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Scorsese, Marvel, and “Lawrence of Arabia”

November 26, 2019


Acclaimed American filmmaker Martin Scorsese has some thoughts about the dominance of the Marvel Universe in popular cinema over the past decade. He praises the “talent and artistry” of people who make films like the Avengers series, but he laments the transition away from what he has always believed filmmaking to be about—namely, “revelation—aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation . . . the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” For Catholics, the Marvel superhero movies are often encouraging on a surface level. For example, Thanos, the villain of Infinity War and Endgame, arguably represents a common, anti-Catholic view that assumes the world is overpopulated and that new life is not always desirable. We cheer the heroes’ victory over him and his ideology in what could be interpreted as a pro-life message. And yet, isn’t Scorsese on to something about “revelation”? Do the Marvel movies really stir our souls? Is there something regrettable about spending $350 million (the price tag for Endgame), when more profound stories go unmade or unseen? Contrast today’s biggest blockbusters with one from the era when artists like Scorsese were learning their craft: David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia.

There is simply nothing like Lawrence of Arabia, and it is regularly included near the very top of any list of the best movies ever made. My wife and I leapt at the chance recently to see it at our local movie theater, where it was being shown for two days only, presented nationwide by TCM Big Screen Classics in a restored digital print, in its original 2.20 aspect ratio, and with a stunning audio remaster. It did not disappoint. The film made the careers of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, whose chemistry is almost unparalleled in screen history. The rest of the cast includes heavyweights Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains, and Jose Ferrer. Lean’s epic, pre-CGI vision, which makes painstaking use of the authentic desert landscapes of Jordan and Morocco, is occasionally imitated but has never been equaled (Star Wars, for example). Everyone recognizes the music of Maurice Jarre’s score, even if they have no idea where it comes from. There are many memorable lines of dialogue (“Ah, well, we can’t all be lion tamers”), and famous wide shots with hundreds of actors, horses, and camels in them. The film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lean. Lawrence of Arabia has it all. What a treat.

For people of faith, Lawrence of Arabia is a brilliant cautionary tale of willpower and vocation. T.E. Lawrence was a larger-than-life Oxford graduate, illegitimate son of a nobleman, and maverick army officer who died young in a motorcycle accident in 1935. As a very small figure braving an impossibly large and unforgiving desert landscape, Lawrence’s bravado is mesmerizing. “Nothing is written,” he tells Sherif Ali, who comes to believe in the mysterious Englishman’s ability to accomplish the unthinkable, even if he never buys completely into Lawrence’s utopian agenda. One of the most beautiful and devastating sequences is when Lawrence turns back into the desert to rescue a comrade, who then kills a neighboring tribesman, leaving Lawrence with no choice but to execute him. There is obvious biblical resonance in treks to and from Egypt, casting our minds to the main character’s Mosaic and Messianic qualities. But the dark side of “larger-than-life” is pathological narcissism, which O’Toole’s wild blue eyes capture perfectly in a character increasingly traumatized by war. Like so many charismatic leaders, Lawrence’s story ends in personal failure that we all know something about. He saves people, but he also destroys them. He is no Christ, despite the flowing robes and eager disciples. In the end, no one at his funeral can even say they knew him.

The cast and crew of the film are a religiously and morally mixed bunch. David Lean was married six times, and O’Toole had many well-known weaknesses. The producer, Sam Spiegel, was Jewish. Sharif was a convert to Islam. Guinness was a convert to Catholicism. Quinn was raised Catholic and died Four Square Pentecostal. Lawrence himself may have been a homosexual. There is no pretense of a Christian or religious film. And yet, whatever the faith commitments of those involved, Lawrence of Arabia is an artistic monument that stands for the depth of the human experience in God’s world. It is the kind of “revelation” Scorsese misses seeing on the big screen these days. There is much truth and goodness conveyed by its beauty. Moreover, we recognize it is worth a high price, and serves the common cultural good. The film cost $15 million to make in 1962, which translates into roughly $127 million today. Steven Spielberg, a longtime admirer of the film, estimates that it would cost $285 million to produce now, putting it in the neighborhood of the Avengers films. And like all the Marvel movies, Lawrence of Arabia was wildly popular. As with so much middlebrow twentieth-century entertainment, Lawrence of Arabia represents an age when high art and popular culture were not always so far apart.

We return to Scorsese’s critique. I have seen all but two of the twenty-three Marvel movies produced since 2008 (sorry Incredible Hulk and Captain Marvel!). My children love all of them, and I like most of them just fine. The Marvel films are valuable international exports, but so is fast food. They can be fun, but they are minimally nourishing. Expository dialogue pushes the all-important plot to its predictable end after three hours of cartoon-like battles, and the moral vision is certainly present, but it is much smaller than its massive packaging. By contrast, four hours of Lawrence of Arabia keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. The film is all movement—usually slow movement—that conveys the complexity of every human’s journey. The moral landscape is as enormous as the desert setting. We watch a man change on screen, and we change in real life.

The Marvel Universe will continue to receive plenty of my money and time for the foreseeable future. My kids nag me daily about getting Disney Plus and providing them unlimited access to their favorite superheroes. But for one night, I was delighted to have an alternative. Long live Lawrence of Arabia, and may its cinematic tribe flourish for the sake of Martin Scorsese’s sensible artistic principles, and perhaps for all our souls. We could all use a bit more “revelation.”