Lawrence of Arabia (1962) attracts followers so fanatical that the chance to see it in 70 mm would draw them to a theater every day for a month of Sundays. Now they have a chance to see it in 70 mm every Sunday in a month, starting this weekend through Sept. 2, at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring.
Especially in the days since Titanic, any film can be called an epic if the producers pour enough money and special effects into it. But Lawrence of Arabia comes from an era when epics boasted men and women of vision and appetite and the adventure of committing them to celluloid-filled theaters with a wind-storm of fresh air, not the whiff of the computer room.
In T.E. Lawrence, the visionary British junior officer and man of letters who helped lead the Arab Revolt against the Turks in the First World War, this movie had a hero who was equally complex and charismatic. In David Lean, it had a director who knew how to draw solid, towering characters in swirling landscapes. And, in Robert Bolt, it had a screenwriter who was eloquent both in argument and gaping silences.
The main source for Bolt and Lean was Lawrence's memoir of the Arab campaign, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Here are seven pieces of moviemaking wisdom to be gleaned from Lawrence of Arabia.
1. Dare to be great. Lean and Bolt and their star, Peter O'Toole, interpret Lawrence as star, playwright and director in a historical epic of his own making. Lawrence-as-actor is a coquettish but determined ingenue, using all the knowledge at his fingertips, from Themistocles to the Quran, to win his coveted role: savior of the Arab people. Lawrence-as-playwright is a wily rewriter, determined to prove to Prince Feisal and his followers that no fickle finger determines their fate: Each man (and every nation) can script destiny. Lawrence-as-director is a master of legerdemain, giving his bands of hundreds the military impact of a cast of thousands. This emphasis on Lawrence as a creative force caused some critics to charge the film with flimsy "motivation." But producer Sam Spiegel rightly responded, "We did not try to resolve the legend of Lawrence of Arabia. We tried to perpetuate it."
2. Be direct. Audiences generally don't remember transitional devices in movies, but a cut that pierces everyone who's seen it is the piece of editing that takes us straight from Lawrence's extinguishing a match in Cairo to the sun's rising in an orange sky over a night-blackened desert. The bold simplicity of this choice captures the essence of adventure.
3. Actors are your key material. Lean must have cast O'Toole because he saw the streak of poetry in him. O'Toole presents a superb interpretation of a volatile genius - sensitive, frolicsome and brutal. O'Toole's Lawrence must be the action hero who's least comfortable in his own body. He has liquid eyes and a tight, pinched walk (especially when he's in Western clothes), and in the throes of sadism, he turns rigid and glaring.
What gives O'Toole's performance its uncanny dynamism and fascination is the way he communicates creative faculties. There's almost always a scrim of consciousness between Lawrence and his actions: O'Toole conveys that with the sudden daring of the gestures that erupt after a moment's silence. He's never more at ease - albeit in a theatrical way - than when he's prancing across a Turkish train wreck for the benefit of his guerrilla forces and a reporter's camera.
O'Toole suffuses Lawrence with a robust appetite for glory and a delicate edge of vulnerability. And when the desert, politics and rape ultimately sap and harden him, O'Toole leads us through every step of a soul-shriveling process.
4. If you're going to get metaphysical, get physical first. The most haunting action shot in cinema comes when Lawrence, on his first desert trek, sees the figure of Sherif Ali, his future ally, emerge hazily from the distance. Here absolute realism produced imagery that has the far-out tingle of the best science fiction. Shooting on the El Jafr mudflats in Jordan, production designer John Box found himself surrounded by vast mirages that would "often appear as a blue lake, or sometimes just as a jelly of nothingness." These mirages, produced by sand mirroring the sky, arose with a "heat haze" that stretched the profile of a walking man and made him "appear as an eerie, bobbing, dancing object." Lean wanted Ali to emerge from "such a metaphysical atmosphere" and "bring with him the real and the unreal of the desert life. ... The dancing, black apparition came out of the mirage and became stark reality, cruelly shooting down Lawrence's guide Tafas for drinking at his well. Lawrence was brought face to face with the age-old Bedouin law of the desert, the law based on survival."
5. Brevity is still the soul of wit, even at 217 minutes. Bolt's dialogue has pith: This is the unusual spectacle with as many memorable lines as Casablanca. Lawrence deflects the probing of an American journalist by saying that he loves the desert because "it's clean." The robust chieftain Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) proclaims, "The Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor! Because I am a river to my people." And the command "No prisoners!" has never been more chilling than when Lawrence leads a massacre and fears that he enjoys it.
6. Never surrender your instincts. Lean's prop master, Eddie Fowlie, testified, "David always said that he didn't do things with 'symbolism,' but of course he did. You might call them 'subtleties,' if you like. But they were there, and they were suggestive to the subconscious. I don't think it occurred to him that he was doing anything unusual." Lean's unselfconscious lyricism has lost none of its magic, especially when Lawrence glides like a sandy angel over the top of that derailed Turkish railroad. It seals Lawrence as something more - or maybe other - than a man.
7. Let your heroes and villains be judged by the content of their character. Bolt wrote in a letter to Lean that a Muslim friend called it "the first film he had seen in which a Muslim people were accorded absolutely equal status with the whites, being neither sentimentalized nor belittled." Bolt added, "On the other hand, you know, I don't think the Zionists could say we'd made a pro-Arab picture. The wonderful thing is that even when such inadequate talents as ours just try to be truthful, all these tendentious people find their guns spiked. It's when you start truckling to this or that expectation that you give offense."