[Note – the following is excerpted from critic and Solutor J. John Aquino aka Accidental Star Trek Cosplay‘s book If You Haven’t Seen It, It’s New to You, now available in e-book and paperback editions.]
If You Haven’t Seen It, It’s New to You is about the bizarreness of first encountering a certain movie or TV show way later than everybody else has.
One of my favorite kinds of library books when I was a kid was Crestwood House’s series of pumpkin-colored picture books about black-and-white monster movies. The purpose of those Crestwood House books, which were written on a fourth-grade level, was to get ’70s kids interested in watching Godzilla or Frankenstein on TV. Those books didn’t exactly convert me into a monster movie fan, but I remember being fascinated by the volume about Frankenstein because it explained that Boris Karloff’s version of Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t the only screen interpretation of the character and there were many other versions that were worth seeing. I always wanted to write a book like that in which I would get readers to notice a bunch of movies they may have never seen before, and If You Haven’t Seen It, It’s New to You is that book I always wanted to do—but with a lot more cussing in it.
I have a strange relationship with the 1962 David Lean epic Lawrence of Arabia. In the funeral scene at the beginning of Lean’s movie, a reporter attempts to get quotes from a few of T.E. Lawrence’s mourners after his death from a motorcycle accident, and all those former colleagues of the British Army officer say the same thing: The guy was an enigma. The movie itself is an enigma too.
It’s slow-paced and long. (In fact, its length was a problem for ’60s and ’70s Columbia Pictures execs. They kept trimming the film’s running time every time Columbia reissued it for theaters.) Yet every famous film nerd is a Lawrence of Arabia stan, whether he’s Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, or Steven Spielberg, who considers the 1962 movie to be his favorite of all time and even joined Scorsese in supervising its 1989 restoration.
Lawrence of Arabia’s three-hour-and-37-minute length intimidated me for a long time, even though, prior to Lawrence of Arabia, I had seen in the theater several movies that were longer than 217 minutes. I sat through Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged, four hour adaptation of Hamlet at a press screening, the 1959 version of Ben-Hur at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz, and the extended editions of the first two Lord of the Rings movies at a theater chain’s all-day marathon screening of Peter Jackson’s trilogy. Never once did my attention wander during those movies.
Everybody would always say, “Lawrence of Arabia has to be seen in the theater.” So in 2006, when the movie came to an opera house that was only a few blocks from my apartment at the time, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see it on the big screen.
About an hour into Lawrence of Arabia inside that opera house, I fell asleep.
During the intermission, I bought myself a tiny bag of trail mix at the opera house’s concession stand to help me stay awake. The trail mix didn’t help. I went back to dozing off in front of Lawrence of Arabia.
That accidental nap that night made me realize two things: 1) I could no longer watch three-hour-plus movies in the theater at night anymore, and 2) if I’m ever going to watch a three-hour-plus movie in the theater again, I have to eat in my theater seat a full meal, not concession snacks, to stay awake. (However, grown-folks food doesn’t always improve a terrible movie with an epic running time. Not even the “Powerful Dark Force” Wild Turkey/Kahlua cocktail I ordered at an Alamo Drafthouse screening of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker was powerful enough to distract me from how sloppy and pandering the storytelling was in The Rise of Skywalker.)
But falling asleep during the Lawrence of Arabia screening wasn’t just because I didn’t have enough food to keep my energy from waning. It was also because it’s a white savior movie, and as an Asian American creative who resents the white savior genre and has to put up with so many entertainment news items regarding stories with Asian settings that keep that genre alive by erasing us from the narrative, those movies make me so fucking angry I fall asleep.
The day after I dozed off in the middle of Lawrence of Arabia, I ordered Columbia TriStar Home Video’s two-disc release of the movie from Amazon, in case I wanted to rewatch it immediately. I never bothered to watch those DVDs Amazon sent me.
I didn’t have the patience to rewatch Lawrence of Arabia until New Year’s Eve 2015. Even though I already owned the movie on DVD, it was going to expire from the Netflix streaming service that night. Armed this time with a bunch of snacks that were more substantial than the opera house’s paltry trail mix, I knew I wasn’t going to doze off even though it was a white savior movie that put a white Brit and a Mexican American guy in brownface.
What I found out this time was that Lawrence of Arabia is pretty fly for a white savior movie that asks, “Why are we devoting three hours and 37 minutes to this white guy?” In fact, it’s a rare white savior movie that’s critical of its protagonist and his savior complex. White savior movies like Dances with Wolves, Dangerous Minds, and Bulworth are never critical of their protags.
Lawrence of Arabia is basically two different movies in one. The first half sets up this larger-than-life hero and is a mostly idealistic first half. Then after the intermission, the downbeat second half proceeds to tear down his heroism and show how it ultimately fails him and everyone else who took part in the revolt he led during World War I. In that opera house, I fell asleep in the middle of the first half partly because I dismissed the movie as being just another Dances with Wolves. My nap caused me to miss the movie’s best section, the part of it that distinguishes it from other white savior flicks.
An Oxford-educated cartographer and a misfit in the British Army, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is assigned to assess in Arabia the intentions of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), who wants to revolt against the Germany-supporting Turks. Initially dismissive of the Arab tribes he encounters—he criticizes them as being “greedy, barbarous, and cruel”—Lawrence proposes to Feisal that the tribes should mount a surprise attack on Aqaba by land instead of by sea. Feisal co-signs Lawrence’s proposal, while Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), the Harith tribe leader who was at the receiving end of Lawrence’s “greedy, barbarous, and cruel” remark, is skeptical of the grueling and arduous desert trek the tribes have to make to Aqaba.
But during the journey to the portside town, Lawrence earns Ali’s trust after he bravely turns back from the caravan to retrieve Gasim (I.S. Johar), a missing Harith tribesman who accidentally got lost, and he saves Gasim’s life. Lawrence becomes immersed in the Bedouin culture and, with Ali’s encouragement, he adopts the clothes and lifestyle of a Bedouin and is treated less like an outsider. He also develops a swelled head. When Gasim, whom Lawrence risked his life for in the desert, gets in trouble with the Howeitat tribe for killing one of their members, Lawrence executes Gasim himself to prevent a tribal blood feud, after he claims he’s the only one with the power to execute such a criminal because “I have no tribe, and no one is offended.” The raid Lawrence leads in Aqaba is successful, but both the raid and Lawrence’s killing of Gasim begin a period of hubris and irrational actions that results in Lawrence’s offscreen gang rape by Turkish cops. (In the Lawrence of Arabia episode of Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson’s Unspooled film discussion podcast, Nicholson notes that David Lean’s biggest regret about his 1962 hit film was the discreet way he shot the cops’ assault on Lawrence because “90% of the people missed that Lawrence of Arabia is raped.”)
Lawrence’s period of hubris also results in the Arabs in a state of disarray that’s no different from—and is, in some ways, worse than—their previous state, which Lawrence, because of his white privilege, arrogantly thought he could change singlehandedly. He fails to unify the Arab tribes and bring them the independence he promised them. Many white savior movies end on a downbeat note, and so does Lawrence of Arabia. But instead of sentimentally concluding with a white savior who becomes a martyr while his or her teary-eyed admirers salute his or her efforts, Lawrence of Arabia quietly and matter-of-factly ends with a humiliated and disappointed Lawrence leaving Arabia in a jeep after both Feisal and the British Army have no use for him anymore. Cue Nelson Muntz’s “Ha-ha!”
In his indelible turn as Lawrence, the late O’Toole echoed the performance the late Guinness gave as a similarly enigmatic leader in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean’s prior war epic, but Lawrence is far more conflicted and tormented than River Kwai’s Colonel Nicholson, particularly about certain war-related urges he wishes he could fully understand and his role in dishing out violence. Sadomasochism (the reallife Lawrence paid British Air Force recruits to whip him daily) and same-sex attraction were taboo subjects in early ’60s Hollywood. So due to the censors and the conservatism of Hollywood at the time, Lean couldn’t explicitly explore Lawrence’s sadomasochism and same-sex urges, but his gayness is evident in little hints Lean and O’Toole dropped throughout the movie.
Before the assignment in Arabia, Lawrence is criticized by a surly superior officer for giving him an insubordinate salute, but we all know “insubordinate” is code for “effeminate.” O’Toole’s delivery of “I’m different” to his guide during his first night in the desert says plenty about Lawrence. When Lawrence puts on his desert robes for the first time, he twirls himself around in the outfit. As the late Roger Ebert noted about these moments of Lawrence’s gayness in his 2001 reassessment of Lawrence of Arabia, “Everything is here for those willing to look for it,” and he also pointed out how none of the other characters in the movie “take much notice of the two young [male] desert urchins that Lawrence takes under his protection.”
Like River Kwai does with Nicholson, Lawrence of Arabia keeps its real-life historical figure at a distance from us, despite Lawrence’s massive amount of screen time. We never fully understand Lawrence, who’s clearly off his rocker, or his actions. The funeral scene at the start of the movie raises the question “Why was Lawrence the way he was?” One of the movie’s boldest and ballsiest moves is that by the end of it, it’s unable to find any answers to that question. In Lawrence of Arabia, you see the roots of my favorite aspect of Lean movie fan Martin Scorsese’s approach to storytelling: his refusal to pass judgment on the sociopathic or power-craving lead characters in Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, GoodFellas, and The Wolf of Wall Street because he trusts the audience’s intelligence enough to let them decide how they want to feel about these characters.
As Matt Zoller Seitz wrote in the comments section of film writers Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard’s 2009 must-read House Next Door blog discussion about Lawrence of Arabia, its many contradictions, and the debate over whether Lawrence was gay or closer to asexual, the movie’s open-endedness is part of “Lean’s refusal to hang a label on anybody or anything—his determination to respect the mystery of human personality, something Hollywood movies rarely do.” Yet O’Toole was somehow able to locate the humanity in Lawrence, as did the late Sharif in his portrayal of Ali, the movie’s voice of reason and the recipient of a memorable entrance scene.
In the pantheon of badass entrance scenes—whether it’s Richard Roundtree walking along to the funkiest movie theme song ever in Shaft, a silhouetted Michael Keaton humming “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Night Shift, or Carrie-Anne Moss defying gravity in The Matrix—Sharif has the baddest and the grandest. I don’t care if you’re Dwayne Johnson or Ken Davitian. Every actor wants an entrance scene like that, and Lean gave it to Sharif.
While Lawrence and his guide Tafas (Zia Mohyeddin), a Hazimi of the Beni Salem tribe, help themselves to some water from a well in the middle of the desert, their water break is disrupted by a black speck materializing in the horizon. It takes the shape of a man in black on a camel who shoots down Tafas before he can even fire back a shot at the visitor. The man in black is Ali, who introduces himself to an upset Lawrence and explains to him that he killed Tafas for stealing water from his well, which the Beni Salem tribe is prohibited from using.
It’s miraculous how cinematographer Freddie Young accomplished that spectacular, dreamlike shot of Ali appearing like a mirage, which was reportedly impossible to pull off without a special Panavision lens that was built specifically for Sharif’s grand entrance. In another bold and ballsy move, the movie lingers on Ali’s emergence from the horizon for over a minute (but with some cutaways to reaction shots of Lawrence and Tafas) and with no Maurice Jarre score music. Those two stylistic choices heighten the tension and power of that grand entrance and beautifully express in visual terms that this is Ali’s desert—with its own set of rules—and it’s an alien world, but it’s also a familiar one from westerns and movies that model themselves after westerns (examples include Yojimbo and later on, any modern-day action thriller directed by Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Michael Mann, Kathryn Bigelow, John Woo, or James Mangold, to name a few).
O’Toole’s performance as Lawrence is one of the greatest film performances that never won an Oscar. But Ali is the most compelling figure in the movie, due to both Sharif’s gravitas and—according to the late Jack Shaheen, the Lebanese American author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, in a 2015 NPR piece on Sharif’s death—Lean’s interest in having a genuine Arab portray a bona fide Arab freedom fighter instead of a stereotypical Arab like a sheik, a terrorist, or a buffoon. In the movie’s second half, Ali starts to regret this Frankenstein’s monster he helped create in the form of the hubristic and delusional Lawrence, and it’s actually a more engrossing bit of drama than Lawrence’s hubris.
“Omar Sharif,” the signature song in the Tony-winning 2017 musical version of the 2007 Israeli movie The Band’s Visit, is a specific tribute to Sharif’s pre-Lawrence of Arabia era as a movie star in his native Egypt. But its lyrics make you understand why he captivated audiences in Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Funny Girl, the three films he was proudest of out of all the 100-plus films he made.
“He was cool to the marrow, the pharoah of romance,” sings performer Katrina Lenk during “Omar Sharif.” “Cool to the marrow” perfectly describes Ali and his non-violent demeanor, except for that time he killed Tafas for touching his office water cooler.
Despite its progressive portrayal of Ali and an observation Ali makes about Lawrence becoming far more barbarous and cruel than the Arabs he initially decried Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for their barbarity and cruelty, Lawrence of Arabia is not completely off the hook regarding race. There’s the matter of Alec Guinness in brownface as Feisal—he reportedly modeled Feisal’s accent after Omar Sharif’s Egyptian accent, but it’s still unconvincing as hell—and half-Mexican Anthony Quinn in similar brownface shit and a prosthetic Dick Tracy nose as Howeitat tribe leader Auda abu Tayi. Lean allowed a person of color to star as Ali, but he wasn’t brave enough to do the same for the role of Feisal. Brownface was typical of movies from the ’60s and before, and it still fucking exists in contemporary movies like the Tina Fey vehicle Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the 2016 screen version of war correspondent Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The sight of white actors in brownface isn’t surprising to see in an older movie by a white British filmmaker who is, as Ed Howard noted, “portraying the Middle East from a colonialist perspective even if he’s trying to critique colonialism at the same time.” Neither is it surprising that women were erased from Lawrence’s story by Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt, who heavily rewrote Michael Wilson’s script for the film and worked primarily off of Lawrence’s 1926 memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom (which was retitled Revolt in the Desert when Lawrence abridged his book the following year), in which Lawrence claimed that “from end to end of it there was nothing female in the Arab movement, but the camels.” The movie ignores the existence of British archaeologist/diplomat/spy Gertrude Bell, who worked with Lawrence to establish the Hashemite dynasties in Jordan and Iraq. It contains no speaking parts for women, who are relegated to one scene where a group of Bedouin women serenades the departing Bedouin armies from the cliffs above with their wordless desert version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
But there’s some vindication in the fact that Lawrence of Arabia’s unique pace and stylistic choices were shaped by a woman: the late Anne V. Coates, the legendary editor who later jazzed up a hotel room love scene in Out of Sight by jumbling up the order of the scene’s events so that you couldn’t tell at first if the non-verbal foreplay in the hotel room was a fantasy in Karen Sisco’s head or the real thing. Coates won an Oscar for her editing work in Lawrence of Arabia. The famous match cut from a shot of Lawrence blowing out a match to a shot of a desert sun rising from the horizon—a French New Wave-inspired bit of editing Steven Spielberg credits for igniting his pursuit of filmmaking—was her handiwork.
In 1962, the match cut was a novel way of symbolizing Lawrence’s transformation from an anonymous nobody to a history-making figure. It was one of many enigmatic touches in a movie that remains an enigma even today. Lawrence of Arabia is a movie I wanted to dislike because of the brownface shit, a white British view of Arabs, the absence of women on-screen, and the languid pace. Though the first three of those four things mar the movie, I’ve come to appreciate its pace. And the movie is full of many remarkable elements that keep me from disliking it, whether it’s the clever editing by Coates, any of Ali’s scenes, Maurice Jarre’s pitch-perfect score, or the bizarre and fascinating sounds of wooden tent poles that creak so audibly in the middle of a conversation between Lawrence and Feisal inside a tent that you feel like the poles are going to crack any second and cause the tent to collapse.
Lawrence of Arabia is the type of movie that can’t be fully understood after just one viewing. Sometimes your enjoyment of such a movie doesn’t occur right away. It can take place a full decade later, on a night when drowsiness doesn’t get in the way this time. This book is all about these works of cinematic or televisual art that took me a long while to notice and appreciate—or in some cases, notice and hate.