Lawrence of Arabia

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While on honeymoon, sneaking away to watch this 70mm tour de force on my cellphone, ten minutes at a time.

The Film: David Lean’s 1962 war epic on violence and identity

The Potable: Several dozen bottles of Mythos Hellenic lager

It’s unseemly to complain about spending two weeks traipsing about the Greek Isles. I had my beautiful bride and plentiful booze, but still, I began to feel a nagging, the noticeable absence of my third great love: film. “Oh look, there’s a lovely little cinema house on Perikleous Street,” I suggested over morning coffee in Athens, but my darling was in no mood to see Dogtooth. “Ah, a Yorgos Javellas retrospective just west of the Acropolis,” I noticed on a flier, but we were in a hurry to see a 2,000 year-old temple that evidently wouldn’t survive the night. “The Mummy, for Christ’s sake? The Moymia? It’s historical.” My Apple Strudel had, she confessed, already seen it.

It wasn’t until we reached Santorini that I realized, of course! These days, the modern traveler is always in possession of a private, portable video screen, and it was in this way that I decided to watch David Lean’s masterwork, Lawrence of Arabia, available on YouTube.

The film traces the military exploits of Colonel Todd E. Lawrence, a man torn between the land of his birth and the land that he loves, between his naive conception of war and its brutal reality. “This is going to be fun,” he says after receiving news of his mission in Arabia. He holds a lit match before his face, and then, poof – my Junebug found the beach towel she was looking for. Lawrence of Arabia’s first act supposedly contains one of the most famous transitions in cinema history, though I saw no sign of it, and frankly had to begin stirring my custom mixture of SPF 50 and 30. Has anyone else noticed it’s impossible to find SPF 80 anymore?

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Greek topography is far more dramatic than my North Carolinian-ass is used to, and after making our way back from the beach, winding along the sea cliff, we stopped at a mezze grill to recuperate. I had two beers, and my Turtledove returned from the restroom to find me passed out, Lawrence’s introduction to the desert playing out on my lap. That’s what she claims, at least. I was awake enough to catch that the British Army made Lawrence pay his own travel expenses with gambling winnings from a Monte Carlo casino. A bizarre subplot.

For a film of such epic scope, onscreen details are often obscure. Panoramic landscape shots amount to little more than sand porn, and battle scenes are completely inscrutable. Everyone freaks out about 70mm, but I couldn’t see a damn thing.

“What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?” a reporter asks. I did not hear the answer. Sitting on our balcony, I was distracted by the nose of what I initially assumed to be a small dog – but upon looking, discovered to be a large cruise ship – silently creeping into my field of vision. I attempted to return to my movie, only to have the horn blow, echoing across the bay. A sundeck DJ booth began a dubstep cover of Guns N’ Roses’ Paradise City. “Here comes the bridge-and-tunnel crowd,” I said to no one. With the sun set, the ship began farting fireworks off its stern as it sailed north into the Aegean. “How lovely!” my Honeybee cried, hurrying out onto the balcony. “Look that way,” she said, holding up her cellphone camera. She has several photos of me in this way, looking out to sea like the widow of a goddamn whaling captain. The script, anyway, could use some polishing.

It wasn’t until we reached Crete that I was able to resume the screening. In an act of defiance that helps establish his reputation among the Arabs, Lawrence rescues a wayward Bedouin from a nefarious stretch of desert. In a similar fashion, my Ladylove carried me piggyback across the hot pebbles of a beach near Makry Gialos. She set me down in the shallow water and I watched as she marched into the glinting ocean like a heroine of lore. “Truly, nothing is written,” I muttered, and later we ordered chips and guac, which the Greeks don’t prepare particularly well.

The award-winning score by Maurice Jarre is, I must confess, very difficult to hear.

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The film’s second half becomes much darker as Lawrence is confronted with his own limitations and the imperialist ambitions of the disastrous Sykes-Picot Agreement. In an act of rebellion, he leads his men on a slew of train heists. He becomes increasingly violent, exacting revenge where once he would have encouraged understanding. War makes monsters of men and muddles moral lines. Whose death is justified? To what extent should foreign powers engage in local conflicts? Should you, or should you not, remove your swim trunks if you accidentally find yourself on a nude beach? The questions we wrestle with. They say nudists rarely have the kind of bodies you’d want to see naked, but this is not true. Fifty feet downshore stood a man who clearly spends less time on the couch watching Criterion classics than I. My Coolwhip was busy reading, thank God, but how long could one stick with airport fiction? “Let’s go snorkeling,” I said. “See what we can see. Underwater.” She shrugged and I hurriedly fished the goggles from our beach bag. “Wait, are we on a nude beach?” I heard her ask. I put on a t-shirt which kept riding up in the waves, leaving a nasty burn on my coccyx.

That this fair Englishman should survive the Arabian summers without so much as a tan seems a continuity error, at best. The film’s last shot shows Lawrence as he’s driven away from Damascus, a dejected hero. He looks serenely toward the horizon, suffering from zero sunburn irritation, though maybe the seat of that Jeep is just designed better than those of Delta Airlines. I spent the next 8 hours laughing at the pitiable inflight movie selection while scratching my back and alternating between coffee and red wine.

Verdict: extremely high roaming fees

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