Sunday, 15 March 2020

Lawrence of Arabia

Off to the cinema to see Lawrence of Arabia. To see Lawrence of Arabia in the same room as 449 other people. Ordinarily I don't mind sharing space with other people, but Britain is in the grip of a viral pandemic and people are now dangerous, especially if you lick them.

Arabia is a fascinating film; it has aged in an interesting way. As a kid I remember enjoying it as a big action epic, although I felt that the pace was very slow. It felt like an epic science fiction film akin to Dune albeit that it was based on actual events.

As a grown-up I still feel that the pace is awkward, but I struggle to think how I would fix it. The film's final sequence plays like the end of a drunken party, when everyone is too exhausted to make merry and the only thing left is to walk home and catch some sleep, but it's supposed to feel like that. The journey across the desert is too long, but if it was shorter it would feel pointless.

If the master print of Lawrence ever fell into my hands I would be tempted to chop off a single frame from the middle of the intermission (literally a single frame) and leave it at that. Shortly after release in 1962 David Lean removed twenty minutes from the film, but in the 1980s he put it back, and he knew a lot more about films than I do.

A note on the screening: the BFI is showing a 4K digital restoration and a 70mm film print. I went to see the 70mm film print. I have the rest of my life to see a digital projection of Lawrence of Arabia but only a few years to see it as God and David Lean intended. However 70mm prints are not born equal. I've seen a 70mm print of Arabia before, at the Prince Charles Cinema, but it was a bad print with scratches and dirt. In contrast the BFI's print was excellent. Rich but subtle colours, rock-solid tracking, good contrast, no grain. The screenshots in this article come from my old DVD copy of the film - they're not nearly as good as the BFI's print. If you have a chance, watch it on the big screen.

With apologies to DVDBeaver; at top is a frame from my DVD copy, a two-disc special edition released in 2001, and below that is a frame from Sony's most recent high-def version, which even at 600 pixels wide is obviously sharper and less washed-out. From what I have read the most recent 4K restoration is at least as good, if not better.

Arabia was released a year before sexual intercourse was invented, just at the dawn of the modern age. It came out only a few years after a wave of big dumb Biblical epics, and I imagine that audiences at the time went to see it for the spectacle, but it's more complicated than that, more nuanced. It feels like a direct ancestor of the more revisionist epics that came out later in the decade, such as The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Patton (1970).

In fact it's not all that different from the much harsher films that followed, such as McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) or Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). On the surface Werner Herzog's portrayal of Lope de Aguirre has little in common with Lawrence of Arabia, but Lawrence and Aguirre are like two sides of the same coin. They were both sent by European powers to carve out territory in foreign lands, and they both had an inflated view of their own importance and of their own independence. They led their armies to ultimate defeat, and they were both crushed by forces beyond their control. Aguirre is essentially Lawrence unleashed; they both left chaos in their wake.

But enough of Werner Herzog. His time will come. On a visual level Arabia has also aged well. In olden times films tended to have limited camera movements, because 35mm and 70mm cameras were heavy and the fashion back then was for bright fill-in lighting with big spotlights. However David Lean used a number of what must have been daring camera moves, e.g. the following shot, which tracks from left to right like a two-dimensional video game with a parallax background:

Even when the camera is static Lean has the actors move around the frame dynamically. The fill light is generally subtle, and the location footage doesn't have the studio-like quality of other vintage films. Furthermore Arabia was released a few years before it became fashionable to use zoom lenses, so paradoxically that aspect hasn't dated as badly as the aforementioned Patton, which was released eight years and a cinematic generation later.

On the one hand David Lean's use of width and depth feels stagey - notice how everyone is blocked just so - but the stagecraft is executed to a very high degree.

Whereas Patton feels flat, neither as well-crafted as the old-fashioned Hollywood epics nor as naturalistic as the New Hollywood films that came later. Francis Ford Coppola got better. Just two years later he directed The Godfather, which is a visual feast thanks to Gordon "Prince of Darkness" Willis.

Another aspect of Arabia that has aged well is the lighting. Lean's use of fill light was subtle for the time...

...whereas Patton, and other films of that era, tended to present outdoors scenes as if the director was worried that the audience wouldn't be able to see the actors' faces.

As mentioned in the article these screenshots come from an old DVD. On the big screen the chiaroscuro effect in this shot is more pronounced. Lawrence begins the scene in darkness, but when he resolves to lead the assault on Damascus he walks into the light, or at least the half-light. Modern-day film students will probably scoff at the obviousness of it, but Lean wasn't trying to be subtle; he was making a large-scale blockbuster for a general audience.

Lean also frequently uses depth - he was probably thankful for the desert sun, so that he could stop the aperture down.

And also thankful for blue filters, so that he could shoot night-time scenes in daylight.

I don't want to continually rag on Patton, but despite being mounted on the same scale as Arabia it's a visually drab film. Even when the cinematographer tries to give the shot depth, it still looks flat.

I was talking about how Arabia has aged well. I have the impression that by 1970 Hollywood films were shot with an eye to television broadcast, which might explain why Lean's use of the entire Panavision frame feels refreshing; nowadays widescreen televisions are standard, and even television programmes are shot in widescreen, but for several decades from the 1950s onwards cinematographers had to account for eventual viewing in 4:3. In 1962 David Lean wasn't interested in that, he made a film for the cinema. That's enough about the visuals.

I can't comment on the film's politics. The finer points of the Sykes-Picot treaty agreement are beyond me. Damascus survived the 20th century with less damage than Ypres or Tokyo, but the 21st has not been kind. Modern ears might be offended by some of the film's language. British officers frequently refer to the Arabs in derogatory terms, and although Lawrence expresses disapproval of their attitude the film itself does not punish them. There are no female speaking roles. The idea of a film in which the hero is a British officer who mostly advances Britain's colonial interests, surrounded by morally ambiguous but nonetheless "good" British officers, seems odd nowadays.

In fact a big-budget epic film with mostly British accents seems odd nowadays. British cinema never embraced epics; from the 1960s onwards British cinema was kitchen sink dramas, gangster films, Carry On, little films for little people. Greedy, barbarous, and cruel, with a veneer of civilisation, enough to care about the Oxford comma but not about the sublime, next paragraph.

This being 1962 the Arab characters are a mixture of white British and American actors in make-up, plus Omar Sharif, who is Egyptian. Mexican-born Anthony Quinn wears an obviously fake nose in order to portray Auda Abu Tayi; in some scenes the makeup isn't quite right. Given that no-one in the audience would recognise the real man I wonder why they bothered with the fake nose. Quinn gives a huge, larger-than-life performance that feels slightly out of place (he is essentially the comic relief), but his "river to my people" speech is awesome. As with Peter O'Toole's version of Lawrence there is an implication that Quinn's hammy performance as Tayi is deliberate, that he's playing a part for the benefit of his followers.

Also, spare a thought for Anthony Quayle. He plays a failed Lawrence, a man who might have been a hero if Lawrence had never been born. He's obviously a competent man, and the film suggests that despite his stuffy demeanour he eventually comes to sympathise with Lawrence, but he mostly exists to be humiliated and sidelined. You know what's sad? If you type "lawrence arabia anthony quayle" into Google it assumes you're searching for Anthony Quinn, not Anthony Quayle. Poor chap. Doomed to be sidelined even after death.

As with the politics I can't comment on the reality behind the masks. Quayle's version of Abu Tayi is driven by a lust for gold but is easily manipulated by Lawrence, something that apparently offended Tayi's surviving relatives, who argued that he was instead a passionate supporter of Arab independence. Peter O'Toole plays Lawrence in an exaggeratedly flamboyant manner that makes sense when he is putting on a show for his followers or fellow officers, but goes too far in moments when he is merely playing Lawrence.

Did that make sense? There are scenes in which O'Toole plays Lawrence as a man acting up for an audience, and also for his own amusement, in which case the hammy performance makes sense. However there are a few scenes in which Lawrence is just being himself, and even then O'Toole lays it on a bit thick. I wouldn't change a thing.

O'Toole is of course lovely and a huge fashion plate. He pulls off smart. He pulls off dishevelled. He makes a khaki battledress look good. I like to imagine that David Bowie, John Foxx, David Sylvian etc modelled at least part of their look on him; perhaps BBC2 screened Lawrence of Arabia on a Saturday evening in late 1976, and all of the aforementioned sat down to watch it, and decided that punk was a dead-end and that they should look fabulous instead.

Omar Sharif is also lovely. He plays a composite character called Sherif Ali, and on one level the film is a love story between Ali and Lawrence. The romantic tension is palpable, but again this being 1962 they don't kiss. Perhaps screenwriter Robert Bolt was trying to imply that Lawrence was in love with the idea of Arabism as embodied by Ali rather than an actual Arab person.

Now, I'm one hundred per cent heterosexual, but throughout the film I wanted to shower Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif with sugarlumps and take them to the horse dentist. They're both deeply attractive men.

Bolt must have been tempted to end the film on a high, but ultimately his version of Lawrence's tale is a downbeat one; the man ends up like Winston Smith in 1984, defeated but not dead, and facing a pointless, directionless life. He was a year younger than Bernard Montgomery, and could conceivably have fought in the Second World War, but what would he have done? He left the armed forces in early 1935, but it would have only taken a phone call for him to be readmitted. My hunch is that whatever advice he could give about the Middle East would have been out of date, and he had no experience of mechanised warfare, and whatever he did in the RAF could have been done just as well by anybody else. Would he have become an embarassment? Would he had disagreed with British policy? Would he have tried to court the press? We will never know.

Lawrence would have been 74 in 1962, which raises the question of whether Lawrence of Arabia would have existed if Lawrence hadn't died. Arabia was in part the product of duelling mythologies. Lawrence attempted to construct his own myth with Seven Pillars of Wisdom, but the result was a lengthy book that had a limited print run. After the war American journalist Lowell Thomas reached a wider audience with his own version of Lawrence's story, which he presented as a travelling slideshow. The film apparently draws more heavily from Pillars, but I suspect that without Lowell Thomas no-one would have remembered Lawrence in 1962. I also suspect that he would have litigated to prevent the film being made during his lifetime. Again, we will never know.

Arabia also works as sheer spectacle. Seville stands in for Cairo, and Spain stands in for Aqaba, but the desert scenes were mostly filmed in an actual desert. The camels and horses are real horses and the trains are real trains, and David Lean actually blew one up. Every penny is visible on the screen.

Aqaba is a set:

I mean, the whole thing, it's a set. All those buildings. They were built for the film. Nowadays the beach is just a beach with a hideously ugly hotel at the far end. Admittedly they only built the front half of the buildings, and labour costs in Spain were very cheap at the time - Franco was desperate for hard currency - but it's still an impressive achievement.

It's doubly impressive when you consider that Aqaba only appears in a couple of shots. They're crucial shots, though. The second shot (above) is one of the most famous in all of cinema, wordlessly demonstrating that Lawrence's plan to attack from the landward side was correct. There are, off the top of my head, only two optical effects (Aqaba from a distance, and the glow of artillery fire).

I imagine there are several hundred people alive today who have fond memories of the time their dad was an extra in Arabia, and perhaps a few dozen people who remember the week when David Lean made them stand just so while the lighting model stood in for Peter O'Toole.

Ultimately Lawrence of Arabia is a clever film that manages to be a stirring adventure epic without losing sight of the fact that one man can only do so much. It suggests several interpretations of Lawrence's character without favouring one over the other, and presents the man as something of an enigma, as indeed he remains. As of 2020 Britain and France no longer control the destiny of very much at all, but the Arab world is no more united than it was, very briefly, in 1918.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Lithuanian MRE: Meal 2, Beef Stew with Groats

Let's have a look at another MRE. This one is Lithuanian. It's Variantas Number 2: Stewed Beef with Groats in Sauce. It comes with hazelnuts, honey, orange juice, coffee, and two packets of rock-hard Polish SU-1 crackers, viz:

And a plastic spoon, some matches, some hexy fuel tabs, and a tiny hexy stove. The plastic spoon feels much more flimsy than US MRE spoons, but in its favour it has a sharper edge, which cuts through food more easily.

To paraphrase the Pet Shop Boys, I never thought I'd get to be the creature I was meant to be, but I hoped, in spite of dreams, I wouldn't end up writing about plastic spoons. But here we are.

Lithuanian MREs are made in Poland for the Lithuanian armed forces, which is why they resemble Polish MREs. I've tried a couple of Polish MREs, the SR-1 and SR-4, and they're really good. The main meal is meaty and filling. Lithuanian MREs are similar on a conceptual level - a tray of meat stew plus extras - but they're not as good. Less meat, slightly fewer extras.

Compared to an American MRE the Lithuanian variety is simpler. American MREs have a relatively small main meal, plus a sub-main-meal, plus a variety of accessories, designed so that you can mix the elements together in several different ways, but Lithuanian and Polish MREs are much more inflexible. You can smash the crackers into bits and put them in the main meal, but that's about as much as you can do in terms of culinary expression.

Here's what the hexy stove looks like, and bear in mind that if I was cooking the beans I would open the lid:

In my experience one tab is enough to boil a can of beans plus a can of water for coffee. Airlines don't allow the carriage of hexy tabs, so if you plan to take a Lithuanian MRE abroad you'll have to take out the tabs first. I mention this because, if all goes well, I will be tramping across [redacted] in a few months, and I thought about taking the hexy tabs as a backup in case I couldn't find fuel for my Trangia stove, but alas I can't.

In theory hexy tabs are great. They're lightweight and burn away, leaving behind no waste. In practice they smell, they cover everything in smokey residue, and they give off a lot of carbon monoxide, so if you're going to use one indoors make sure to open all the windows first. But enough of hexy tabs, let's tuck in:

Firstly the chocolate, which is perfectly acceptable dark chocolate made by Ruta of Lithuania. It's indistinguishable from good-quality store-bought chocolate. The camo packaging is a nice touch.

I'm no coffee connoisseur. I'm British. I can only detect two types of coffee - hard, and soft. This was softer than MRE-style coffee. You don't get creamer, so I added a bit of milk. That might have taken off some of the edge.

The hazelnuts are hazelnuts. They're dry and there are lots of them, so I assume they're added as a cheap way of filling space.

Now it's time to start cooking the main meal. The flameless ration heater is super-effective. When I added water the heating element immediately swelled up and started giving off steam. It was frightening!

I wouldn't ordinarily think of eating a heating pad, but perhaps everyday life in the Lithuanian armed forces is so boring that the soldiers will do anything to amuse themselves. What if you wrapped one around your penis and poured water on it? The packaging doesn't warn against that.

I imagine that your penis would swell up, but not in a happy way.

While the main meal is cooking, let's try out the Polish SU-1 crackers. Rusks. Crackers. Hardtack. Rusks. They're legendary:

They have an unusual taste, apparently a result of caraway seeds. Slightly aniseed, but not so much that it's off-putting. Within a few bites you stop noticing it. The crackers are surprisingly clever. They take up little space; they keep forever; it takes a long time to eat them, so they feel more substantial than they are; you can eat them raw, or with the honey, or crush them up into the main meal.

You have to break them into bits with your hands first before eating them. They're far too tough to bite apart with your teeth. Your teeth would break first. Dunking is futile. Here's a shot of the crackers broken into bits, taken from an earlier article about a Polish MRE, which includes a little tin of meat:

Why are the colours different? Different camera, different lighting. At this point the main meal has cooked. Let's have a look:

Lithuanian MRE menus seem to change fairly regularly - most online sources say that menu two is chicken stew with an apple drink, but as you can see this brand-new-for-2019 menu is beef.

It's better than it looks, and bear in mind that what appears to be globs of fat are in fact groats. What are groats? They're coins, aren't they? From long ago? From Scotland? I don't know. I learn from the internet that groats are a form of wheatgrain, which makes a lot more sense. I can't imagine eating coins. It wouldn't help you go through an airport metal detector. They'd take you into a back room and pump you full of food until the coins came out the other end.

But perhaps you could use that to your advantage, if e.g. you were very hungry, but let's talk about the MRE. It's essentially a weak meaty stew. There's nothing wrong with it but it's insubstantial. The groats at least give it some variety, but it really needs a couple of slices of bread or some potatoes etc. As with a lot of MRE main courses it would be great dumped onto a plate of chips.

Compare it with the main meal from a Polish MRE, which has a much denser meat payload:

Not so much a meal as a statement. It dares you to adulterate it. It dares you to spurn or mock the power of meat. Meat Payload would be a good name for a heavy metal album. Which reminds me, there's one thing left, the orange juice:

Unfortunately I added too much water, so the end result was very thin. I imagine that with the correct ratio it just tastes of cheap orange juice.

Lithuanian MREs are widely available here in the UK, less so overseas. The country reintroduced conscription in 2015 but the military has not been engaged abroad since then, which is presumably why so many MREs are available on eBay and the like - my guess, and I admit this is a guess, is that Lithuanian soldiers mostly eat from field canteens or the mess hall, but the armed forces are compelled to procure lots of MREs "just in case", so they end up with masses of meals left over. Does that sound plausible?

As with all military meals Lithuanian MREs are of limited practical use on the civilian market. You can replicate the contents at home with a nutty chocolate bar, some biscuits, 3-in-one coffee, and a tin of stew. For long-distance hiking they're too bulky, and as a morale-booster the lack of variety would get depressing after a while. My hunch is that they keep for longer than US MREs - nuts, crackers, honey, and dark chocolate last forever - but then again rice and dried food stores even longer, and takes up less space. They are of course a fun novelty, and perhaps you are tired of Pot Noodles and Kendal Mint Cake.

And with that, dear reader, I will leave you to your own devices. You be good. I love you. See you tomorrow.