Lawrence of Arabia - a curator's view
Well, our little exhibition team did all go to watch Lawrence of Arabia in period costume as planned. There will soon be some very embarassing photos and perhaps some film footage displayed on this blog, so keep an eye out for them.
I thought that I'd give you my perspective of the film as the curator of our exhibition. (My apologies, for this is a long post and there are no images!) For me, looking again at this film after spending so much time immersed in everything Lawrence, was an eye-opener in many ways and I recognised and understood more clearly some aspects of the film that probably led to the many accolades it received in 1963. I read recently in Malcolm Brown's Lawrence of Arabia, the life the legend that he believed the film was 'in numerous respects more Hollywood than history'. On the whole I don't really think that is the case, but I suppose it depends on your perspective. Sure enough, there are many factual, chronological and even geographical errors in the film and those can easily be found in a number of critiques elsewhere on the web. Most criticisms are summarised in Wikipedia and Lawrence's authorised biographer Jeremy Wilson also details them here. I am not debating those observations.
I believe, however, that the film is a masterpiece of film making and, for those who are not interested in reading any of the many books written about Lawrence during the First World War, it does leave you with all the essential parts of the story. A rather enigmatic young English officer with some knowledge of the Middle East is sent by his superiors to assist the Arab Army and becomes a close adviser to Emir Feisal during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. I am sure that the story told by the film has inspired many people to read more about Lawrence and it probably also inspired further biographies about him. Why?
There is no doubt, that even in its very long restored version, it is an entertaining and captivating film. And despite the fact that some characters are not portrayed completely accurately, the performances of Peter O'Toole in the title role, Alec Guinness as Emir Feisal, Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi, and Jack Hawkins as General Allenby are all larger than life and very effective film characterisations of real people. Although O'Toole was almost a foot taller than Lawrence and his portrayal was very dramatic, I think we have to remember that this was a film and not a documentary. It had to entertain and he had to give us an idea of Lawrence's extraordinary nature and talents within the confines of Robert Bolt's script and David Lean's direction. It was O'Toole's first leading role in a major film and balancing all of these egos alongside Lawrence's legend surely cannot have been an easy task. From what I've read, I think that Guinness, Hawkins and Quinn all did excellent jobs and left you with pretty good impressions of their characters.
Much has been made of the many fictionalised characters in the film such as Omar Sharif's Sherif Ali or Claude Rains' Mr Dryden. The problem the film makers faced is something that is now familiar to me. There were so many important players in this story that it would have been impossible, even in a film of this length, to introduce them all with any real purpose. So, Ali represents numerous Arab leaders and Dryden is a composite of several important officials including Ronald Storrs, D.G. Hogarth and probably Gilbert Clayton, the intelligence chief in Cairo who was Lawrence's first wartime mentor. Like Lean, in our exhibition we face the challenge of presenting a strong story without confusing visitors with too much detail. We must also be historically accurate. Once you see how many objects, works of art, photographs, film footage and documents about Lawrence could be included, it is a difficult task to pick the eyes out of it and only display the best and most relevant. Of all the characters in the film, I was most disappointed by Anthony Quayle's Colonel Brighton. That character was a total travesty of a number of very professional British Army officers who worked with Lawrence and the Arab armies - Stuart Newcombe, Pierce Joyce, Walter Stirling, Alan Dawnay and Hubert Young. Some may not have had Lawrence's flair, imagination and vision, but the documents I have read reveal a strong mutual respect between them and Lawrence. Apparently, even Quayle thought his character was an idiot. If Brighton was really Lean's and Bolt's 'only honourable character' in the film, as a device, it did not work.
A couple of other things also left a lasting impression on me from a curatorial perspective. Maurice Jarre's film score is wonderful at both setting the scene and telling the story. I will try to seek the permission to use it as background music for the entrance and first stage of our exhibition. The film is also extraordinarily faithful at recreating the visual images of Lawrence, the Arabs and the operations of them both in the desert. No small wonder that Freddie Young won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. We have trawled through many photographs of the events covered in the film, a lot of which were taken by Lawrence himself, and the cinematography is so evocative of some of the well used images that I found myself actually recalling them in my head while watching the film. It has confirmed for me the importance of incorporating those images in our exhibition.
Finally, to add to the vast amounts of trivia concerning this film, I must tell you about a wonderful line spoken by Mr Dryden towards the end of the film. General Allenby has just asked him for his opinion about the arcane and difficult situation in Damascus after its capture. Dryden says only, 'It rather makes me wish I'd stayed in Tunbridge Wells'. While watching this I was sitting next to our exhibition's historian, Nigel Steel who is on loan to us from the Imperial War Museum. He too hails from Tunbridge Wells, so we both laughed very loudly when we heard this.