Of Trains and Deserts
Jeff Reichert on Lawrence of Arabia
I’ve decided to watch David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, a film that looms large over movie history, on my iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen. As I wait for the downtown 2 train to Brooklyn at 34th Street, I pull out my phone, plug in a pair of dirty white ear-buds and launch the video app, where I can see an icon for Lawrence, ready to go after an iTunes download (only $9.99!) just a few hours earlier. I press play, and the screen goes dark. I find myself looking down into it, only to see the insides of my nostrils, the outline of an additional chin in chrysalis, and the overgrown forelock falling into my right eye reflected back; no sweeping vistas here, that’s for sure. The seemingly interminable darkness continues. Trains roll by. After an uptown 1 departs from the track behind me, I begin to make out snatches of familiar music—hearing Maurice Jarre’s score reminds me of the sad loss of the cinematic overture, even though, due to all of the surrounding noise, I can only catch bits and pieces. My mind fills in the blanks, lending the march of commuters, now scored to soaring strings and crushing brass, a certain lustrous grandeur.
The narrative kicks in as I step onto the train. My inability to understand much more than every other line of dialogue (I consider switching over to my sound-dampening, ear-covering professional headphones, but I refrain out of journalistic integrity to my goal of experiencing a movie just like the average iPhone viewer would) allows for increased focus on the film’s Super Panavision 70mm visuals, which won cinematographer Freddie Young an Academy Award. When T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole, blue eyes burning bright, though tiny) and his Bedouin guide Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin) first cross over into the vast desert, I can tell, even on this minuscule device, that the images are simply massive. It helps that for long stretches, as the pair ride camels through the vast wasteland, their figures are dwarfed to nothingness in the palm of my hand. They might as well be specks of dust. (Lean seems intent throughout the film on placing all but Lawrence into highly subservient positions in relation to the true main character—the desert.) Though I’m in the thick of a film often named as one of the best ever made, I still can’t help but repeatedly glance up at the raggedy condition of my fingernails, which ring the screen.
Being able to hold these iconic images in your hand allows for a more clinical appreciation of Lean’s use of the frame, which is almost pornographic in the delight it takes in rubbing our noses in its bigness. He’s constantly adding or subtracting all he can from his mise-en-scène, bouncing from compositions overstuffed nearly to the point of spatial illegibility to elegant tableaux that find a character isolated in space, or perhaps two conversationalists at opposite ends of the image with massive emptiness hanging heavily in between. Frequent triangular arrangements of figures (think of that early encounter at the well where Lawrence first meets Sharif’s Sherif Ali; even after Tafas is shot dead, his corpse is used as anchor to remind of the frame’s size), as well as a host of oblique lines (the Arab exodus after the Turkish bombing raid is almost entirely shot along diagonals), only serve to further highlight Lean’s free rein over the newly massive canvas he was afforded. At times, the images are so big they feel as though they will explode from the palm of my hand. At others, they feel powerful enough to suck me directly into the screen.
This push-pull—of a text, viewer and screen battling it out—doesn’t exactly prove a relaxing way to experience the film. Though the filmmaker in me conceptually appreciates the ability to scan quickly across the image, take in all the elements and quickly parse their geometric relationships, my inner earnest cinephile longs to be transported by the film, not the tubular subway car I’ve chosen to view it in. There’s an anxiety-inducing lack, the knowledge that this all could be so much better, bigger. The smaller image does briefly mask some of the film’s more risible elements; it might take you longer to recoil from the absurdity of Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn playing Arab princes, the most egregiously problematic handling of race in a film that freely tosses brown- and white-skinned folks from a variety of backgrounds into roles as Arabs and Turks willy-nilly. The film’s questionable racial politics extend beyond the casting; expectedly for a film made by Brits, they’re at their most supple when put to use examining Lawrence’s fetishization of the cultures of the Middle East, less so in any sequence that involves Arabs arguing amongst themselves or dealing with the Turks. These, though, are more the faults of the film’s time than of the work itself; in many ways the mere attempt to seriously represent the Arab consciousness at all shows just how forward-looking Lawrence of Arabia was.
Lawrence himself, a bit of a cipher already, disappears almost totally (save for Lean’s massive, loving close-ups) over two decades later and shrunk down to such a small size. O’Toole’s nearly whispered line readings mostly evaporate into the ether, which only heightens the film’s quite radical handling of his character. It was always a bold choice to render the real-life central figure of a grand, lengthy historical epic an enigma (one might surely point to Citizen Kane as a forebear, but that film ran half as long, focused on an invented character and generally had the scantest of historical antecedents to adhere to); viewed today, Lawrence’s pliable inscrutability seems the film’s bridge between the sweeping Hollywood filmmaking of yore and the contemporary cinema of the day, which exploded with New Wave energies. Lean proves himself here not only an exceedingly skilled widescreen craftsman but also a pinpoint-accurate psychologist, positioning the hero as both mundane and a larger-than-life creation, and not shying away from all the contradictions that implies. Thanks to my iPhone, I can’t see the flickers of doubt, egotism, compassion, and humor that flit across O’Toole’s tanned face over nearly four hours, but I’m glad to know they’re there.
Steven Spielberg has called Lawrence of Arabia a “miracle,” and it’s easy to see why: the work has a sheer movie-ness (forget the rarified trappings of that thing we call “the cinema”; Lean had his sights set on every possible audience-goer) that would clearly inspire his own attempts at the cinematic spectacular. Even if Spielberg has since gone on to somewhat guiltily interrogate the terms of bigness he used to unabashedly replicate, the terms under which he operates were set, or at least, highly influenced by Lean. You’ve seen a movie—probably several—inspired by Lawrence of Arabia, no doubt. You may well have seen a movie that parodies it, a sincere form of cinematic flattery. You’ve certainly seen bits and pieces replayed in every Academy Awards montage that runs every year. But if you haven’t seen Lawrence on the big screen, then you just haven’t seen it all.