Friday, April 2, 2010

A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia

This week we studied World War I and the Arab Revolt in Islamic Civ., so I thought it time to revisit A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia (1992), a pretty good made-for-TV follow-up to Lawrence of Arabia. Though limited by its format, it's certainly an interesting film, further exploring Lawrence's enigmatic character, and the Allies' broken war-time promises to the Arabs. How much enjoyment a viewer gets out of it, however, is largely dependent on their interest in the subject matter.

T.E. Lawrence (Ralph Fiennes) accompanies Prince Feisal (Alexander Siddig) to the Paris Conference of 1919, hoping to convince the Allies to live up to their war-time promises of an independent Arabia. Certain British officials are sympathetic, including Winston Churchill (Michael Cochrane), as is American President Woodrow Wilson (Robert Arden) - but the French government and conservative Britons, eager to divide up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire, check Lawrence's every move. Meanwhile, tensions develop between Lawrence and Feisal, as Lawrence's flamboyant showboating earns him media attention, marginalizing the cause he ostensibly represents.

A Dangerous Man is an interesting account of the Paris Peace Conference and a damning account of the Allies' perfidy. While the British promised independence to Feisal's Arabs, they had also promised choice cuts of the Near East - particularly Syria - to the French, and desired oil-rich Iraq for themselves. Arab claims of self-determination fall on deaf ears: their struggle against Turkey is dismissed as a "sideshow of a sideshow," even though it's their land that's being re-apportioned. With British and French prestige and oil wealth at stake, the Arabs don't have a prayer.

The movie also offers a complex portrayal of Lawrence, as a man both proud of and disgusted by his own fame. He finds himself trapped in a lie, partly beyond his control and partly of his own making: from his illegitimacy to his exaggrated war record, he finds himself a horrific fake, bluffing the whole world and almost getting away with it. Lawrence's grandstanding - arriving to the conference in Arab robes, muting Feisal by serving as his interpreter - reducing Feisal and the Arab cause into sideshows of his image. The film is greatly successful in this, and accurately portrays Lawrence's torment and anguish over his nature: he creates a legend of himself, but fails to achieve anything substantiative.

Nonetheless, A Dangerous Man has its share of flaws. Besides boring direction by Christopher Menaul and endless talking scenes (to be expected of the format), its biggest flaw is not quite being able to keep its characters straight: the major personages register strongly enough, but the British and French diplomats, evil or not, become interchangable. The narrative flow and dramatic impact are also shaky: though there are many strong individual scenes - Lawrence's reciting Feisal's message to the Allied council in English and French, Lawrence's confrontation with Georges Clemenceau (Arnold Diamond) and ANZAC General Chauvel (Ray Edwards) - the film never generates much dramatic tension. Again, if you're a history buff, you'll find it fascinating; a conventional viewer or historical dilettante may find it stuffy and boring. To each his own.

Ralph Fiennes gives a fine performance; he's no Peter O'Toole, but he puts his own distinct spin on Lawrence and carries the film admirably. Alexander Siddig (Syriana) is an excellent Feisal: passionate, determined, conflicted and baffled by Lawrence. These two are surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast: Paul Freeman (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Denis Quilley (Anne of the Thousand Days), Nicholas Jones (Vanity Fair), Jim Carter (Shakespeare in Love).

A Dangerous Man is worth a look for history buffs, fans of Lawrence of Arabia, and members of the Lawrence Bureau, all of which I am. Others ought to use their own discretion.

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