“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello and welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. Regular readers of “The Ten Percent” will note that, sometimes, particular creators seem to have a talent for producing such works. Lately I’ve given in to my slight obsession with one such, director David Lean.
I’ve written about Doctor Zhivago (1965) for this column, and could also examine The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), A Passage to India (1984), and even the much argued about Ryan’s Daughter (1970) as part of the Ten Percent, but in truth none of Lean’s other films so perfectly matched his sweeping, panoramic sense of scale and simultaneous taste for intensely intimate stories as does 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia:
Filmed largely on location in Jordan, Spain, and Morocco, Lawrence of Arabia was Peter O’Toole’s first major film role, and the rest of the principal cast list reads like a Who’s Who of the greatest talents of the time, both established and up and coming: Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, José Ferrer, Jack Hawkins, and Anthony Quale. The film is ostensibly a biopic based upon Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence’s autobiographical account of the Arab Revolt of 1916 – 1918, but it is probably better to think of the film as “inspired by” the life and writings of the historical Lawrence.
What lingers after seeing the film is the masterfully captured landscape of the Jordanian desert, so empty as to be a presence, an immanence in and of itself to capture this, Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young shot in 70mm Super Panavision to capture the widest aspect ratio possible. In the midst of such a vast desolation of stone and sand the story of Lawrence unfolds as he moves from hyper intelligent but naive subaltern to accomplished guerilla captain to ruthlessly bitter killer to disillusioned pawn of international politics. Despite the landscape, and the grand background of a world at war and the fall of empires, Lawrence of Arabia is an intimate piece that remains focused on Lawrence, and the few men who grow close to him.
And it is a few men. There are no speaking roles for women in the entire film, and, indeed, women are only seen on the screen for perhaps two minutes out of the total 227, and only if by “seen” one means huddled shapes in burka-like robes. O’Toole’s performance is masterful and he brings the disturbing dichotomy of a man whose innermost hopes die even as his outward fame grows ever larger. The supporting cast gives equally strong performances, led by Sharif as Sherif Ali, Lawrence’s closest friend and comrade who tries desperately to keep the mad Englishman grounded but is ultimately forced to watch him be destroyed by his own pride and willful ignorance. Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal is a powerhouse, cultured, shrewd, and every bit as ruthlessly cunning as the British politicians who want to control his country after the war. The latter are represented by Rains as Mr. Dryden of the British Foreign Office, Feisal’s match in cultured politesse and agendas hidden beneath perfect tailoring. Playing as historical figure, Guinness worked hard to mimic the historical Feisal, and was actually mistaken for him by a few men who had known him. Anthony Quinn also plays Auda Abu Tayi, another historical figure, and one who perhaps best represented the true heart and hopes of the Arab Revolt. In the film he is a man of strict honor and tremendous pride: brash, arrogant, venal, but also loyal and in his own way as much a friend to Lawrence as Ali.
Lawrence of Arabia is a masterfully executed epic in the best sense, and even the latest 4K Blu-Ray releases include both a prelude and intermission during which Maurice Jarre’s inspired score sets the tone for the film. At times as sweeping as Lean’s panoramas, and at others discordant and jarring, Jarre’s score is as much a character as any of the humans and becomes as much a part of the films landscape as the desert itself. There is nothing about this film that does not work, and it continues to entrance audiences fifty-four years after its release, remaining one of the most influential and technically innovative films of the 20th century. Plus, it tells a hell of a story, guaranteeing its place as a part of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (spring 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.