Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lean, Mean, Filmmaking Machine

Last night I was one of the lucky few who managed to see Lawrence Arabia on the big screen at the NFT.

It was one of the best cinematic experiences of my life, I'd say. I'm not exaggerating. And as anyone who knows me will confirm, I do spend quite a lot of time watching (and raving about) films.

What's so great about it? Well, it's about a fascinating, real-life character, to start with. Combine this with a compelling performance by Peter O'Toole, ravishing cinematography that really captures the romantic vastness and brutality of the desolate, arid landscape with its sweeping dunes and uncompromising sun, a sensitive treatment of contemporary issues of race, colonialism and national pride, and most of all humour - and you have a masterpiece which has real staying power.

I saw Lean's Bridge On the River Kwai (1957) the other day, which is also excellent, combining an appreciation of the lush Ceylon landscapes with an intriguing, at times nail-biting plot based (loosely this time) on real events. But you can't compare it to Lawrence of Arabia.. The earlier film also centres round a stubborn, determined and most of all principled, English military man, who takes on an almost obsessive will to succeed in a particular - and unlikely - task. Alec Guinness' character - a colonel turned POW in a Japanese WW2 camp - becomes so involved in directing his men to build a bridge for his Japanese captor in the name of pride, that he forgets why he's building it, concluding in the film's disastrous,decadently riveting finale. In Lawrence of Arabia, O'Toole's T.E. Lawrence almost forgets which side he's on. Or does he? We're never really sure quite what Lawrence is thinking, who he's leading on, or indeed whether he knows himself. And this is where Lawrence becomes a masterpiece, overshadowing Kwai as a beautiful yet imperfect preparatory study.

Lean's masterful editing is another factor in Lawrence of Arabia's staying power - viewers of today, used to the conventional 90 minute movie slot, are still left riveted (a few times I scanned faces in the massive NFT1 auditorium to check), because the pace never slows down. Something is always happening, the voyage is continually taking place - and consequently viewers are transfixed. Reading the NFT handout after the film, I discovered that Lean had begun his cinematic career as editor, and still saw himself as one when making the film - and it shows. Not one scene in the 228 minute feature felt too long. I was captivated throughout.

There's one other thing that distinguishes Lawrence from Kwai. The earlier film does feel rather dated in its depiction of stereotypes (the happy-go-lucky American, the stiff-upper lip Englishman who is all principles and honour, and the belligerent Japanese general who appreciates English whiskey but not English morals). This may be knowingly done, but for some reason it grates when watched half a century later. Lawrence, on the other hand, doesn't feel so dated - well, barring O'Toole's eyeliner and orange makeup, Guinness' false nose, and an inevitable typecasting of minor characters into racial stereotypes. And we have to consider the time the context within which the film was made. On the whole, the characterisation of the main protagonists in Lawrence or Arabia is complex and thought-provoking.

The scene where Lawrence strides through a gawking hoarde of British officers as it parts down the middle to let him through- creating a strikingly Biblical vision - is particularly poignant for modern viewers, just as it must have been at the time of release. Conflicts in the Middle East are still rife today, and racial prejudice, greed and ignorance (a favourite word of Lawrence's) are at the roots of this, as we all know. Incongruously perhaps for the time, Lean steers clear from any jingoistic claims or didactic messages. His film doesn't portray Lawrence as a martyr figure, far from it.

The film's biblical leitmotiv, beginning with the associations attached to the geographical location itself, and bleeding into the film's narrative, with Lawrence's own self-comparison to Moses (crossing Sinai) and Jesus (the walking on water), are not intended to hint at the eponymous hero's status as martyr, but rather to suggest his human falllibility. For all the film's pomp and grandeur (epitomised in its sweeping, wide angle shots of desert accompanied by a beautifully majestic soundtrack), it's ultimately this human side to Lawrence, intertwined with an appreciation that he is also 'extraordinary', and finally an acknowledgment that there is no easy answer to racial conflict, that makes the film what it is. This isn't a predictable Hollywood-style epic saga of heroes versus villains. It's far more complicated than that, and so it should be.

I've begun to wonder whether the five-year gap between the release of the two films, and their differing portrayals of Britishness, are more deeply related to contemporary conflicts than initially evident. Lawrence of Arabia was released six years after the 1956 Suez Crisis.The Bridge on the River Kwai, on the other hand, was released just one year after Nasser attempted to nationalise the Suez Canal, sending shockwaves down Britain and undermining the apparent might of British colonial rule. Further, this WW2-themed film was made just a decade after India's declaration of independence, and at a time when tensions were brewing in other territories such as East Africa. Whilst Lawrence of Arabia seems sufficiently detached from patriotic concerns resulting from Suez (and, implicitly, other territories), Kwai cannot shake off colonial preoccupations. The sympathetic portrayal of Guinness' Colonel and his stoical British determination, versus the elusive quality of O'Toole's Lawrence, may well have something to do with these contextual factors.

It's great that we have the opportunity to rediscover David Lean, who not only managed to capture the spirit of his century with subtlety and complexity, but also knew how to tell a bloody good story.

On Sunday I'm going to see Doctor Zhivago (1965). I can't wait.

(Images: Lawrence of Arabia; The Bridge on the River Kwai)

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