Kevin Jackson, 2007, paperback, 127 pages
What to do? Center this review on TE Lawrence, the eponymous subject of the film about which this book is written, or tilt it towards director David Lean, whose centenary we celebrate this year? Kevin Jackson, author of this beautifully illustrated, fact-filled little monograph, does both, and more. In a short space, we have recurrent excerpts from the source of it all, Lawrence’s mystical war memoir “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” plus everything from glimpses into Lawrence’s semi-hermitic postwar period of “mind suicide” to a list of scenes cut from earlier releases.
Jackson, an apparently roguish Englishman who takes pride in his membership in the Collège de ‘Pataphysique (worth looking up, as are several Oxford English Dictionary words in Jackson’s glossary) was an inspired choice to write this latest work on Lawrence. His essay is not Middle East centric as an Arabist’s might be, and he realized that a cinephile’s evocative “eulogies would no doubt be a good deal more enjoyable for the writer than the reader.” The result is a mix of fascinating detail on the “making of” and a sense of why the film and its underlying story remain timeless.
As a writer, Jackson gives proper recognition to the screenplay by Robert Bolt, whose triumph as a playwright (A Man For All Seasons) brought him to Lean’s attention. Says Jackson:
Bolt knew how to shape complicated historical matter into forms that were dramatically appealing yet reasonably faithful to the record; he could render abstract political and philosophical issues in urgent, concrete terms; his dialogue was trenchant and witty.
We learn that Bolt was later forced to share the screenplay credit with Hollywood-blacklisted writer Michael Wilson, who had written an earlier, discarded, version of the screenplay. It was only one of several controversies that swirled around the film once it reached blockbuster status.
But it’s not just the writing: Lawrence of Arabia, Jackson says, “usually comes somewhere near the top” of popular lists of Best Films Of All Time. I first saw Lawrence on the wide screen, a rare treat (the film has been re-released only 3 or 4 times since its first showing in 1962). Though I own a DVD of the 1988 restoration, everyone who loves this film needs to see it on the big screen. Lawrence of Arabia is so good, so evocative of the romantic and tragic history of the Arab Revolt against the Turks that it continues to be a point of reference.
Actually, it is TE Lawrence who is still a reference: the US military has made him required reading for budding desert soldiers. Jackson mentions the Iraq War re-issuance of Lawrence’s “27 Articles,” first published by the British Army at the height of the First World War in 1917 to give troops the benefit of his “lessons learned” in winning hearts and minds: Article No. 13: Never lay hands on an Arab: you degrade yourself...
Reading Jackson’s Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most striking sub-themes is what-might-have-been. Can’t imagine anyone but Peter O’Toole in the title role? How about Marlon Brando, Albert Finney, or, when initial interest arose in the 1930s in filming the Lawrence epic, Cary Grant or Laurence Olivier? Maurice Jarre’s stirring soundtrack might have been otherwise: Sir William Walton, Benjamin Britten, Aram Khachaturian, and Richard Rodgers (but not Hammerstein) were all bruited at some point. “Maurice Jarre’s score became such a powerful element in the film’s triumph,” Jackson writes, that it’s hard to imagine the alternatives.
Our 21st century sensibilities might be jarred by what Jackson calls the “cod-biblical style of Bolt’s Arab dialogue," and there's a tinge of Orientalism in the film's vision of desert society. But I can’t think of any popular film made before – or since – that has given as positive a treatment to Arabs and their national cause. Or a Super Panavision 70 epic that manages to show its hero as a complex bundle of contradictions. “Bolt’s Lawrence,” says Jackson, “seethes with neuroses.”
David Lean’s directorial genius, Maurice Jarre’s memorable score, and Robert Bolt’s script combine to make Lawrence one of the best historical dramas in cinema. Though purists have quibbled over the historical fidelity of the film, it is hard to imagine a more nuanced depiction of this incredible story of a blond Englishman leading a revolt in Arabia. Kevin Jackson says it best:
I consider Lawrence of Arabia not just a remarkable and uniquely moving work, but one of the films which has vindicated the medium of cinema even as it expanded its possibilities.
Jackson’s motivation is amply fulfilled in this BFI volume. I’ll put it in a place of honor, between “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and my DVD of Lawrence of Arabia.