MOVIES : Lawrence of Arabia, the One-Horse Sequel

David Lean never would have done it this way.

His 1962 Oscar-winning film, "Lawrence of Arabia," was a movie epic on an enormous scale--a wide-screen extravaganza with spectacular desert vistas and breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. Its lyrical, sweeping soundtrack engulfed the moviegoing audiences of the day; its sheer volume almost loosened the fillings in their teeth. For "Lawrence of Arabia," crammed as it was with Big Moments, no expense was spared.

Now another aspect of the life of T. E. Lawrence is being filmed--and things could not be more different. In a riding school situated at a barracks belonging to the British army's Royal Artillery, a scene is being shot in which two actors playing Lawrence and Feisal (who became King of Iraq after World War I) confront each other on horseback for a prickly exchange of words.

For such a crucial scene, Lean (who died earlier this year) might have gone to great trouble, time and expense. But for this production, only one horse will appear on screen at a time during this exchange and the two actors, both in flowing robes, take turns dismounting and climbing on the shoulders of hefty crewmen who then bob up and down, so that the camera sees a conversation on horseback.

One imagines that Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif and Alec Guinness were not filmed this way for Lean's epic. But then the people behind this new venture are quick to emphasize that they are not aiming to emulate Lean and no comparisons should be made.

"A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia" is not even destined for movie theaters. It's a TV project, produced by former Columbia head David Puttnam's British-based Enigma Films, together with WNET, the New York public-television station. It is likely to be seen in the United States as part of PBS' "Great Performances" series next year.

It may seem odd that it has taken 30 years for another project on T. E. Lawrence to surface. Lawrence, the British soldier and author, became an internationally renowned figure during World War I through his exploits in Arabia, which he recorded in "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom." Sent to Egypt by the British as head of military intelligence, Lawrence helped organize the Arab revolt against Turkey, became a passionate devotee of the Arab cause, and headed a number of daring guerrilla raids that led to the Turks' defeat.

Puttnam theorizes that Lean's film, with its Oscar-nominated script by Robert Bolt, has cast a long shadow and deterred other filmmakers from tackling Lawrence as a subject. "But we don't feel that way," he said. "Lean dealt with a heroic sliver of Lawrence's life. Our film picks up around where his film left off."

"A Dangerous Man" concentrates on the Paris peace conference of 1919, at which Lawrence, fresh from his heroic deeds in the Arabian desert, came with Feisal to plead the case for Arab independence. Instead, they found themselves outmaneuvered by the British and French governments who were determined to carve up the Middle East to their own advantage.

Because of the subject matter, much of "A Dangerous Man" consists of interior shots--another reason why comparisons with Lean's film are invalid. There was one notable exception--a scene of Lawrence astride a camel in the desert was needed for newsreel footage that a theater audience is seen watching in the opening moments of "A Dangerous Man." The film's budget precluded traveling anywhere exotic, so a pair of camels was rented from an English circus and the scene was shot at a sand pit near the M25 freeway that circles London.

The Lean film ends with Lawrence, through his heroic deeds, becoming one of the most famous people in the world. "A Dangerous Man" explores his attitude toward his celebrity.

Said Puttnam: "Lawrence was the first manipulated or manufactured public figure. He was a creation of the British government as a celebrity--and part of him loved his fame and part of him hated it.

"He was the precursor of a very contemporary character--a media creation. I know people who have this flirtatious, dangerous relationship with the media. I feel I do myself. I need them to write about my work and, if possible, to praise it--and on the other hand I'm resentful when my private life is invaded."

Lawrence's ambivalent attitude to his fame is noted in the opening scene of Tim Rose Price's script, when, dressed anonymously in a shabby raincoat, he sneaks into the back of the Royal Albert Hall to see American journalist Lowell Thomas' film "With Lawrence in Arabia," which praised his desert exploits and made him a media darling.

"He used to mock and laugh at what Thomas was doing, but there are reports that night after night he would sneak in and watch the film," Puttnam said.

This focus on Lawrence as a media creation sheds new light on his character. "A Dangerous Man," said Puttnam's line producer, Colin Vaines, offers "a more sympathetic, 1990s view of Lawrence." Vaines has a theory "that every generation finds its own Lawrence--he's a blank canvas that everyone can project an image onto."

According to Vaines' theory, Lawrence was perceived as an adventurer-hero in the 1920s and 1930s, which was how Lowell Thomas presented him. In the 1940s, rumors began to circulate that he had Fascist sympathies, and might even have become a figurehead for a British Fascist party before his death in 1935. His legend was soundly debunked in the 1950s by Richard Aldington, who found him an unsympathetic imperialist.

Lean's film stressed the romance of Lawrence's exploits. Journalist Philip Knightley probed his sexual proclivities in the 1960s and dwelt on Lawrence's masochistic preferences. The following decade saw a book called "A Prince of Our Disorder" by John E. Mack--a psychological profile of Lawrence that concluded he was tormented by an identity crisis fueled by the knowledge of his illegitimate birth.

"A Dangerous Man" has been developed over three years, and at one stage was to be an Anglo-French production filmed in Paris. "The minute the Gulf War broke out," says Vaines, "we said this is the time to do it. The war gave our story extra relevance."

In fact, Puttnam had been toying with a story about Lawrence for several years. His interest in the subject goes back at least as far as 1971, when he co-produced a BBC documentary about the Paris peace talks called "Peacemaking 1919."

During his tenure as studio head at Columbia, he talked with U.S. TV networks about the notion of a large-scale miniseries of Lawrence to be produced by Goldcrest, the British film company. Journalist and historian Clive Irving submitted a treatment for the project. But then Goldcrest collapsed, and when Puttnam left Columbia to return to Britain, he, Irving and Tim Rose Price resurrected the idea with a much sharper focus--Lawrence at the peace talks.

"This was the event at which powerful men sat down and reinvented the map of the world," Puttnam said. "The subject always haunted me."

The two actors playing Lawrence and Feisal are completely unknown to American audiences. In the case of at least one--Ralph Fiennes, who portrays Lawrence--that state of affairs will soon no longer be true. One week after completing "A Dangerous Man," Fiennes started work as Heathcliff in Paramount Pictures' remake of the classic Emily Bronte novel "Wuthering Heights."

At 28, Ralph Fiennes (his name is pronounced Rayf Fines) is widely tipped as the next big British film star. "The coming man," Puttnam calls him. For the last three years he has been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company and this last season has received rave notices for his work in Troilus, Edmund in "King Lear" and Berowne in "Love's Labours Lost."

It is already widely predicted here that he will become a household name when "Wuthering Heights" is released. Said Puttnam: "Through my relationship with Warner Bros., I send them material on people I think they should watch out for and work with. I have done this four times in the last 10 years--with Jeremy Irons, Daniel Day-Lewis, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes. And in each case I have felt an equal confidence that they would emerge as a major figure."

During a break in filming, Fiennes--who has brown hair that flops boyishly over his forehead, aristocratic English good looks and, like his Lawrence precursor, Peter O'Toole, startlingly blue eyes--shuffles his feet when stardom is mentioned.

"Hmmm," he said. "It (the hype) doesn't seem real. What seems real is the work I'm doing on the floor of this studio or on stage at night, or when I'm at home having a bath. God forbid any of us starts to believe our publicity. If you go on, thinking, 'Oh, I'm very promising,' you're not really doing your job. It's satisfying to know people want you and are interested in you, but I think one's got to keep a balance about everything."

For all his modesty, Fiennes was first choice as Lawrence, and the producers of "A Dangerous Man" juggled the schedule of filming to accommodate him. Much of the film was shot at a studio belonging to Sands Films in Rotherhithe, deep in London's East End. The studio is only minutes away from the Royal Shakespeare Company's Barbican theater, where Fiennes was driven at high speed as soon as his filming day was complete--in time to make up and go on stage as Troilus or Edmund. "A few red lights have been crossed," he said.

Still, Fiennes reckons the hectic schedule has been worthwhile. "There are endless ramifications and contradictions," he said of playing Lawrence. "There was a huge amount of pain inside him caused by a sense of self-loathing alongside his ambition. He wanted to put himself into another world, to lift himself out of the fleshly limitations of being human. He had so many different motivations--to serve Britain, to give the Arabs independence and also to exorcise some need in himself."

Fiennes knows that he does not resemble Lawrence. "He was much smaller than me," he said, adding: "But I think I'm smaller than Peter O'Toole, anyway."

Feisal is played by a complete newcomer, a Sudanese-born actor named Sid El Fadil. He is 25, left drama school in London only last year, and got the role out of the blue.

"I sent in my photo and a CV (curriculum vitae) hoping I might get a small part as one of Feisal's aides or henchmen," he said. "The first picture, of me without a beard, got no response. So I sent in one of me with a beard and got called in for a screen test."

Fadil's arresting good looks got him that far; his test with Fiennes landed him the part against five far more experienced actors. "I wasn't even planning to act full time," he said with an amazed smile. "I was directing fringe theater in London, and I plan to go back to it. I don't trust acting--not for an exotic actor like me. I could be flavor of the month for a while, then burn out like a little shooting star."

His family virtually ran the Sudanese government until they were deposed in the 1970s.

"My father was brother of the ex-prime minister," he said. "If my mother had not been so keen to get me out of Sudan to London, who knows? I might have ended up a cabinet minister or something of the sort. Now I get a taste of what that might have been like through playing Feisal. My family find it rather amusing. They think acting is the work of the devil, basically."

"Everyone on the set has been so kind," he said. "They treat me like I've been doing this for 50 years. But it's the first time I've earned over 200 ($345) a week in my life."

Back to work, and Fiennes and Fadil on "horseback" again circle each other, watched by a group of extras brandishing notebooks and flash cameras. These are the press corps who now shadow Lawrence's every move and shout intimate questions to him at every opportunity.

From a balcony above, Vaines watches the action contentedly. "We specifically wanted unknowns to play Lawrence and Feisal," he said. "It felt like we should have some of that excitement of discovering someone new, like. . . ."

Like Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif?

"Well, yes," Vaines said. "But I do think our film will be different from Lean's film. We offer a more rounded portrait of Lawrence, I think. He's certainly more sympathetic. Our T. E. Lawrence is going to be perceived in a very different light."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
49°