Lawrence of Arabia vs Charles Dickens
Updated on May 11, 2010, 3:23 AM - Written by Tim Buttner
Out of all the epic movies that emerged out of the studio system in the early days of Hollywood, there are a select few that manage to reach the level of detail and character development of a Charles Dickens novel. These movies are grand in scale. The world is as much a character as the players that inhabit and evoke the conflict in it. The setting evokes more conflict by its inherent nature, which is exactly what Dickens did in his novels. Dickens wrote long tales, and the Hollywood epics were so long that they required an intermission. Over the course of one of his long novels Dickens was able to keep the train moving by developing his characters always, and the same is true for many of the epics. If there was any filmmaker more capable of the Dickens standards than David Lean, whose best epic film was shot on gorgeous 65mm: Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
An element that a Dickens novel could never have had, which Lawrence is aided by tremendously, is a score that sweeps its beauty throughout the theater. Maurice Jarre provided Lean with his score that created another element to the film's setting. Lean also used sound as a means to tell the story, or transition from one scene to the next, something that Dickens could only allude to in a novel. It is through these devices that Lean makes his first leap above the standards that Dickens put in place through his writing. Where Dickens was confined to describing his world to his audience in words, Lean had the ability to show and/or surround them through images and sound the descriptive qualities of the setting. It is in the earliest moments of the movie that we are introduced to this because the screen stays black and Jarre's roaring score brings to life the theater. Our first introduction is through the music, whereas Dickens' first introduction in the novel Hard Times is dialogue. Not dialogue that we hear, but instead dialogue that we read. The effect is as though we have a black screen and we hear the line of dialogue before we're introduced to its speaker, which is very similar to what Lean did with Lawrence. As the screen fades in to the first image, an overhead shot of Lawrence readying his motorcycle for travel, the opening credits play screen right. Lean holds this image while Dickens shows several through his description of the monotonous classroom and Mr. Thomas Gradgrind.
The basic rules for creating a character have existed before both Dickens and Lean's time, although each added on, greatly, to the methods. The root that Lean goes in order to introduce his audience to Lawrence is way others speak about his character, and they're not the most pleasant things either. Instantly, however, the audience understands that this is a character that is both loved and hated. He did something great, which the nation thinks highly of him for doing so, but in the process he came across as arrogant. Dickens used a different, but similar, dialogue method for creating a character. It's a sense of irony, something that Dickens excelled at, in that the character of Josiah Bounderby claims to be a self-made man, when in reality he lived a posh life all along. Bounderby constantly talks himself up, while Lawrence more or less displays masochism by putting out a flame with his fingers. Lawrence claims that the trick is not minding that it hurts, which is a subtle hint that he enjoys pain. If Lawrence talks about himself in this manner, then he's not as much of a fraud as Bounderby who hides his non-poverty struck upbringing. In fact, Lawrence prides himself on his upbringing whereas Bounderby is ashamed by it, and yet both were well cared for and well educated.
If Lawrence's exchanges early in the movie are an indication of anything, then it is that he blindly and ignorantly wanted so much to go on an adventure that he readily accepted Mr. Dryden's assignment before knowing what was entailed. If Thomas Gradgrind's early exchanges indicate anything it's that he lives a straight life with a small margin for error, and that he's as unaware as Lawrence for what waits ahead.
Lawrence finds himself miniscule and insignificant in the wide openness of the desert, but he takes pleasure in it. It's a new challenge for him to come out on top. Lean creates many shots of both beauty and awe. Each tells a different story, and each is of the desert only. When we see our characters they are but specks in the vast nothingness. A description that speaks millions of words in each of its images, when juxtaposed the daunting and scary reality seeps into the audience that this is a dangerous place that they are traveling to. As mesmerizing and as beautiful as it may seem, it still remains a barren wasteland where this is little water and practically no life. It contrasts to the elaborately decorated Cairo offices of the British military. Dickens naturally creates the imagery of Coketown through the most unbelievable command of the English language. A common problem for modern audiences with Dickens is that he often has them running to the dictionary, while Lean has them checking their watches and wishing that the movie could go quicker. Lean uses many long shots, which are the basic unit of film language, as his means to match Dickens' abilities to write paragraphs describing one image. And the modern audience is satisfied with graphic novels, television, video games, and tent-pole cinema events, which are too catered to their audience that it asks for any more intelligence out of its audience than Dickens and Lean.
The most unbelievable of shots in Lawrence of Arabia are these shots that dare to be long, just as some of Dickens' best passages span paragraphs or even pages. Through Dickens' many words he still manages to keep the train of the story flowing, just as Lean does in Lawrence. The plot always manages to move forward despite the length of either masterpiece. The plot not only progresses, but it builds its pacing towards the climax. Using the same language that they've already established, the two masters both are capable of channeling the plot into a succinct series of events. And through those events the characters reveal themselves to have changed. Lawrence started out so idealized, and full of the belief that he was invincible, he had the bright idea that he was going to make the world a better place. It was through his journey that he realized that he was a frail man who could be as easily corrupted as any other. Early in his travels he saves a man from the desert only to act as his executioner later to uphold peace between two of the Arab tribes, which has a sense of irony similar to Dickens. The realization that Lawrence is a changed man comes after two different events: the first his capture, torture, and rape at Deraa; and the second after he leads the charge on a Turkish column that has just massacred a village. His barbarism and blood-rage during that charge and its resulting massacre bring to light that this is not the same man that we saw in the map room in Cairo. Dickens managed this with Gradgrind when his world was shook and he realized that his core belief in the universe, "the facts," was not right. Dickens provides such a transformation in his novel that we've taken a journey with the character, and Lean holds up by doing the same with Lawrence. The only character that doesn't change is the setting.
In Lawrence of Arabia the desert is as much a character as Prince Feisal or Sherif Ali. The same goes for Coketown. The desert has a mind of its own. It takes one of Lawrence's servants using quicksand, it forces men to care for only themselves, and it causes Lawrence's madness. It is as relentless as Lawrence's own passion for unity among the Arab people, but ultimately the desert is more unwavering that Lawrence's passion. Throughout the movie the audience feels the presence, even when behind the walls of Cairo, or Aqaba, or Damascas, and it is never forgotten. The same goes for Coketown. Although the major players get away, it is always with them as if it were a part of their souls. The black smoke from the factories fill their lungs and suffocate them even when they are in the country, and causes them to act as though they were still in Coketown. Only those with money are able to get out from under its stench, or so it would be thought.
A fascinating connection between Lean's masterpiece and Dickens' Hard Times is that the portrayal of the separation between those with money and power and those who don't have either can be found. For the most part the Arabs are confided to the tribal warfare and ferociousness of their lifestyle that when it comes to their democratic politics… well there are no democratic politics. Lawrence tries to give them a sense of unity, but they are too different and too entrenched in their own customs to let him. His superiors, Mr. Dryden, and Prince Feisal, tell him to leave the politics with them. Feisal lays it out:
We drive bargains, old men's work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men - courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men - mistrust and caution.
And then Lawrence travels back home to England under the rank of Colonel. It's a moment very reminiscent of the one in Hard Times when Stephen Blackpool goes to Bounderby about getting a divorce from his wife and his response is, "But it's not for you at all. It costs money. It costs a mint of money." Bounderby continues to go on how much it will cost Blackpool to go through a divorce and remarriage to the woman he loves, which leaves Blackpool more devastated than before he had come to see Bounderby. An interesting way to portray the old saying "the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer." Both Lean and Dickens have this sentiment in several of their works. Lean studied historic figures or events often, and embedded a view at the core of each. The madness of war in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) won him his first Oscar, and Lawrence's heroic exploits earned him his second. However farther back in Lean's Filmography one finds Dickens.
Lean first forayed into a film version of a Dickens work in 1946, and then again in '48, when he made Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. Great Expectations earned him his second Oscar nomination. Lean reached a peak in filmmaking during one of Hollywood's boldest moves, but that also was made at a time of war. Lean was a soldier in a war against television. The 1950's began with the battle over which format would bring people back to the theaters… and no matter what the winner would be in color. Cinemascope won the battle over the technically-difficult 3D films, and by the end of the decade already lent its epic scale to Ben-Hur (1959), which opened the door for Lawrence. Lean set out with Eastman 65mm film and Panivision Cameras & Lenses into the desert. Out there he fought his own personal war with the desert, but when he returned, and came out of editing, he did so with his masterpiece about T.E. Lawrence. The war gave Lean the opportunity to work with the finest film format as his canvas. He used it to pay homage to Dickens, an early mentor in storytelling, through sheer language… of film.
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