Turner Classic Movies is playing David Lean's Oscar winner tomorrow (2 March 2014) and I own a DVD copy already, but you don't miss a chance to see Lawrence in its proper setting in a movie theater. The Madison Theater in Albany is doing a festival of Oscar winners this week and Lawrence was the main attraction, for me at least. The screen isn't necessarily as vast as the film deserves, but it makes its impression just the same. You can appreciate Lean's compositions and Freddie Young's cinematography on any scale as long as you have the proper aspect ratio, but only on the big screen are you transported to another place. You really feel far away from anything familiar in the desert scenes, but you also better appreciate the density of production design when Lean takes us through the corridors of British imperial power. Size helps, too, during the movie's most famous moment -- at least for film buffs: the seeming materialization of Sherif Ali out of nowhere from the desert horizon. Someone watching on a tablet or, Allah preserve us, a smartphone must wonder what's so special about the moment, but when Omar Sharif makes his entrance into global stardom as something more than a dot, when you can see the distant image shimmering yet plain, then you get it. Sharif is now the last man standing of the principal cast, and at the risk of heresy I feel he comes off better than the late Peter O'Toole, if only because the Egyptian isn't forced into the occasionally questionable facial contortions his co-star needs to see Lawrence's increasingly conflicted attitude toward war and his historical role. By comparison, Sharif is often O'Toole's straight man, but Ali's character-arc toward political responsibility, paralleling Lawrence's self-loathing descent toward barbarism, makes the token Arab among the stars a more recognizably heroic figure. Add that to Sharif's good looks and you can understand why, with much further help from Lean, the all-purpose ethnic actor was arguably a bigger star than O'Toole for much of the 1960s. Still, give O'Toole his due. He may overdo it sometimes as Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson's concept of Lawrence seems to get away from Lean, but his is the giant performance the role demands, and moments of ham are quite excusable, if not necessary, when your subject is as self-dramatizing a figure as Lawrence.
Lawrence of Arabia is very much a film of its time, a fact that became more apparent as the Sixties wore on, and it remains a very relevant picture on many levels. How different is T.E. Lawrence from Che Guevara, for instance? Both were revolutionary interlopers whose pretensions to disinterested benevolence were certainly suspect. But at the same time he reminded me to some extent of Graham Greene's Quiet American in his ambiguity, his uncertain balance of cynicism and self-delusion. In the film, at least, Lawrence dislikes the idea that Great Britain will step in once the Arab Revolt succeeds and assume rulership, shared with France, over the erstwhile subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Yet every step he takes furthers the Anglo-French agenda so long as the Arabs are ill-equipped or temperamentally disinclined to fill the power vacuum after the Ottoman defeat, as their disastrous occupation of Damascus appears to prove. Lawrence's heroic endeavors only enable the Arabs to exchange one master for another, though Faisal (Alec Guinness) at least will get a throne out of it -- he ended up King of Iraq. Between the British and the Ottomans, Lawrence idealizes Arab autonomy much as the Quiet American wishfully promotes a "third force" in Vietnam that would escape that country's Cold War dichotomy. That idealization serves to justify Lawrence's opportunity to live out a fantasy of adventure and heroism, but it also can be appealed to in order to overcome his growing abhorrence of his own growing bloodlust or his demoralization after he actually fails in one of his impossible missions and suffers unspeakable humiliation (rape?) on top of torture at the hands of Jose Ferrer.
All the major Arab characters suspect Lawrence of using their land as a personal playground, their people as playthings. At the same time, the three principal Arabs are mirrors of Lawrence's conflicted state of mind. Ali is the most obvious mirror in the sense that he seems to develop in the opposite direction, toward civilization (or at least toward politics) as Lawrence slips toward savagery. Ali is the character most likely to throw back at Lawrence some argument Lawrence had made to him, and in that sense he serves as Lawrence's conscience after the bad first impression he makes by shooting Lawrence's guide at the well. Faisal is the focus of Lawrence's idealization of the Arab Revolt, but also as aware as Lawrence is (or should be) of the tension between political ideals and raisons d'etat. But in the end the film seems to argue that the Arab most like Lawrence is Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), who is the most dismissive of idealism and the most overtly self-interested. Lawrence must appeal to Auda's greed and vanity to get him to join the attack on Aqaba, and seems a liar to Auda after Aqaba proves not to have gold but only paper money, but at the end of the story it's Auda who invites Lawrence to stay in the desert with him, who tells Lawrence that there's nothing but the desert left for him. Auda is the least sophisticated of the principal Arabs -- he has a superstitious aversion to cameras and poor taste in plunder -- but in manipulating Auda Lawrence gives us the key to understanding him, or the best clue to that understanding. He gets Auda to join the Revolt and attack Aqaba not for gold, not for politics, but "because it is his pleasure." So with Lawrence, as the man himself sometimes seems to understand. He inspires the Revolt not for Britain, not for the Arabs, but because it is his pleasure -- whether he's romping in his new Bedouin costume like a child playing Superman or slaughtering Turkish troops trying to surrender.
That "pleasure" is the irreducible element that compromises all similar "humanitarian" interventions in the defense of the oppressed against oppressors; we never do it just for them or their sake. Even if we deny to ourselves any selfish motives and protest when others perceive them, they're still there or else we wouldn't be there. If you're watching the news and feel that someone ought to kick the Russians out of the Crimea, and you get furious if someone suggests that you just want your country rather than Russia to dominate Ukraine, you probably feel a little like Lawrence did -- or at least the Lawrence of the film. So there's your relevance, without even taking into account the ongoing consequences of Lawrence's campaign and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. But Lawrence is great enough as an epic adventure film and a showcase for its two young stars that relevance is a bonus -- or if you prefer, irrelevant. No matter what you think of the world and its recent history, you ought to regard David Lean's pre-CGI achievements with some sort of awe.