I saw Lawrence of Arabia for the first time yesterday. Yes, the first time. So I couldn’t tell you how the restoration has affected or, in fact, restored the print. That also means that I have never seen the movie in widescreen, TV format, letterboxed, or anything other than a giant screen at my local mega-plex. So don’t ask me how different the movie felt in scope or scale. I have no idea. But I’m sure it was way better than it would have been on my TV at home.
What I can say is that viewing Sir David Lean’s epic tale through the sweeping deserts of the Arabian Peninsula in 2012 as opposed to 1962 must be an incredibly different experience.
In 1962, how many moviegoers had ever seen color pictures of vast deserts and wicked sand storms? These days the images from Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom are so commonplace that an entire generation has grown up watching the action streaming live directly into their homes. When the British commanders plot their battlefield strategy on a blackboard in a tent, how many recognized the name Haifa, a city we have seen suffer Palestinian attacks and Hezbollah rockets on the evening news?
The echoes from the past of Lawrence of Arabia ring as loud and clear in our post-Arab Spring world as the calls of the Bedouin women bidding farewell to the Arab army in the movie. As I write this, Turkey is launching shells at Syria. In the movie, the final battle is to wrench control of Damascus from the Turks.
One of the major struggles in the film is for Arab independence from colonial forces. Lawrence pushes the Bedouins to unite across tribal lines urging them to find strength in their commonalities, not division in differences. This same story line has played out in our modern headlines in Iraq with conflicts between the Sunnis and Shiites and elsewhere across the Middle East as democratic elections sometimes spin into battles of ancient tribal conflict.
In the end, the Arab Council in Lawrence of Arabia is unable to get along long enough to achieve much of anything once they take Damascus from the Turks. One tribe controls the power plant. Another is in charge of the waterworks. Yet another is responsible for the telephone network. Needless to say, nothing works and no one works together. As the lights go out in the British general’s office and there is no running water at the POW hospital, I am reminded of the images of “post-liberation” Baghdad.
I went to see Lawrence of Arabia as a student of film, notebook in hand, ready to make copious notes on things like shot composition, story elements, or screenplay motifs. I did that. And yes, those things are interesting and the shots of the scorching heat as they cross the sun’s anvil of An Nafud are remarkable. But what I wasn’t expecting was to leave the theater thinking critically about the modern problems facing the region and how, as with so many things, the more things change the more they stay the same.