Movie Night(s): Lawrence of Arabia

Yesterday, for one single night in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of its original theatrical release (December 10, 1962), select theaters across the country screened a special, digitally restored showing of the incredible, timeless epic tale of a war-torn country, and the englishman who brought about its victory.

I speak, of course, of Lawrence of Arabia. And I didn’t see it.

It was all my wife’s fault, of course. She was working late, trying to get home in time to put Little Satis to bed so I could go out by myself (oddly, no one I knew wanted to go spend four-and-half hours in a movie theater), and naturally, something came up. In the middle of experiments they were kicked out of the darkroom and not let back in again until 8:00 PM. The film had already started.

I wasn’t angry (of course); I understand how difficult and stressful her work is. But still – come on, it was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing! Maybe. So I did the only thing that made any sense: I trundled my way to iTunes, and bought the exact same, digitally restored, full 1080p HD four-hour-long movie. But geez, all I had to watch it on was a 40-inch television. How can that possibly compete with a 50-foot cinema screen?

Now would be a good time for some first-world-problem jokes.

The advantage, however, is that I am now able to share this incredible movie with Little Satis, who otherwise would have never had the chance to see it. We began watching it last night, continued tonight, and will (try to) finish it tomorrow. Did I mention that it’s four hours long?

I haven’t seen this movie since my childhood. My dad and I watched it over a period of several weeks on video, watching about half an hour at a time. This was a good idea. I’ve been watching it with Little Satis in stretches of an hour and a half. Not such a good idea.

Nonetheless, I’ve been impressed at how well he’s been sticking it out. He’s eight; I was about ten when I first watched it with my father. He has a reasonably good attention span, but I keep forgetting the nature of these younger generations. I was raised on a cultural diet of classical music and sixties movies, and ultimately enjoy a slow-paced movie. Lawrence of Arabia is certainly that. It’s one of those films that demands your attention, and refuses to reward you unless you listen to every word, and take in every sight. This is hard to do for an eight-year-old.

Nonetheless, he has been engaged. David Lean manages to draw up incredible suspense throughout the film, in a way that almost sneaks up on you – you don’t even realize you were on the edge of your seat until you’re allowed back down. An early scene that comes to mind is when Lawrence and his guide stop to drink at a well. A casual mention that the well is owned by a rival tribe is all it takes to set you on edge; when a speck appears on the distant horizon, you know something is going to happen. David doesn’t patronize the audience; this scene is agonizingly drawn out, as Lawrence and his guide wait, motionless, to discover who is approaching them at such a gallop, from such a distance. The shock, the final moment when the tension is released, doesn’t come until his guide is shot dead.

Lawrence and Tafas at the well, awaiting the mysterious rider.

Understandably, Little Satis’ curiosity picked up when the plot began moving along. After consulting with Prince Feisal, Lawrence begins the epic journey of leading an army of just fifty men across the impassable Nefud Desert, and once again we are tortured along with the men as they pace continuously along, stopping only for a few short hours in the noon sun. At one point, one of the men falls from his camel, and is not noticed until they are off the worst part of the desert (God’s Anvil, as it’s referred to). Against the advice of Sherif, a native Bedouin, Lawrence returns to save him. This leads later to one of the most heartbreaking moments in the movie, which I will spare for those few who haven’t yet seen it.

Lawrence and Feisal’s army, emerging from the Nefud Desert.

There are, of course, elements of the film that seem dated, if not outright preposterous today. An example is that, while an enormous effort was spent in creating as vivid and realistic portrayal of Arabia as possible (and one that stands to this day), casting Alec Guinness as a Bedouin prince just does not make sense. He is a great actor, and he is fantastic in this movie, but he is not a Bedouin prince.

These few points, however, do not detract from the film, and there are moments that are so gripping and intense that they can only prove the timelessness of this film. When Lawrence finally arrives back in Cairo, having taken Aqaba and lost a good friend on the return journey, he drags his young Arab friend into the British military headquarters, insists they treat him as their equal…and finally breaks down completely. Just thinking about it gives me shivers; well done, Peter O’Toole.

One of the things to me, though, that stands out about this film (and many others of its era) is the lack of pretentiousness. The audience is expected to work for this movie. We need to listen to every word, read every facial expression, and assume nothing. I recall this from watching early James Bond movies – before they became solely about blowing stuff up. And there is delightfully poignant and witty dialogue to be had; one of my favorites is a simple little line when Lawrence talks Auda abu Tayi into fighting with them to conquer Aqaba:

Thy mother mated with a scorpion.

Equally, when Lawrence talks of the frightening implications of having killed a man, summed up in a simple, excruciatingly delivered line:

No…something else. I enjoyed it.

It would be wrong to call this a masterpiece of modern cinema; it is a masterpiece of all cinema, to be remembered as one of the most ambitious and epic films ever made. We haven’t quite finished it, but I hope that Little Satis will have got as much out of it as I did at his age by the time we are.

2 thoughts on “Movie Night(s): Lawrence of Arabia

    • I have such great memories of watching this movie, and its been wonderful to watch it again, this time as a father. I don’t know if you live in the US, but the restored HD version is on iTunes for $19.99. I believe it’s also coming out on Bluray soon as well.

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