"After my death they'll rattle my bones in their curiosity." - T.E. Lawrence. David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is my favorite movie. I've seen it at least 15 times, know the script by heart and have blogged about it more times than I count. And own three video versions, three soundtrack recordings, several 'making-of' books and a few dozen biographies of T.E. Lawrence. Last October, I dragged friends along to see its 4K theatrical release. I even have a Lawrence t-shirt crumpled up in my closet. I'm as geekily attached to Lawrence as any Nolan fan or Trekkie. The film encapsulates everything I love about cinema in a beautiful, cerebral, four hour package: amazing scenery, exciting action, complex characters and plot strands, unforgettable music and peerless acting. All that's missing is a romance. Yet even this masterpiece has its shortcomings. Lawrence was not only a soldier but an accomplished archaeologist, diplomat and writer. His postwar exploits (trying to hide as an enlisted man in the RAF as his fame grew), are more interesting (if less flashy) than his wartime adventures. His is a story of accomplishment and failure, pride and anguish, encapsulated in a tragically tortured personality who "crav[ed] to be famous" with "a horror of being known to like being known." Given what Lean's movie leaves out, I'm not adamantly opposed to another depiction of Lawrence's life. One could make a dozen different films from his strange story. Whether 's proposed mini-series is the winning ticket, however, is another matter.
Let's try a balanced look at how the new Lawrence could work, or bomb disastrously. Hopefully you'll find this more interesting than a rote "remakes suck!" rant.
How It Could Work
Broader Context - Lean's film downplays the complications of Britain's war against Ottoman Turkey. While Lawrence orchestrated guerrilla raids on Aqaba and Salt, his commander General Allenby engineered massive victories against the Turks at Gaza, Beersheba and Megiddo. Allenby served as the military arm of Allied ambitions, seeking to divide the Middle East at war's end. The movie mentions this, but strangely pretends Lawrence knew nothing of it. In reality he agonized endlessly over convincing the Arabs to "fight for us on a lie." Obviously this doesn't mean the filmmakers should incorporate every detail of military and political strategy. How dull that would be! But it might be nice to give viewers a clearer picture of the context and stakes involved in Lawrence's actions. How did Britain end up backing both Emir Feisal and Ibn Saud, bitter enemies even during the war? As few Westerners can tell a Saudi from a Hashemite, elucidation certainly couldn't hurt.
= An Arab Perspective - In some ways, Lawrence of Arabia was a daring film by 1962 standards. It's sharply critical of British imperialism, and sympathizes with the Arab leaders. That said, it still reverts to stereotypes of Arabs being uncivilized and unable to run their own government. That's not to mention Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn sporting brown face and, in Quinn's case, a regrettable false nose.
While filmmakers shouldn't idealize the Hashemites or their Bedouin followers, they certainly could do better by showing them as agents rather than mere pawns of the British. One place to start is the finale: Feisal's Kingdom in Damascus didn't collapse due to Arab infighting. It lasted from 1918 to 1921, when a French army invaded Syria. Lawrence's Arab allies played the Allies and vice versa; the Allies simply had more power to affect their wishes.
= Cover New Ground - As mentioned above, the obvious appeal with a mini-series is exploring lesser-known facets of Lawrence's life. Thanks to the movie, and Lawrence's memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom, most people have at least passing familiarity with Lawrence's wartime service. Not so widely recognized is The Mint, his stream-of-consciousness account of life in the Royal Air Force. Nor his crucial role in shaping the modern Middle East, as an aide to Winston Churchill at the 1922 Cairo Conference. There's no end of raw material for a talented filmmaker to cull from.
= Friends and Colleagues - If judged by his company kept, Lawrence was surely the most interesting man of his time. Among Lawrence's many friends were Winston Churchill, diplomat and Arab scholar Gertrude Bell, playwright George Bernard Shaw and his wife, military strategist Basil Liddell Hart, novelists E.M. Forster (A Passage to India), Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D'Urbervilles) and Robert Graves (I Claudius). Few figures have such an impressive dossier of friends.
Even focusing on the wartime years, you could incorporate figures left out of Lean's movie. Consider Stewart Newcombe, a fellow liaison to the Arab Revolt, whose eagerness in combat caused Lawrence to complain "he burned friend and foe alike." In 1917 Newcombe was captured by Turkish troops, yet escaped a POW camp with the help of a French woman, then spent the next year hiding in Istanbul!
= A More Balanced Lawrence - gives possibly cinema's best performance. Mixing playful ambition with quivering intensity, O'Toole embodies a remarkable character arc. He's a tragic antihero, ultimately destroyed by repressed sexuality and outsized ambition. Yet Lean's version emphasizes Lawrence's ego and neuroses almost to the exclusion of his good qualities.
Besides being ferociously intelligent and courageous, Lawrence possessed an almost childish insouciance. During the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Lawrence amused himself by dropping toilet paper rolls on PM David Lloyd George's head! And charming: he made friends as easily with private soldiers as luminaries like Churchill and Shaw. True, he was flawed and tormented, but this wasn't his entire character. A new movie could offer a more balanced showing. That's being generous. Being the spoilsport I am, it seems more likely things will go horribly, horribly wrong.
How It Could Suck
= Bad Casting - Werner Herzog's mooted biopic of Gertrude Bell whetted my interest... at least until I heard Robert Pattinson has been cast as Lawrence. But at least he's a supporting player there. One shudders to think who Hollywood pretty boy Emmerich will cast as T.E. Lawrence.
= It's No David Lean - Unlike others, this consideration is purely cinematic. Few will doubt Lawrence of Arabia is among the most beautifully shot movies ever. The iconic desert scenes in Jordan, Spain and Morocco remain without peer, captured by photographer Freddie Young's incredible eye. There's the grand scope of a true "cast of thousands" on the move. More than that, it conveys such a brilliant atmosphere of desolation - the desert seems like an almost alien world, beautiful and unchanging but extraordinarily dangerous, threatening to consume Lawrence whole.
Many of the locations used in the original remain popular destinations. For instance: Wadi Rumm, Jordan was recently used in Transformers 2 and Prometheus. But what modern director has the flare of Lean and Young? How many actual humans will feature in the battle scenes rather than pixels? Will the production designer build an entire town from scratch, as John Box did with Aqaba? Granted, if the show proves a more modest character study, then this needn't be a huge issue. But if we're venturing into the desert again, Emmerich and Co. have a lot to live up to.
= Dumbing Things Down - If a mini-series offers opportunity for a more thorough exploration of Lawrence's life and times, it also presents the chance of ignoring those aspects. Politics, you say? Characterization? Who needs that noise? We've got action, exotic locales and a sexually ambiguous hero. Let's go whole hog into blockbuster territory with explosive action scenes, maybe laden with CGI and shaky cam! Perhaps we can mention Lawrence did some stuff after the war, but no one really cares about that.
= Spicing Things Up - Lawrence's life brims with excitement and intrigue, but facts haven't been enough for some biographers. Every few years there's some trashy new biography that "sheds light" on Lawrence by making things up. Whether it's Desmond Stewart positing that government agents murdered Lawrence, Phillip Knightley claiming he really hated Arabs or James Barr arguing he destroyed diary entries that conflicted with his memoirs, there's no end of tabloid speculation for an unscrupulous filmmaker to employ. Let's face it: a movie without at least a token romance is (to mass viewers) boring. Lawrence was a celibate man with tortured views of sexuality; you couldn't just cram a romance with some Arab girl into the plot. His flirtations with Janet Laurie and Clare Sydney Smith were ephemeral, at best. Playing up theories of Lawrence's homosexuality would turn off many viewers, let alone the more unsavory details (Google John Bruce). Even with historian Michael Korda acting as consultant, I'm leery the series will avoid these angles. Which leads us to...
= Roland Emmerich - Emmerich's only a step or two above Michael Bay on the quality ladder anyway, but his atrocious treatment of history deserves particular censure. Remember The Patriot, which grafted Nazi atrocities onto British troops fighting American rebels? How about Anonymous, which not only posited that Shakespeare didn't write his own plays but that the author was a nobleman who impregnated Elizabeth I despite being her son? That's an inspiring track record.
What exciting revelations does this scrupulously accurate auteur hold in store? We'll discover, no doubt, that Lawrence was murdered by an Anglo-Nazi conspiracy while trying to singlehandedly stop the outbreak of World War II, after a steamy menage-a-trois with Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell. And King Edward VIII really wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom; that's the real reason he abdicated. I don't know about you, but that's a mini-series I'd pay to see!