By Niall McArdle
Every month my good friend Beanmimo has devilish fun putting together a fiendishly difficult movie trivia quiz. Recently he stupefied me with a piece of Lawrence of Arabia trivia. It seems impossible to imagine anyone other than Peter O’Toole as the effete and enigmatic T.E. Lawrence, the British soldier who was partial to Greek philosophy and who led a disparate group of Arab tribes against the Turks. And yet when the project was in development, none other than John Wayne was considered for the role. Yes, John Wayne. Try to picture Duke wrapped in robes and standing atop a sand dune or calling for an attack on Aqiba.
I was so flummoxed by the thought, it reminded me that I haven’t watched the film in some time. It is a magnificent spectacle, no doubt, beautifully shot by Freddie Young in “Super Panavision” 70mm widescreen.
Four hours of widescreen vistas of the desert and Maurice Jarre’s overwhelming score might be a little much to take, particularly as by the film’s end Lawrence still remains a mysterious figure. What exactly is his motivation? Is he in love with the idea of an Arab nation or is he simply determined to fulfil an Oxford-educated romantic notion of desert nomads? Is he there for Arabia or is he there for himself?
The British, who betray him and the Arabs at Damascus, regard him as a peculiar figure. The Arabs think he’s an Englishman who dreams of the desert, while the cynical American reporter thinks “he was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey.”
The film made a star of O’Toole: with his piercing blue eyes and blond hair, he’s almost a dead ringer for Lawrence. He improvised the scene where he admires his reflection in his dagger and looks at the shadow cast by his robes.
Among the British are Jack Hawkins (blustery), Anthony Quayle (who always looked slightly constipated to me), and Claude Rains (customarily smooth). Their Arab counterparts are played by a tent-chewing Anthony Quinn, a dignified Omar Sharif and a relaxed and wise Alec Guinness.
Arthur Kennedy is the reporter and Jose Ferrer is the Turk who tortures Lawrence as well as … well, it’s left to the audience to decide what else happens; Ferrer strips O’Toole and is rather taken with the paleness of his flesh and his lovely blue eyes. There are no women in Lawrence of Arabia.
There was a time when David Lean made smaller, perfect films: Brief Encounter, Hobson’s Choice, Great Expectations. After The Bridge on the River Kwai, though, he fell in love with spectacle filmed in 70mm. Spectacle is all well and good, but I still think four hours is an awful long film. Still, it could be worse: it could star John Wayne.
I watched a beautifully restored version on DVD, and there is a 50th anniversary BluRay available too.
- Lawrence in Arabia Died in Arabia (halsmith.wordpress.com)