Lean dreams an epic by day

Fifty years on, Lawrence of Ara­bia’s swoony vi­sion still stuns – even as its re­ac­tionary pol­i­tics in­evitably date it, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILMREVIEWS -

LAWRENCE OF ARA­BIA ★★★★ Di­rected by David Lean. Star­ring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guin­ness, An­thony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Fer­rer, An­thony Quayle, Arthur Kennedy, Claude Rains Club, IFI, Dublin, 216 min TO USE Philip Larkin’s fa­mous for­mu­la­tion, David Lean’s much­lauded semi-clever epic – now cel­e­brat­ing its half-cen­tury – emerged “be­tween the end of the Chat­ter­ley ban/And the Bea­tles’ first LP”.

One is tempted to sug­gest that Lawrence of Ara­bia now seems stranded in that post-Suez sump of com­pro­mised pa­tri­o­tism and sex­ual re­pres­sion. Con­sider the ev­i­dence.

The film ad­dresses the Arab ques­tion through the ve­hi­cle of an An­glo-Ir­ish Ox­ford grad­u­ate who points the na­tives – “a lit­tle peo­ple, a silly peo­ple” – away from their petty fac­tion­al­ism and to­wards a very British class of mar­tial dis­ci­pline. Alec Guin­ness is al­lowed to play an Arab monarch. Jose Fer­rer plays a Turk. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity man­i­fests it­self as a class of post­trau­matic psy­chosis.

Can it be only 50 years? Well, three decades later, with Dances with Wolves, Kevin Cost­ner won an Os­car for prov­ing that white men make bet­ter Na­tive Amer­i­cans than any nat­u­ral-born Sioux. Such ugly myths still lurk about con­tem­po­rary cinema.

It is, more­over, dif­fi­cult to be too harsh on a film that gleams with such spooky lus­tre. Robert Bolt’s di­a­logue now seems al­most as plod­ding as the leaden apho­risms he penned for A Man for All Sea­sons. But Fred­die Young’s widescreen cin­e­matog­ra­phy has a yawn­ing scope that should still over­come even the most re­sis­tant Marx­ist stu­dent of post-colo­nial­ism.

Later a vic­tim of his own brown-voiced pres­ence, Peter O’Toole de­liv­ers, in his de­but as lead, a per­for­mance that comes across as the most mod­ern, least the­atri­cal of his en­tire ca­reer.

At his best with tight-lipped, warm-muf­fin sto­ries in the vein of Brief En­counter or Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, Lean al­lowed loom­ing gi­gan­tism to over­power him with later duds such as Ryan’s Daugh­ter and Doc­tor Zhivago. How­ever, his touch for the grand set piece is shown to good ad­van­tage in this in­de­struc­tible odyssey. Scenes such as Omar Sharif’s lengthy en­trance and the cut from struck match to glar­ing sun helped form the aes­thetic of keen dis­ci­ples Ge­orge Lu­cas and Steven Spiel­berg.

You can choose for your­self whether to re­gard that as a rec­om­men­da­tion.

Sand men: Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Ara­bia. Both were Os­carnom­i­nated in their first ma­jor roles

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