Face Off: Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Queen of the Desert (2015)

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

We discussed the possibility of defining an “epic” film in our review of Ed Zwick’s Legends of the Fall, concluding that it’s perhaps more of an impossibility due to the wide range of films that fall comfortably under the genre label. Despite this, we at least sought out the notion that the scope of the idea is infinitely more important than the scope of the production budget, and Lawrence of Arabia was one of the more obvious examples of true epic filmmaking in that respect. David Lean’s biographical account of the life of the adventurous T. E. Lawrence stands as one of the greatest films of its kind because the passion of the film lives up to the passion of the man, the scope of the ideas of the film seeming to mirror and amplify the ideas of the British explorer/officer/diplomat.

Lawrence is about to be back on the big screen in a supporting role in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, a film masquerading as a worthy companion of sorts to Lawrence of Arabia at least as far as the marketing campaign is concerned. As Herzog’s film progresses past the first quarter, though, it becomes painfully obvious that Queen lies on the other end of the epic spectrum in that it fails on almost every level to convey any passion. Nicole Kidman leads the film as Gertrude Bell, British explorer/writer (/archaeologist/political officer/spy/cartographer) who spent her time across Syria, Asia Minor, and Arabia in the decades following the turn of the century. Kidman is fine in the role — but it’s not her passion that Queen of the Desert lacks. It’s Herzog’s.

Bell led a similar life to Lawrence and encountered him several times throughout her travels, first in the Mesopotamian city of Carchemish and several times after that in Cairo. Queen of the Desert casts Lawrence as a face in a larger ensemble, as a recognizable name (more recognizable than Bell’s, probably), which isn’t an inherent point against the movie. Bell’s adventures aren’t as well-known and it’s somewhat surprising that her exploits haven’t been filmed before. Queen is undoubtedly Bell’s story, one worthy of the telling, so it’s a shame that the telling didn’t end up being worthy of Bell’s story.

A minor problem (minor within the context of Queen, but major enough that it almost seems too obvious to point out) is the casting, particularly with regards to James Franco as Henry Cadogan and Robert Pattinson as T. E. Lawrence. I don’t have my Period Biopic Handbook at the ready, but I do recall a significant chapter entitled “Do Not Cast Anyone From Pineapple Express or Twilight in Your Movie”. Franco is one thing — he’s playing a character that’s never been portrayed before, so the issue is entirely a matter of his presence being a jarring one in the otherwise nothing-to-see-here landscape of Queen. Pattinson is jarring, too, not simply because he’s out-of-place but because he’s playing T. E. Lawrence for the first time in a major motion picture since 1962, when Peter O’Toole turned in an instantly and enduringly iconic performance in the role. Pattinson ultimately isn’t as horrendous as you might think (neither is Franco), but nothing can undo the involuntary laughter that his keffiyeh’d mug invoked when he walked into the frame for the first time. He looks less like T. E. Lawrence and more like a guy dressed as Peter O’Toole’s version at a Halloween party.

But far more criminal is the way in which Bell’s daring, intrepid adventurousness is rendered as a rangebound narrative. The real Bell drove forth with intent while Queen of the Desert simply meanders, and no matter how many hundred of miles the main character travels the film always seems to remain in exactly the kind of stuffy enclosure Bell felt England to be. This is all doubly disappointing considering director Werner Herzog’s long-ago flair for trailblazing stories that had an epic spin to them — unorthodox, definitely, but still epic — like Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Somehow, the Herzog of late has crafted documentaries that have more of an epic sweep than Queen of the Desert. Despite covering the same time period and the same type of figure, Queen is like a subtle version of Lawrence of Arabia, too subtle, so subtle that after a certain point it’s unclear what’s driving Bell at all. It might be the least Herzogian film Herzog has ever made.

It’s the wide scope of ideas — a notion which we stole from Roger Ebert — that provides a common denominator for films in the “epic” genre, of which the Gertrude Bell biopic is sadly not a member. Perhaps the intrinsic similarities between the films could only ever damn the more recent one — the figure of T. E. Lawrence is ultimately tangential to Queen of the Desert, more of a distraction than anything, despite Bell’s acknowledgement that Lawrence was a man “able to ignite fires in cold rooms”. Yes, the two were indeed friends in real life. But Bell appears not at all in Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, and yet it feels like a complete life depicted in that film. The same cannot be said of Queen of the Desert, a film with far greater problems than Robert Pattinson, a film that might try to be Lawrence of Arabia but ends up being little more than a drunken karaoke cover.

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