Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This is what I was afraid of when I first decided I would watch all the Best Pictures: that I would feel like I was wasting my time. It’s especially noticeable when you sit down to watch a film that’s three hours and forty-two minutes long, like Lawrence of Arabia. I feared the tedium of seeing through a task that I’d set for myself, to watch this movie whether I liked it or not. Of doing something without a clear purpose, only for some arbitrary reason.

Yeah, I could have given up on it halfway through, like one of those times I paused to take a break or to see how much more of it there was to get through, only to discover that I had two and a half more hours of this. But I’m stubborn that way. This was a classic, recommended to me by movie buffs, and I was going to look for the proof of its brilliance.

I don’t regret finishing the movie, but I don’t really think I appreciated it much more by the end of it. For starters, I had a bit of difficulty following the story. Truth is, I don’t know much about this period of history, in this place – the Middle East during World War I – and one positive result of watching the movie is that it piqued my interest in reading more about it: the role the Ottoman Empire played in the region, the aftermath of the Arab Uprising, how the European powers contributed to the upheaval in the Middle East in ways that clearly resonate today. Sometimes that’s the best a film can do, make you want to know more about something.

One thing that a good film can offer is simple beauty, and there’s definitely much to be found in the long, lingering shots of dunes. Sometimes the only traces you find of the people at all are tiny silhouettes of camels, or the lone straight lines of footsteps in the sand. Someone I know from Saudi Arabia once referred to himself and his nation as “desert people,” and I don’t think I fully appreciated the sense of that until seeing that expanse of space. I’m from a place where there’s not much empty space in between the parts that contain people or clear signs of civilization, so it’s hard for me to fathom living in a region that lacks so much of both.

Also, I’m having trouble deciding whether Lawrence was intended to be portrayed as a heroic figure, or if we’re meant to come out of it thinking he’s kind of an asshole. Maybe both, if the funeral scene at the beginning is any indication. All the same, I couldn’t get a handle on his character’s journey by the end of it. His actions, from his seemingly random decisions to leave the people and then to return, came off as nonsensical to me.

One thing that surprised me was the complexity given to many of the Arabian characters. My impression of a film from the sixties is that non-white characters are naturally given less of a sense of their own agency than white characters. Considering that the film was peopled by a large cast, there was an interesting range of personalities, portrayed as having their own motives. True, most of them were played by white actors, which is certainly problematic. And then there was the bizarre worship of Lawrence, resplendent in his white heroic garb. But I suppose I expected worse.

It does raise an important question, though, in light of this week’s Oscar nominations. Should I be more surprised about how much diversity exists in a film from fifty years ago, or that so little exists in Oscar-nominated films today? What sort of progress have we made in that period of time? (Answer: none.) How is this restriction of diversity in one field reflective of greater American culture, and how do we improve? I don’t know the answer to these questions. That sort of goes beyond the scope of my intentions with this blog, which was essentially: let’s write our silly little thoughts about movies.

I was thinking about a good movie to pair this with – something that addresses war in the Middle East today, of which there are several possibilities? Another cult of personality film? Or another epic (read: long) film that spans space or time. I think I found something that balances well against this one, and a theme that I’d like to think about: going native.

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