saw Lawrence Of Arabia when it came out in 1962, in the sort of grand
roadshow presentation big movies used to get back then — reserved
seating, an overture and intermission and an expensive souvenir program
on sale in the lobby (I still have mine.) My dad used to take me to
these big roadshow presentations of big films — it was one of the
great rituals of my childhood.
Lawrence blew me away back then, at the age of twelve. I saw it a few times
later and was less impressed. As an adult (and apprentice screenwriter)
I found the dialogue excessively literary and aphoristic — every line
was a bon mot, a philosophical nugget, an intellectual construction.
Real people, I thought, in real wars, don’t talk like that — even if
they’re Oxford-educated British officers or wise old Bedouin
Then I saw the restored version back in the Eighties, on a big screen, and
realized how wrong my second thoughts were. What I’d lost touch with
was the power of the images — the extent to which the images are the
story of this film, its narrative and its subtext, its spectacle and
its subtlety. The moment of revelation came watching the shot where
Lawrence walks along the top of the captured train. His Bedouin
followers run along the ground below him. In the shot, we only see
Lawrence’s shadow on the sand — his followers chase his shadow.
This is the whole film in a single image — the essence of the filmmaker’s
view that Lawrence both invented himself in Arabia and lost himself . .
. created an image that had no substance beyond the events it inspired,
yet cast a real shadow into the future. In the last shot, as Lawrence
is driven away from the scene of his betrayed triumph, we see his face
through the windshield of an open car. A reflection on the windshield
suddenly obliterates his face, and the film is over.
This is a mode of filmmaking — in which a film’s deepest truths are conveyed
by images alone — that characterized the silent era of cinema and which is
rarely seen today except in the theoretical film experiments of
Jean-Luc Godard. I began to see the dialogue of Lawrence in a
different light — as the functional equivalent of title cards, which
offered a kind of running literary commentary on or clarification of
the images but did not drive the narrative or the drama.
In short, I realized that Lawrence is essentially a silent film — in
the same sense that Titanic is essentially a silent film, a film
whose dialogue is virtually irrelevant to the actual meaning of the
work. Relatively unsophisticated twelve year-old boys and girls, for
whom the experience of a film is primarily visual and visceral, who
feel no intellectual need to translate a film into literary terms
before being able to appreciate it, have easier access to such
sound-era “silents”. They are, in this, sometimes wiser than their