Saturday, March 22, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia


There is little for me to report, careerwise, today. Bob Mackie and I are putting the finishing touches on the contracts for the GlamourPuss business so we can go into partnership with Kathie Lee. She seems so grateful that we would think so highly of all her little seamstress pals. My motorized iceberg has been shipped to Bluefield for my next concert (and, at last report, had not caused major injury in the process). I have received a script for an episode of E.R. in which I have been asked to play a cameo as Helen Lawson, a famous actress who suffers a traumatic wig accident, requiring a visit and scalp repair. Joseph tells me it would be good exposure to the younger crowd so I plan to accept the role if the shooting schedule does not conflict with my concert dates.

Norman has been keeping himself occupied these last few days as well. Despite the best efforts of myself, nurse Tameka and nurse Lynn, he has entered a nudist phase, declaring that clothes are demeaning. This is all very well in the parlor at Chateau Maine where we can draw the drapes; but when he perambulates around the neighborhood dressed only in my old gardening hat, he frightens the neighbors. Nurse Tameka has to keep running down the road with a caftan before he can give Zsa-Zsa another stroke.

Having had caftans on the brain, I settled into the home theater with the recently released DVD version of Lawrence of Arabia . This sumptuous two disc set includes the full 222 minute cut of the film, reassembled in the late 1980s under Sir David Lean's direction in all of its glorious Technicolor, breathtaking cinemascope and stereophonic sound. I was very happy when the film was restored to full splendor as my part as third ululating woman from the right was restored from the cutting room floor.

Lawrence of Arabia is the story of Colonel T.E. Lawrence, a British World War I hero on a par with our Seargent York; only Lawrence had a bit more influence on world affairs. The illegitimate son of an aristocrat, Lawrence was well schooled and a commissioned officer stationed with the British army in Cairo. Egypt was vital to Britain and her allies during the period, as the Suez Canal had to be protected from the German allies, the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Empire, crumbling even before the start of World War I, contained the vast Arabian Peninsula, filled primarily with sand and Bedouin nomads (oil wasn't discovered until later). As the film opens, we learn that the Arabs, under Prince Feisal (Alec Guiness) are starting to resist the Turks. The military and civilian authorities in Cairo decide that this could be useful in keeping the Turks occupied and off balance, allowing the British to successfully sweep north out of Africa against them. The high command therefore decides to send Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) to make contact with the Bedouin and enlist them in the British cause.

Lawrence sets out in search of the Bedouin. He finds warring tribes, as intent on killing each other as much as their common enemy, the Turks. Soon he makes friends (Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn), acquires a couple of catamites, and realizes that a major victory will help cement the feuding tribes. He leads them on an impossible overland journey and takes the port city of Aqaba from the Turkish garrison and his legend is born. He becomes a highly romantic figure, hugely publicized in the west, especially by the journalist Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) - a stand in for Lowell Thomas. After spending time harrying the Turkish rail and supply lines, he's captured, unrecognized, by the Turks and is brutalized. He feels finished. His superiors (Jack Hawkins on the military and Claude Rains on the civilian ends) convince him to lead the Arabs on one last push to Damascus, promising him that the Arabs will be able to rule themselves and decide their own future. His Arab army succeeds in taking Damascus but Lawrence and his friends are betrayed by the British, whose colonial politics have no place for Arab self rule, and Lawrence retires from the world stage.

The historical T.E. Lawrence was a man of massive contradictions. Privately shy, he reveled in his massive publicity. Pacifist by nature, he exulted in battle. His sexual being has been frequently analyzed with conclusions from asexual to homosexual masochist. Lean's film does not try to make sense of these contradictions or explain them away with Psychology 101 flashbacks or other devices. He simply presents and gives elliptical information and assumes the audience will be intelligent and audacious enough to make up its own mind. Peter O'Toole was a perfect casting choice for the role. Unknown at the time, he was a virtual blank slate upon whose face almost anything could be written. In his big metamorphosis scenes, we can see the wheels turning within wheels behind the limpid blue eyes but have no idea what the ultimate outcome will be, much as I imagine the real Lawrence operated.

The supporting performances are uniformly excellent, from Omar Sharif, who has one of the best movie entrances ever, riding a camel in from a mirage, to Claude Rains as the oily and unctuous career diplomat. Jose Ferrer, in a small role as a Turkish Bey who captures Lawrence, is sensational in his brief scenes, bringing a sense of supercilious slime to the subtext of homosexual rape.

Comradeship amongst men is one of the major themes of the film. I don't believe there's a female speaking part in it. The film takes place entirely in the male worlds of the military and the patriarchal Bedouin society where women are kept in strict segregation. It's hard to imagine many current actors playing these scenes. Today’s young male stars are often somewhat androgynous in an attempt to appeal to all audiences. A Keanu Reeves or a Brad Pitt or a Tom Cruise would likely bring out some of the undercurrents of sexual tension too patently and throw the film off balance.

The film was shot primarily on desert locations in Jordan and Morocco. This was long before digital augmentation of crowd scenes, so when a thousand cavalry gallop down on the city of Aqaba, you're really seeing a thousand men on horse and camel. The whole city of Aqaba was a set built from scratch to take advantage of location. The modern economics of filmmaking do not allow for this sort of scope any more. Crowds tend to be created by trickery rather than with people. In addition, the difficulties of desert filmmaking led to a shooting schedule of more than two years. The results were worth the wait. Shot after shot is breathtaking in its desert landscape and in the contrasts of the earth tones with Lawrence in his white and Ali (Sharif) in his black, or the sparkling blue sky. By the end, I wanted a camel and a desert in which to ride it.

The DVD, in addition to the film, includes an hour long 'making of' documentary with some fascinating behind the scenes footage. It also goes into the various cuts that were made in the film and the techniques used in 1988 to restore it to what Lean had originally envisioned. There are also some newsreel type featurettes and footage from the New York premiere of celebrities on the red carpet, and a brief interview with Steven Spielberg over the meaning of the film to his career.

This is one of the masterworks of cinema from one of the master directors. It’s required viewing for all cineastes.

Cartography. Camel riding. Midnights at oases. Saber waving. Ugly Turkish army hats. Quicksand. Motorcycle accident. Exploding locomotive. Repeated massacres. Malfunctioning power plants.

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