and the film was dubbed in German. Only moderately fluent in spoken German, I don't think I followed the dialogue very well, though I certainly appreciated the spectacle, especially Freddie Young's Oscar-winning cinematography. It took some later viewings on TV in the States for me to grasp the movie's story, though the film was trimmed for time, interrupted by commercials, and subjected to atrocious panning-and-scanning because viewers objected to letterboxing of wide-screen movies. So this viewing was probably my first complete exposure to Lean's celebrated film. And though I watched it at home -- in HD on a 32-inch flat screen TV -- I think I fully appreciated both the spectacle and the story. Which is not to say that I think the movie is all it's celebrated for being. The first half of the film is far more compelling than the latter half, and some of the casting is unforgivable, particularly Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony Quinn as Auda. Guinness was usually a subtle actor, but his Feisal is mannered and unconvincing. Quinn simply overacts, as he was prone to do with directors who let him, and his prosthetic beak is atrocious. Omar Sharif, on the other hand, is very good as Ali. The producers are said to have wanted Horst Buchholz or Alain Delon, but they settled on Sharif, already a star in Egypt, and made him an international star. His success points up how unfortunate it is that they couldn't have found Middle Eastern actors to play Feisal and Auda. In his film debut, Peter O'Toole gives a tremendous performance, even though he's nothing like the shorter and more nondescript figure that was the real T.E. Lawrence, and it's sad that screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson couldn't have found room in the script to trace the origins of Lawrence's obsession with Arabia. I recently read Scott Anderson's terrific Lawrence in Arabia: Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which not only depicts Lawrence's complexity but also the madness of the spy-haunted, oil-hungry wartime world in which he played his part. It's beyond the scope of even a three-and-a-half-hour movie to tell, though maybe it would make a tremendous TV miniseries some day.