Because no good movies get released in late August, I took the opportunity to review a classic DVD:
When your television dies, a trip to the home entertainment showroom, with its massed ranks of the latest monitors all displaying the same glorious nature documentary for convenient comparison shopping, will quickly convince you that your initial plan of buying a modestly larger replacement tube for $299 was a naïve delusion. How could you ever be satisfied with a pathetic 32" CRT, when the gazelles gamboling on the Serengeti are so luminous on a plasma set, so detailed on an HDTV, and so humongous on a 56" screen?
But when you bring your technological breakthrough home, you notice that you seldom actually watch nature documentaries. You mostly just watch people talking, and the thousands of dollars you spent isn't making David Letterman's interview of Richard Simmons any less depressing.
To postpone disillusionment, TV buyers should also pick up a grand movie on DVD. And what better than the two-disk version of "Lawrence of Arabia?" Unlike just about every other film you might buy rather than rent, you could watch "Lawrence" a second time.
Approaching its 45th anniversary, "Lawrence's" place in the pantheon is secure. Director David Lean, cinematographer Freddie Young, and composer Maurice Jarre complement a tremendous cast, especially Alec Guinness as astute Prince Feisal, the future king of Iraq, and Anthony Quinn as choleric Auda, the prototypical Big Man.
Often extolled as the film that must be seen in the theatre, "Lawrence" is actually better from your couch, because you can then pause it to look up whether Medina is north of Mecca or vice versa. (Inexplicably, there are no maps in the 217-minute war movie).
Moreover, but don't mention this to your cinephile friends, you can fast-forward through the second dozen times Peter O'Toole, as WWI archaeologist-warrior T.E. Lawrence, gallops his camel through the stark desert scenery he found so much more "clean" than damp and overgrown England. (Perhaps the British were better at empire than Americans have proven so far because it gave some of their best men the chance for fun in the sun that our West furnishes domestically?)
Movie critics today are obsessed with sniffing out the political implications of the latest releases, such as the suspicion that the sex comedy "Knocked Up" was insufficiently pro-abortion or that the Xbox mannerist Spartans of "300" were ancient Republicans.
Few attempt, however, to draw lessons from the handful of classic films that would reward serious analysis. Among its numerous virtues, "Lawrence" provides insight into America's quandary in Iraq by offering a vivid primer on what William S. Lind calls "asymmetrical" war.
In "Lawrence," regular warfare, with its drilling and decisive battles, is exemplified by the stolid Turkish infantry, while irregular warfare, with its interminable raids and retreats, is embodied in the mercurial Arab camel cavalry.
In the famous screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, the British high command wants Lawrence to trick the Bedouin Arabs into enlisting as cannon fodder in the grinding British attack on the Ottomans at Gaza. Lawrence insubordinately devises a more culturally appropriate strategy for the nomads: "'The desert is an ocean in which no oar is dipped' and on this ocean the Bedu go where they please and strike where they please." They will harass the Turkish railway to Medina with hit-and-run attacks, avoiding the pitched battles, for which the tribesmen, no fools, wouldn't even show up.
In 1917, in the first two-thirds of the movie, Lawrence's insight works wonderfully. In the 1918 conclusion, however, though the British and Arabs win, the failures of irregularity become clearer. The victorious but still fractious clans can't competently manage the hospitals and waterworks of Damascus. Even before then, there are hints that irregular desert warfare is doomed by the new age of mechanized mobility. When the Turks can get their hands on enough German armored cars and airplanes, they negate the traditional Bedouin advantage in mobility and elusiveness.
Subsequently, it turned out that cultures that were good at regular warfare, like the Israelis and Americans, were also better at building and maintaining the tanks and planes that gave regular militaries the mobility of irregular warriors.
But history never ends; losers adapt. As Lawrence tells Omar Sharif's Sherif Ali, "Nothing is written." Now, after two easy victories in open country over Iraq's derisible regular army, America has bogged down in Iraq's urban jungles fighting countless irregular units that disappear into the alleys as Lawrence's mounted warriors vanished into the dunes.