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A desert Warfare Spectacle: 'Lawrence of Arabia' Opens in New York

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Kritikerstimmen zu David Leans “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962):

A Desert Warfare Spectacle: 'Lawrence of Arabia' Opens in New York

Like the desert itself, in which most of the action in "Lawrence of Arabia" takes place, this much-heralded film about the famous British soldier-adventurer, which opened last night at the Criterion, is vast, awe-inspiring, beautiful with ever-changing hues, exhausting and barren of humanity.

It is such a laboriously large conveyance of eye-filling outdoor spectacle—such as brilliant display of endless desert and camels and Arabs and sheiks and skirmishes with Turks and explosions and arguments with British military men—that the possibly human, moving T. E. Lawrence is lost in it. We know little more about this strange man when it is over than we did when it begins.

Sure, a lean, eager, diffident sort of fellow, played by blue-eyed Peter O'Toole, a handsome new British actor, goes methodically over the ground of Lawrence's major exploits as a guerrilla leader of Arab tribesmen during World War I. He earnestly enters the desert, organizes the tribes as a force against the Turks for the British, envisions Arab unity and then becomes oddly disillusioned as the politicians move in.

Why Lawrence had a disposition to join the Arab tribes, and what caused his streak sadism, is barely hinted in the film. The inner mystery of the man remains lodged behind the splendid burnoosed figure and the wistful blue eyes of Mr. O'Toole.

The fault seems to lie, first in the concept of telling the story of this self-tortured man against a background of action that has the characteristic of a mammoth Western film. The nature of Lawrence cannot be captured in grand Super-Panavision shots of sunrise on the desert or in scenes of him arguing with a shrewd old British general in a massive Moorish hall.

The fault is also in the lengthy but surprisingly lusterless dialogue of Robert Bolt's over-written screenplay. Seldom has so little been said in so many words.

There are some great things in the picture—which runs, incidentally, for 3 hours and 40 minutes, not counting intermission. There is some magnificent scenery, barbaric fights, a mirage in the desert that is superb (the one episode in the picture that conveys a sense of mystery). And there are some impressive presentations of historic characters.

Alex [sic] Guinness as the cagey Prince Feisal, Anthony Quinn as a fierce chief, Omar Sharif as a handsome Arab fighter and Jack Hawkins as General Allenby stand out in a large east that is ordered into sturdy masculine ranks by David Lean.

But, sadly, this bold Sam Spiegel picture lacks the personal magnetism, the haunting strain of mysticism and poetry that we've been thinking all these years would be dominant when a film about Lawrence the mystic and the poet was made. It reduces a legendary figure to conventional movie-hero size amidst magnificent and exotic scenery but a conventional lot of action-film cliches.

It is, in the last analysis, just a hugo, thundering camel-opera that tends to run down rather badly as it rolls on into its third hour and gets involved with sullen disillusion and political deceit.

  • Bosley Crowther (Special to the New York Times), 1962


Size and scope of production is but one factor in a true epic film, as Lawrence illustrates. Certainly, the film features some of the most breathtaking widescreen images of the desert ever photographed (by cinematographer Freddie Young); Maurice Jarre's famous score is appropriately grandiose; and the pushing-four-hours run time more than satisfies any notions of "epic" length. But all of these are trimmings to the seemingly paradoxically intimate story of a larger-than-life legend--T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who united the Arab tribes to combat the forces of the Turkish Empire. For all the stunning shots of windswept dunes and battle sequences featuring a cast of hundreds, this is the study of a man in deep conflict: between two cultures, and also between his mission as savior and his surprising, savage bloodlust. Then-screen newcomer Peter O'Toole navigates the complex nuances of the still very enigmatic man with precision, and his Academy Award-nominated performance leads a stellar ensemble that includes the likes of Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and another then-unknown, Omar Sharif.

  • Michael Dequina (, 1990

What more can be said about "Lawrence" that hasn’t already been said by critics more literate and observant than myself? Filtered through Lean’s direction, Robert Bolt’s and Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Lawrence’s own journals, and O’Toole’s enigmatic debut performance, Lawrence was a conundrum, flaunting the convention of previous epic portrayals. Gone was the nationalism fervor of Roderigo Diaz saving Spain in "El Cid" or DeMille’s Victorian Moses, stoically parting the Red Sea for the children of Israel. The great gift of "Lawrence" to world cinema was that the film was as much an "interior epic" (as Scorsese once said) about the inner turmoil of a hero as how his intervention stirred a nation to martial and political action.

  • Ed Peters (


The epic film is inevitably associated with the cult of the hero. This masterpiece, recounting the amazing feats of T.E. Lawrence during the First World War, and showered with Academy Awards, seems at first glance to fit the mold. In fact, Lean quite deliberately breaks it, and this has caused a good deal of misunderstanding.

The picture's impeccable craft - superb photography (Freddie Young), sound, editing, music, and production design - practically needs no comment. It boasts an hypnotic lead performance by Peter O'Toole, with fine supporting work from Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness. It is arguably the finest achievement in the widescreen format (Panavision, in this case). Lean's camera placement and composition, his patient dramatic sense, the intelligence and subtlety of the performances he elicits, inspire admiration if not outright awe.

Ironically, though, the film's magnificent scope and beauty has tended to obscure its unusual purpose. For the figure at the movie's center is not the unconflicted hero of popular fiction, but a deeply ambivalent and eccentric loner who becomes permanently scarred by his adventures.

Lean's subversion of the hero myth is spelled out clearly by the contrast between the movie's two parts, separated by an intermission. (Oh, those were the days, when you could have an intermission!) The first part depicts the ascent of Lawrence the hero - gaining the trust of the Arab fighters through understanding of their ways, the daring trek across the wastes to take Aqaba, his incredible rescue of the comrade who has been left behind in the desert, his death-defying journey to Cairo. In the midst of this, we see hints of what is to come - Lawrence hates the imperialism of his own country; he identifies with the Arabs to the point of donning their garb; he is intensely revolted by his own attraction to violence and killing.

In the second part, Lawrence has become unbalanced by his success. He falls prey to messianic delusions. A traumatic experience in Deraa, where he is briefly captured incognito by the Turks, closes him off even to his friend Ali (Sharif). The love of battle overrides his strategic sense. Lean supports the shift in mood with stylistic changes. The rhythm is choppier, with an almost impulsive quality. His camera movement becomes restless. A sardonic note sounds, especially in the character of the newspaper man played by Arthur Kennedy. Even Maurice Jarre's gorgeous musical theme becomes muted in tone, sometimes sounding tentative or sinister. The picture ends in a most unusual way for an epic - with anticlimactic irony and understatement.

Lawrence of Arabia is the portrait of a man's collapse, and through that an indictment of the collapse of sanity which is war itself. (Side note - try to spot a woman in this film, and good luck to you.) The tragedy of this conception, and the intelligence with which it is executed on screen, makes it unique among film epics. David Lean employed the art of the spectacle in a new way - to reveal the suffering and the waste behind the facade of glory. He used the mythic mode to explode the myth. That's what ultimately makes the film a masterpiece that will endure, long after other epics have become outdated.

  • Chris Dashiell (CineScene), 2001


Glorious Lawrence

This film is great in many ways. The acting is superb, particularly the performances of O’Toole and Sharif. Each man brings compassion, warmth, and depth to his character. In addition to the acting, the cinematography is magnificent. Lawrence of Arabia is best viewed on a large screen in its original 70mm format. This film is visually exciting and stimulating. There are glorious shots of soldiers and armies traveling across the huge sandy hills of the desert regions. In one shot, the sun rises against the hills of the desert, and the camera beautifully captures the colors of the sunlight at dawn. The Maurice Jarre score is luscious and dramatic, frequently building to crescendo at climactic scenes. The music also helps to emphasize a particular sentiment or emotion. When Lawrence first begins his venture across Saudi Arabia, the landscape is breathtaking, and the musical score induces a sense of awe that the audience experiences at the same time as Lawrence.

Unfortunately, the screenplay is not flawless. Although this film is best described as an adventure movie, the dramatic plot is laced with political motives and overtones that can be complex to follow. A large cast of characters, particularly the ever changing regiment of English officers, leads to confusion as to what each country’s motive is in this war against the Turks. At times, one is not sure if any of the characters in the film are interested in Lawrence’s heroics. He might be an intelligent leader of the Arab army, but how much is he liked and respected by the white (non-Arab) men in this film? With a running time of nearly 3 ½ hours, these questions are drawn out and the film’s epic nature almost defeats itself. Viewers might find the importance of these political subplots inconclusive, at best. This film is worthy of at least one viewing simply for the beautiful and moving cinematography. The acting is also first rate and fresh, even some thirty-eight years later. One does not simply watch Lawrence of Arabia--one experiences this film.

  • Catherine Lucy (CineScene), 2000


This film contains quite a bit of violence, including an execution, a caning, and a massacre. Of course, there are also battle scenes, but none of these scenes are depicted as graphically as they would be today. Lawrence is something of an egomaniac, but his personality and the problems it causes him make an excellent tool for discussion of how men can destroy themselves when they do not rely on Christ for their strength.

Everyone should see this film... eventually. It is not for small children, but teens can probably handle it. Besides being a masterpiece of film making and acting skill, and a wonderful tool for discussing the pitfalls of pride, it also sheds a lot of light on the origins of the modern problems in the Middle-east.

  • Thomas C. Quinlen (Christian Spotlight on the Movies)


The Burden of the Empire

From its spectacular Super Panavision widescreen cinematography, to Maurice Jarre's gorgeous soundtrack and compelling performances by Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif, Lawrence of Arabia is a stunning "classic." Originally released in 1962, the film was honored with a variety of awards, including seven Oscars, five Golden Globes, and three British Academy Awards. It is also rich in subtext, from the intricacies of imperialistic politics to racial difference and homosexuality.

It is noteworthy that nearly 40 years after its original release, Lawrence of Arabia presents a narrative that deeply resonates with current world events. The Middle East, so much beloved by T.E. Lawrence, remains a brutal battleground well after its independence from the Turkish and British Empires; for example, the "democratization" of Iraq took place after the neo-colonial military intervention of the U.S. and the U.K. The message and criticisms regarding colonialist policies and racial anxieties presented in Lawrence of Arabia remain timely.

Loosely based on T.E. Lawrence's own autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the film tracks his experiences as an officer stationed in the Middle East during World War I. Educated at Oxford, and possessing some knowledge of Arab culture, Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) was quickly appointed as military advisor to Prince Feisal. In this capacity (so the story goes), he played a pivotal role in the Arab war for independence from the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

In his day, Lawrence was so renowned that he was buried in the London Cathedral, usually reserved for queens, kings, and other prominent members of the royal family. Much of his celebrity, however, was a consequence of U.S. and British media images of him as a gallant warrior against imperialism (the Ottoman Turkish Empire was an ally of the German and Austrian Empires during WWI). As we are reminded by Lean's film, Lawrence's exploits in the sand dunes were used to influence public opinion in the hopes of coercing a hesitant U.S. to join Great Britain in the War.

In this vein, Lawrence of Arabia celebrates the victory of the oppressed, locating the British on the "right" side and plainly demonizing the Others. (The only major Turkish character is an officer [Jose Ferrer] who captures, sexually abuses, and tortures Lawrence.) But complexities abound, in part stemming from the movie's source. As much as he loved Great Britain, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence opposed and felt ashamed of British imperialism. Just so, Lawrence of Arabia reveals British self-serving policies, as when Lawrence requests arms for the Arabs to fight the Turks. A diplomat (Claude Rains) refuses, saying, "Give them artillery, sir, and you've made them independent."

Less insightfully, the film renders racial differences between the British and the Arabs stereotypically. The British are played mostly by blondes, and appear as well-dressed "soldiers and gentlemen." On the other hand, the dark-skinned Arabs are dirty, violent, and primitive. Lawrence, however, makes a telling transition: at first conventionally British, he slowly morphs into an "Arab." This change takes place not only in the way he looks, as his skin turns darker from the sun and he dresses in local clothing, but also in his sense of morality.

The change is most obvious in his relationship with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). At first, Lawrence is shocked by his brutality: "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." Later, Lawrence confesses to having enjoyed killing two innocent men, and after he's been tortured, he orders the massacre of an entire Turkish regiment. Even if Lawrence's brutality could be justified as righteous revenge, the fact that the regiment is mostly composed of injured soldiers in retreat makes Lawrence more aggressive and vicious than Sherif Ali.

As Lawrence changes from white to "Arab," the film also hints at his homosexual tendencies. This is done, albeit indirectly and ambiguously, by relying on the popular representation of the male homosexual practitioner as a feminized, seemingly androgynous character. After Lawrence rescues a member of Sherif Ali's posse, who is lost in the desert, he is given Arab robes as a sign of gratitude. According to Lawrence in Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the British uniform was completely inadequate for the desert and he genuinely welcomed the Arab robes. In the film, though, after he dons his Arab drag Lawrence wanders into the desert, and when he thinks he is alone, starts dancing and modeling his new garments, a bizarre performance featuring decidedly "feminine" gestures.

At the same time, Lawrence of Arabia constructs a homosocial world, with Lawrence as the feminized object of male gazing and homosexual desire mediated by the rhetoric of friendship. Unknown to Lawrence, Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) has been watching him intensely as he was modeling the Arab clothes. Sherif Ali and his men constantly look at Lawrence with admiration and friendship, and at times, with desire as well. All these seemingly hyper-masculine men who stare at an asexual Lawrence become as sexually ambiguous as Lawrence.

These moments are not wholly condemnatory, of either performer or spectator. Lawrence's potential homosexuality (as well as that of the Arabs) demonstrates his (their) freedom from the cumbersome moral and social repressions imposed by a "civilized" imperial culture. Lawrence of Arabia paradoxically depicts the Turkish and British Empires as similarly repressed oppressors.

In this regard, Lawrence of Arabia illustrates the many complexities found in the relations between colonized and colonizer. As history has shown, these intricacies usually remain in effect, for all intents and purposes, even after the conquered becomes independent. Unfortunately, these dilemmas have no easy solution and continue to affect our supposedly postcolonial world.

  • Marco Lanzagorta (, 2003


One issue not addressed directly is Lawrence's sexuality. Widely believed to be a homosexual, Lawrence lived in an era when gay men did not flaunt their same-sex preferences. From clues in the screenplay and particularly from some of the effeminate mannerisms O'Toole exhibits, it is clear that Lawrence of Arabia's title character is intended to be homosexual. Identifying this, however, requires a little reading between the lines. In 1962, a major motion picture could not have been made with an overtly gay protagonist - even if it had been released, it would have died at the box office.

Seen from an historical perspective, Lawrence of Arabia takes its share of liberties with the facts, as was the case with many of the great epics of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Normally, this particular consideration wouldn't rate a mention, but, lately, certain movies (The Hurricane and A Beautiful Mind, in particular) have come under fire for not maintaining a strict adherence to the established historical record. It should be noted that Lawrence of Arabia, although based on T.E. Lawrence's memoirs, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom", does not pretend to be a documentary, and, as such, should not be held to the same strict standards of factual accuracy. This is an adventure movie and a character study, not a pictorial version of a history text book.

  • James Berardinelli (, 2002

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