Adventure movies don't often deal with anticlimaxes, and "Lawrence of Arabia" didn't dwell long on T. E. Lawrence's post-warrior life, for obvious reasons. Still, there's a certain depressing fascination in the clean-up after a battle, and in the mire of bureaucracy that follows any large-scale action. The unofficial sequel "A Dangerous Man: Lawrence After Arabia" (airing as part of PBS' "Great Performances" tonight at 9 on KCET Channel 28) is a small-scale drama that picks up where the wide-screen epic left off--with Lawrence facing off against his most formidable foes: the politicians and diplomats.
It's an equally worthy subject for dramatization, if a less invigorating one, given that the dividing up of the Arab world by the English-speaking nations in smoke-filled rooms set the stage for the messy Middle East that we have today.
This two-hour telefilm centers around the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, at which Lawrence (played by Ralph Fiennes) tried in vain to force England to keep its promise to install his comrade, the Emir Feisal (Siddig el Fadil), as King of Syria, instead of handing it over to the French. The hero's powerlessness amid the different rules of this new, polite battlefield is a most frustrating impotence.
The filmmakers also make Lawrence literally as well as figuratively impotent, which is shakier ground. At one point he spurns a comely woman who's commandeered his bed, nervously and smirkingly explaining that he lacks the ability to perform; soon after, he gives an unlikely and embarrassingly written soliloquy in front of an Arab friend about how "it must be all the unborn children that make our flesh itch." Whether it's asexuality or homosexuality that's being implied, scripter Tim Rose Pierce isn't much interested in fleshing out these token biographical insinuations.
Political issues instead override, with the anti-colonialist theme boiling down at times to a good-vs.-evil, Arab-vs.-Anglo standoff. There's not much suspense about who will come out on top.
Looking more like a sensitive college lad than someone with the charisma to have just led a foreign army through battle, Fiennes deliberately cuts a far less heroic figure than did Peter O'Toole, looking smirky and sweaty-browed and going for a shrinking realism that stacks the dramatic odds against Lawrence's pro-Arab statesmanship attempts.
It makes sense that this part of Lawrence's life would be done for the small screen; ultimately locked out of the corridors of power, he was, in effect, a smaller figure. It's a historically defensible choice for director Christopher Menaul to have made for this dry, stately, admirably intended production. The price for that decision is that in downsizing Lawrence, the filmmakers also make his downfall seem a lot less tragic than it might have.