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Oscar Blogathon-Lawrence of Arabia

February 9, 2012
David Lean seems to have a love affair with the Oscars, with most of his movies, being regularly nominated and winning. A master of the spectacle, a brilliant visualizer too, add to it, his  penchant for drama, solid characterization and plotting, ensured his movies would always be eternal classics. Lawrence of  Arabia  swept the Oscars, taking the Best Picture, Best Director and a whole lot of technical awards, deserved every one of them. This is my entry for the 31 Days Oscar Blogathon at  Once Upon a Screen.

Yes. It was my privilege to know him and to make him known to the world. He was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior. He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey.

Who  was the real Lawrence of Arabia?  A Hero, a rebel, a warrior, or  an egomaniac, a show off.  T.E.Lawrence  was just the kind of  character  whom Hollywood fancied  making a story on. The lone wolf adventurer out  there  in an exotic land,  having  his own weaknesses,  violent,  reckless, egomaniacal. A man who actually managed to unite the warring Arab tribes against the Turks. Yet , his attempts ended up in failure,  with the Arabs  squabbling among themselves, once their war against the Turks was over.  David  Lean  had already made a name for himself  as a formidable directing talent, in Britian with his back to back adaptations of  Charles Dickens  Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.  Not to add some wonderful dramas like Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter and Hobson’s Choice.  Earlier in 1957 he  had  come up with one of the finest World War II movies  ever  The Bridge on the River Kwai,  to date regarded as one of the greatest movies, which had also  swept the Oscars.  Bridge on the River  Kwai, had confirmed  David Lean as one of  the best directors of  epic movies.  What  characterized  Lean’s movies were the way he combined  the spectacle with the drama  and the characterization.  Bridge on the River  Kwai  was not just on the daring mission, but also of  Col Nicholson, whose commitment to duty and honor, makes him the target of  hate  by his own countrymen.
Omar Sharif enters
Lawrence of  Arabia,  has the spectacle, the  epic feel, the camera sweeping over the deserts, in fact the shots of the desert, were  way  ahead for those times.  But  what elevates  the movie over just  another costume drama  is  the  way  Lean, brilliantly  uses symbolism and imagery, along with  solid characterization to tell the story.   Take the scene where  Lawrence( Peter O Toole, making a memorable debut), is informed  of  his departure to Arabia, he stops  a burning match with his finger, and the camera lingers on the match, slowly morphing into a visual of the blazing sun and the desert.  The  symbolism is unmistakable, Lawrence now will have to be facing  much  tougher challenges  than just stamping out  a burning match.

Sherif: …You are angry, English. He was nothing. The well is everything. The Hasimi may not drink at our wells. He knew that. Sa’lam.
Lawrence: Sherif Ali, so long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are.

The  most memorable  scene  however follows next, the introduction of  Sherif Ali(Omar Sharif).  Lawrence and his Bedouin guide Tafas are drinking at a well, they see a speck on the horizon, and it slowly zooms into focus, showing the visage of  Ali.  What  follows however is a shocker,  as  Tafas  is shot dead by Ali, his fault  drinking  at  the well of  a rival tribe.  The irony , Ali in fact is one of  the more educated men, he studied at Cairo, throughout the movie, he appears cultured and refined.  Yet  he seems unable to rise above his tribal identity, the poor  innocent  Tafas  shot dead, just  because he belonged to a rival tribe.The tribal identity  would be Lawrence’s  biggest  challenge in uniting the Arabs, a problem they still seem to face to date.
Sir Alec Guiness as Prince Faisal
Lawrence manages to win the favor of  Prince Feisal( Sir Alec Guiness), again another brilliantly conceived  visual moment, with Lawrence  emerging out of  the smoke, in Feisal’s camp that has been under attack  from the Turks, almost like a Savior.  Feisal  understands  that  the Arabs with their primitive weaponry  are no match for the Turks  more sophisticated weaponry their tanks and howitzers. The British however  just  wanted to use the Arabs as a pawn, their  main aim was to secure control of the Suez canal, so  that  it  would not  fall into German hands. Lawrence  was used to keep the Arabs busy fighting the Turks, so  that  the British could  secure the canal in the meantime. When Colonel Harry Brighton( Antony Quayle)  has the discussion with  Feisal, Ali and Lawrence in the tent, their aims are very much apparent, something  which even Feisal and Ali are aware of.  One reason why I consider the movie is a classic, is  the way  it  depicts  the  strategic moves of the  concerned parties,  and the geo politics involved.

 The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped. And on this ocean, the Bedouin go where they please and strike where they please. This is the way the Bedouin has always fought. You are famed throughout the world for fighting in this way and this is the way you should fight now.

I.S.Johar as Qasim
Lawrence understands well the Arab pysche, he knows that  the only way they can fight out   is the way they know best.  Feisal is  however suspicious of  Lawrence’s  sympathetic attitude, calling him a “Desert loving Englishman”,  he reminds  Lawrence  of  the time when  Arab civilization  was much more advanced than the English. Again another  brilliant  scene in the movie, Lawrence trying to reach Aqaba, through his dash across  the  Nefud  desert.  Watch out the scene, where  Sherif  Ali  tries to reason Lawrence against his  adventure  through  Nefud, he thinks  it  is an insane option.  Nefud  is  one of the more notorious deserts, which even the hardened  Bedouins avoid  going into, a place from where  no man returns alive, and here the Englishman  trying to  reach the Turkish stronghold of  Aqaba trekking through the desert.   Sharif though joins him on the mission along with other men, which is where he encounters  another bedouin  Qasim( I.S.Johar in a memorable role),  who admires  Lawrence. The camera work is  just outstanding here, capturing  the bleakness of the desert, its  swirling sandstorm,  and a memorable  scene, where Lawrence goes back to rescue  Qasim, who had fallen way  behind. Again Sherif Ali  warns him against going back to rescue Qasim, saying  it would be sheer lunacy, Lawrence, disregards him and manages to get back a grateful Qasim from there, in a brilliantly shot scene. This  act of  recklessness,  courage, is what makes Ali admire Lawrence for the first time, and which is where he gets his  Arabian name El Aurens too.
 Auda: I carry 23 great wounds, all got in battle. 75 men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemy’s tents. I take away the flocks and herds. The Turks pay me a golden treasure yet I am poor, because I am a river to my people .Is that service?
The scene where Lawrence throws his  British military uniform into the fire, and begins to dress like an Arab, signifies his transformation, physically and mentally too in a way. He still remains a loner though, being his own man, a leader  now, but  still aloof  from the Arabs. In fact Lawrence  was the quintessential outsider, a neither here nor there man, to the Arabs he was always the Englishman,  and none of his British officers accepted him for  a whole host of  reasons, or maybe for the fact  that  he  did not play along with their schemes and strategies. Another memorable  confrontation follows  this time with  Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn),  the chief of the rival  Howeitat tribe,  Sherif Ali belonged to the Hashimis.  Again the conversation  with Auda is revealing, when Lawrence  says he is here to work for the Arabs,  the latter, contemptously asks him “Who the Arabs are”. The fact is  there was no specific Arab identity, it  was like the tribe first, race next  and the nation last, characteristics  that can be still found even now.  The scene between Lawrence, Auda and Sherif Ali is again worth a watch, primarily due to the way, Lawrence plays on Auda’s  weakness  and  the rivalry between Auda and Ali.

Sherif: It was execution, Lawrence. No shame in that. Besides, it was necessary. You gave life and you took it. The writing is still yours. 

One  really moving scene, though  when Qasim  is executed by  Lawrence just to resolve a fight between the  rival tribes  that seems to be getting out of hand. Both Sherif Ali and Auda are shocked, that Lawrence  could execute  the man, he saved in the desert from dying. Which again makes it more enigmatic, who was the  real Lawrence then, the romantic  reckless hero, who  ran back to save Qasim from the desert, or the cold  hooded pragmatist, who had no qualms in killing him, in the larger interests of Arab unity?  It is apparent though that Lawrence  was guilty about his killing of  Qasim, the expression in his eyes says it all. Lawrence’s  humane side is again revealed, when one of his helpers Daud sinks in a quicksand( another brilliantly shot scene), and he  is unable to save him.

Undisciplined, unpunctual, untidy. Several languages. Knowledge of Music, Literature, knowledge of, knowledge of …You’re an interesting man. There’s no doubt about it. Who told you to take Aqaba?

The battle scenes are brilliantly shot, especially the final attack on Damascusand the Arabs initial attack on Aqaba. Also the scenes where Lawrence has the confrontations with the British officers over his policy with the Arabs.  A perfect mix of spectacle, detail and drama, Lawrence of Arabia scores  with its depiction of the murky politics, inter tribal rivalries and some solid performances. For both  Peter O Toole and Omar Sharif, this  was their debut movie, and both of them are exceptional. Peter O Toole effortlessly blends into the character of  Lawrence, showing the arrogance, the egoism, the recklessness superbly, sad that he had to lose out on the Oscar to an equally brilliant performance by Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Omar Sharif  as Ali,  apart from his  introduction, proves an able foil,  pragmatic,violent and a bit arrogant at times. Antony Quinn one of the more underrated actors, is as usual  brilliant  as  Auda, the proud, self respecting tribal chief Auda, one actor who never fails to deliver, and Sir Alec Guiness  displays another superb performance as Prince Feisal.
  1. Superb, nostalgic, want to watch it all over again.

  2. Great Post! One of the all time great movies with a brilliant star cast. If I had to think of a perfectly made movie, this would be it! Saw it at least four times in the movie hall and twice at home!

  3. David Lean was a marvelous filmmar. Even his lesse works, as Brief Encounter, are great. Lawrence is a masterpiece of cinema. I thought it was going to be a bit boring, but time flew as I watched it. Five stars, totally!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    • Did read your blog, great piece I must say. Yes this is one of the best movies ever made, and the camera work was way ahead of it’s times too.

  4. An epic write-up on this epic film. Had to do that. 🙂 Really great reading. Sharif’s introduction in this is gorgeous, one of the most memorable in film history as you state. I love this film although must admit I have to be in the mood to watch it. It’s an investment on many levels – time-wise and emotionally, I find. Ever gorgeous to look at.

    Thanks much for participating in the blogathon! Great addition.


    • Thanks for comment, this is the kind of movie that must be watched at leisure, the camera work is just outstanding here. And so also the performances, writing. This is one movie that has aged well with the times.

  5. Great post. Thank you for sharing at The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party.

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