epic |’epik| noun. A long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.
The epic is one of the most misused and overused labels in cinema. As evidenced in the dictionary definition cited above, it derives from a poetic genre that includes such tales as The Iliad and The Odyssey. To describe a film as an epic is to bestow upon it the glow of a long and storied form.
Thus, producers are quick to describe their films as epics, slapping any film that tells a large-scale story or showcases sweeping historical events with the label; films as diverse as historical “prestige” pictures like The English Patient and Michael Bay’s Transformers films have been promoted with the moniker “epic.” The adjective “epic” has become an Internet joke – a meme usually followed by the word “fail.” With that range of meaning, does the word even mean anything anymore? Is it a valuable or meaningful label for a film at all?
This past Thursday evening I had the opportunity to re-visit David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia, on the big screen of my local art house cinema. The film was screened from an old 35 mm print of Lean’s preferred 216 min cut of the film. One of the selling points of seeing Lawrence on the big screen is the fact that it “demands a widescreen” just to take in the cinematography. I too have often described the film in such ways, bemoaning the fact that I have never been able to take in a 72 mm print of the film.
In relation to such a big screen aesthetic, and its war-time, historical setting, Lawrence of Arabia has often been described as an epic. To be fair, we might even apply the word epic to its length. It is a long film that narrates the story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole in his first starring film role) and his efforts to unite the Arab tribes against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. It’s a grand scale historical tale, the repercussions of which are still being felt today in Egypt and across in the Middle-east as the Arab people continue to struggle for their freedom.
So, in many respects Lawrence of Arabia is perhaps one of the most appropriate films to bear this pseudo-generic label. But a closer look at what makes Lean’s film great might help us to probe the value of the designation epic, and why in addition to its sublime vistas and grand scale Lean’s film offers much to praise in its negotiation of the humane as well.
That is not to take away from the grand cinematographic achievements of Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young. One of the benefits of seeing Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen is to appreciate just how intricate the framing and composition of Lean’s film is. The shots of the sun rising above the desert and sand wastes stretching off as far as the eye can see were achieved without the kind of visual effects work today’s epics rely on (a single matte painting was used in a shot of the rising sun to keep the celluloid from burning). Lean and co. shot entirely on location in Jordan, Morocco, and Spain in order to bring the film to life. Lawrence of Arabia is truly stunning at times. But it is never just there for us to view as we would a painting. The desert is a character of its own. I think particularly of the scene when we first encounter Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) entering the screen slowly. The scale and distance allows us to feel Lawrence’s suspense at who is approaching the well. The epic vistas serve the narrative, becoming the most elegant way for us to enter the world of Lawrence.
The overall effect of the film then is not to relish the grandeur of the Arabian deserts, or to get swept up in the charge of a mounted brigade in a large-scale battle. Rather, the film’s central focus is on one man: T. E. Lawrence, and just what made him tick.
Unlike many self-styled, epic biopics, Lawrence of Arabia doesn’t try to give us too much. It focuses on just a couple of key moments in Lawrence’s life and career: of success and failure. The first is his successful effort to unite the forces of Prince Feisal (Alec Guiness) and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) and successfully take the port city of Aqaba. The second is his increasing disillusionment after his capture and torture at the hand of the Turks, and the French and British betrayal of their promise of Arab independence after the capture of Damascus. Thus the film, for one so broadly epic in so many ways, is actually a very focused one. We are given a picture of one man’s compulsion, self-loathing, and hubris.
Instead of arranging its central drama around the heroic deeds that Lawrence undertakes – and regardless of how accurate the film or his own self-portrayals of the deeds were, they are significant – it is arranged around the enigma that is one single human being. This perhaps is where Lawrence of Arabia most merits the title epic: after the film is over, we are left not simply with lists of battles and locations, but with a single figure who dominates the imagination – T. E. Lawrence. Lean’s film frames Lawrence in such a way that he is as memorable as Odysseus or Achilles. The characters are the true centre of the epic in the Greek and Latin tradition, and so too is character the centre of Lean’s film.
Like a character of myth, Peter O’Toole’s T. E. Lawrence is strong and active. The achievements that Lawrence accomplished left his superiors stunned, and the film stuns us as well, leaving us wondering how this odd character managed to change the course of twentieth century history. But Lawrence was far from perfect. Lean’s film characterizes Lawrence not as a stereotypical superhero, but as a man struggling not only against exterior forces, but also his faith in himself. In the famous sequence where Lawrence rides back into the desert to find a missing compatriot, O’Toole helps us understand Lawrence’s unbending will – his insistence that nothing is written that he doesn’t write – and then later the self-loathing that such willfulness causes when he is forced to execute the very same man. Lawrence is both an epic hero in his defiance of the fates and yet embodies the dilemmas of the Modern era in confronting the consequences of such hubris. When thinking of the epic nature of the film, the psychological battles are as intense as the physical ones. Peter O’Toole’s striking blue eyes are as vast as the deserts of Arabia.
The epic is at once more grand and more intimate than most who use the word would suspect. A true epic should leave us not merely with spectacle, but some further understanding of what it means to be human. The Greek epic poems were some of the first tales to grapple with the questions of human desire, morality, and our place in the universe. Lawrence of Arabia fits solidly into that tradition. It is epic in scale, and yet as deep a character portrayal as one often experiences in the cinema. Its desert vistas are sweeping, but its real territory is very human.