Wednesday, February 29, 2012
#7 LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
Throughout the centuries, white men have often taken the time to show minorities how to improve their lives, and it's about time Hollywood acknowledged this, dammit.
Plot summary (with spoilers): A man is riding his motorcycle through the winding English streets. Motorcycles are dangerous and scary, is what I say. The man crashes and dies. See? Told ya.
The man was T.E. Lawrence, and now we learn about his earlier life. Lawrence was a lieutenant in the British Army during WWI. He's sassy and insubordinate and a bit of a masochist. He puts out matches with his thumb and forefinger, slowly. His fellow soldiers want to know what the "trick" is. The trick, says Lawrence, is to not mind the pain.
The officers basically think Lawrence is kind of a douche, and they're kinda right, so they send him to...oh let's say Arabia, to assess what the Iranian Prince Faisal is thinking, and to gauge what the Arab involvement in the war effort against the Turks might be.
So Lawrence makes like a camel and humps outta there. He and a guide travel across the vast desert, headed for Prince Faisal. We get our first of many gorgeous shots of the desert landscape, in all its 70mm lusciousness.
They stop for water at a well, and another dude comes riding up on a camel and shoots Lawrence's guide. He demands Lawrence say what he's doing here, and Lawrence is all haughty and angry, despite the fact that the guy is waving a gun in his face. The dude is impressed by Lawrence's moxie, and lets him live.
By the time Lawrence arrives at Faisal's camp, his superior officer, Brighton, tells him to keep quiet and let him to do all the talking. But Lawrence don't play like that. He immediately pipes up and starts in on offering Faisal and the Arab people military advice. Brighton's pissed, but Faisal's intrigued. Lawrence's plan is to attack the Turk stronghold of Aqaba, a city by the ocean. In Aqaba, they have guns pointing outward to defend themselves in case of an attack by boats, but they don't defend themselves in case of a land attack, because a vast desert must be crossed in order to reach it by land. The desert is considered uncrossable.
But guess who wants to cross it? Oh yeah.
Lawrence convinces Faisal to give him a hundred men to cross the desert and attack Aqaba. It's time for some more sweeping, epic landscape! The leader of the men is Sherif Ali, who immediately doesn't trust old blue-eyed Lawrence, but obeys Faisal's orders, anyway. Other Arabs of note: two teenage boys, Daud and Farraj, whom Lawrence hires as servants.
So they cross the desert, riding their camels and sipping their water judiciously, leaving me time to ponder how evolution works and how neat it is that the camel is basically a horse that can survive long periods of time without drinking water and I wonder if I'm allergic to camels like I am to horses, and if I'm not and I lived in the Middle East, would I frequently ride camels, but really who cares, because how shitty it would be to live in a desert and boy I would never get used to all those robes and headgear and things.
Then they get to the last well and Sherif Ali informs Lawrence that the camels will last 20 days without water, and it will take about that long to cross this stretch of the desert. He suggests they travel at night. So they go and go and go and somehow its suspenseful and oddly calming at the same time, and not really boring. On the final night, Sherif Ali estimates they'll reach the next well by midday. Everyone's thrilled, until they see a riderless camel walking alongside them. They realize someone fell off their camel in the middle of the night. Lawrence wants to go back for the guy, but Sherif Ali says he's dead, it's Allah's will, they can't afford to go back.
Lawrence goes back. I get a little irritated at his appalling lack of judgement, which is how I know the movie's got its hooks in me. Ali continues onward with the rest of the men, save for Lawrence's loyal servants, Daud and Farraj, who wait for him.
Cut to the lonely camel-less Arab staggering along the sand, shedding clothes and looking about to pass out. Lawrence arrives in the nick of time. He rides all they way back to the well, where Ali is waiting nervously. When Ali sees him, he's thrilled and is totally won over. He gives Lawrence the robes and headdress to wear instead of his British army uniform. As they all drink from the well, another tribe shows up. They're the Howeitat tribe, led by Auda abu Tayi. (Pronounced just like it's spelled). Tayi's tribe hates Ali's tribe and they glower at one another. Lawrence is all, hey, let's hate the Turks instead. Won't you join us in attacking them? Tayi says he doesn't mind the Turks and that they give him 100 (Turk word for dollars) every month. Lawrence is all, oh snap, you're just the Turks' bitch, then! And Tayi's like, fuck you, and Lawrence is like, bitches take money, bitch, and Tayi's like, oh yeah?!, and Lawrence says once we take over Aqaba, you can steal all their fucking money, and Tayi's like, good point.
So the Howeitats join up with Ali's tribe. But then that night, someone from Ali's tribe kills a Howeitat, on account of their ancient Montague/Capulet blood feud, and Tayi demands the man be executed. Ali says no way will a Howeitat kill one of his men. So Lawrence says he'll do it. That way, the score will be even. They present the man to Lawrence, and it turns out it was the man who fell off his camel earlier. Lawrence says, "it's like raaaaaaain on your wedding day/it's like killing an Arab, that you already saved" and shoots him dead.
Then they reach Aqaba.
The attack is bloody and brutal, but they win the day. Except there's no gold to be found, and Tayi's pissed. But Lawrence says he'll ride back to the Brits in Cairo and tell them what happened, and that the Brits will be thrilled and they'll give Ali and Tayi lots of money and arms for taking over Aqaba. He takes his servants with him, and halfway back to Cairo, Daud falls into some quicksand is quickly buried. Lawrence and Farraj continue onward, but Lawrence is all extra-tormented now.
They reach Cairo and Lawrence tells them what he accomplished. The Brits agree to provide the Arabs with extra support and weapons, but then privately when Lawrence is out of the room, they say there's no way they're giving those dirty Arabs and weapons.
Then there's an Intermission. Phew.
When we return, we meet crusty old American reporter Jackson Bentley, who learns about Lawrence leading the Arabs against the Turks and makes him famous. There's lots more battles and fighting and such, and eventually Tayi and his men abandon the cause once they've made enough money. Ali and Lawrence watch him go with disgust, but press onward. Farraj gets injured during an attack and Lawrence is forced to kill him to keep him from being captured and tortured by the Turks.
He gets more and more angry and arrogant and quite unlikable to nearly everyone, including me. Jackson keeps publishing articles like make him more and more famous. They encounter the Turk city Daraa, and Lawrence wants to scout it out and spy on them and see how many Turks are there. Unfortunately, he's immediately caught. The Turk head bad guy, Bey, strips Lawrence of his robes, then full on grabs his nipple. Lawrence headbutts him, but then the guards grab him and hold him down. Then the cameras discreetly point elsewhere for a little while. Turks are super evil, you guys.
After the Turks are done with him, they throw Lawrence out of town. He's beaten down and humiliated and goes back to Cairo in shame. The Brits beg him to lead a final revolt onto the Turk stronghold of Damascus, and Ali says he's got his back. Lawrence goes back into battle, recruiting all kinds of Arab thugs who agree to attack the Turks for money and not for pride like Ali's men. They raid Damascus and brutally slaughter everyone there, Lawrence gleefully taking part. But once they've taken over, there's chaos as none of the separate tribes can agree on how to lead the city. Eventually, most everybody loots the place and leaves, leaving only Ali and Lawrence and the Brits. The Brits promote Lawrence to Colonel, and tell him to scram, they've got it covered now. Lawrence and his Arab tribesmen are no longer needed or useful. Lawrence is driven away from Damascus, as broken as he was before he got there.
Review: Pretty good. There are some truly beautiful, panoramic shots in this thing, an epic landscape to fit the epic story. The music was pretty great too, and the story hung together well. I was alternately intrigued by Peter O'Toole's performance and sometimes but off by it. He goes to extreme melodrama often, and it's very hard to pull that off. I didn't find him to be downright terrible or anything, but he certainly wasn't subtle. It was more showy than it needed to be, definitely. Somewhere between Dog Day Afternoon and Scent of a Woman on the Pacino Ham Scale. Everyone else was quite good, especially Alec Guinness, who played the Prince. It's always dicey when white actors play minorities and immediately smacks of racism, but this was 1962 and you can hardly apply today's standards to racial sensitivity. The good news is Guinness is not a caricature at all, and plays the part with dignity. Omar Sharif as Ali was also very good, and I loved the relationship he and O'Toole developed. My snarky comment up top about white people helping minorities is true to a degree, but nearly all the Arab characters were fully realized and three dimensional and not just cyphers to tell Lawrence's story. I particularly liked the dark and unsentimental ending.
But--it's almost four hours. There's just no reason for a movie to be four hours long. Even a well told story like this one is going to have bloat if it's four freaking hours. There were definitely times when my mind started to wander, and I wish that the movie had been cut be about half and hour or so. That would've been perfect.
Stars: Four out of five.
Next, the longest movie on the list (two minutes longer than this one, sigh), "Gone With the Wind". Silver lining: If I hate it, I get to make jokes about not giving a damn. Expect at least half a dozen.