Tuesday, October 14, 2008

How to watch Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had to be watched in two nights. That’s just how long it is. Yet the duration of the film makes up for the fact that we, the popcorn munchers, are viewing a film that stands the test of time and constitutes an epic by its own right. How strong an epic can be told when we watch it a second time. Once seen the first time, it takes another sitting to let all of its grandeur sink in.

I sat down to watch the movie knowing absolutely nothing about T.E. Lawrence nor of the events that surmounted his greatness. As such, the empowering soundtrack and the complexities of Peter O’Toole’s character made it difficult for us to understand the plot. Not to mention being awestruck by the arid scenarios and the immeasurable amount of extras, camels, horses, two lambs and one woman (yes one nurse with no dialogue). This is not a love story nor a romantic expedition. This is an action packed adventure of a stranger in a strange land who decides to make the conquest his own. And the complexity that evolves throughout the plot is that one is enraptured by the transformation of Lawrence as he goes from unabashed cockiness to famed greatness and from then on to humiliation, resignation, triumph and obscurity.

There is a great piece of dialogue in the scene that we thought greatly explained the complexity of Lawrence’s personality.

T.E. Lawrence: I killed two people. One was... yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was... well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn't like.
Allenby: That's to be expected.
T.E. Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: Well, then let it be a lesson.
T.E. Lawrence: No... something else.
Allenby: What then?
T.E. Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

It is highly recommended that the film be watched after reading a small synopsis of the plot, so that one doesn’t worry about the names and the historical context and may concentrate on the sceneries and the superb dialogue. If you can see a map beforehand it will also solve much of your problems because most of the times we just followed Lawrence around like as we were following Moses to the Promised Land. Or have someone like Igor, who actually knows about the Middle East, sit down and watch it with you. He does not mind you pausing the film every five minutes to ask why the hell are they going to Azkaban (Aqaba). It is also amazing how the film is cut, be it through visual images or through overlooping sound from the next scene. There is a scene when O’Toole blows a match and the scene cuts directly to the rising Sun in the Arabian desert. We see many of them these days (think of the opening sequence of “The Lion King” when the song “Circle of Life” ends and it cuts directly to the opening title). Yet, as I understand it, this was one of the first times this technique was actually employed.

Do make sure you watch the documentary of the making of the film afterwards. It gives us amateur viewers a glimpse of what the director had in mind, the importance that the film was restored to its original length and the explanation of the turmoil’s that Lawrence passed through (he shied away from fame, but could not live without it, to paraphrase a comment made) and the necessary lesson that we remember this man, not for what he was to ultimately fail to achieve. Rather, why he failed in doing so. For the recurring theme in the film, regardless of understanding the plot, is to ask ourselves who is this Lawrence of Arabia? We are given so much of his personality, that we must figure out by ourselves what was really his greatness and what was really his failure.-

p.s. Moi welcome to our Popcorn Movie Nites!

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