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.