Director: David Lean
Writer: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Is this an odd film or what? I’m not sure I really got it. I admire the achievement of visionary filmmaker David Lean, but I can’t say that his film involved me all that much. I don’t know, but I have trouble understanding why a film would need to last 4 hours! At least “Gone With the Wind” is colorful and embarrassingly entertaining, but this epic about a British lieutenant on a quest in the desert is another story. The opening is intriguing, though. You’ve got Lawrence on a motorcycle having a ride and then wham!, he crashes and dies! You’ll guess that we will then flash-back to see some of his life. For quite a while, we have to sit through something I have trouble enduring: straight-faced exposition. But the film caught my attention again when it jump-cut to when Lawrence starts his journey in the desert.
If nothing else, this film is absolutely gorgeously shot. It’s very humbling to watch the infinite landscapes of sand shot in glorious 70mm. There’s a neat visual trick that’s used a few times: you see huge dunes of sand, and then you notice little black dots and gradually, you realize that it’s people. I also like the grandiose set-ups with countless extras in robes on camels. As a visual experience, I enjoyed the film; it’s easy and soothing to lose yourself in the images of the desert. Yet when Lean focuses on the plot, it’s not as overwhelming. Basically, it’s about how T.E. Lawrence unites Arab troops against the Turks, but for that to last 216 minutes, it has to get more complex than that. There’s discussion, strategy, confrontation and stuff… Lots of details.
Personally, I find that a bit pointless. The film would be more striking at, say, 2 hours. You just set up the plot and move it around, and then you show a lot of desert imagery, with the sand and the heat deforming the horizon. I have nothing against storytelling, it’s just that I don’t really get what this story is telling me. The characters don’t particularly appeal to me, and there aren’t any thought-provoking things said about life or anything. The dialogue scenes don’t heighten this film, they just punctuates what it’s really about: dudes on camels crossing the desert over and over. “Lawrence of Arabia” is certainly a unique, astonishing film, yet I’m not sure what to make of it. On a long snowy afternoon, this might just be the escapism film you need.