Lawrence of Arabia (United Kingdom, 1962)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The historical epic has been a staple of the motion picture industry since the silent era. Over the years, it has evolved to mesh with the times and meet audiences' expectations. Viewers in the 1910s got D.W. Griffith's racist Birth of a Nation, while movie-goers in the 2000s were poleaxed by the trite but visually impressive Pearl Harbor. In between lie the best of the epics, and, while it's impossible to single out one as being at the inarguable top of the heap, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is certainly a contender for the position. Riveting from beginning to end, featuring stellar performances, amazing cinematography, and a story without a trace of fat, the film does everything an epic is supposed to do - and more.

Lawrence of Arabia recounts the larger-than-life exploits of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), an officer in the British army serving in the Middle East during World War I, who, according to one observer, "was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior. He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey." The film opens in 1935, with a prologue that shows Lawrence's death as a result of a motorcycle accident, followed by his funeral. The time frame then shifts back more than 20 years to Cairo, where Lawrence is about to begin the greatest adventure of his career. His commanding officer orders him to enter the desert and make contact with the Bedouin Prince Feisel (Alec Guiness), who is a British ally in the fight against the Turks. What follows is not only an account of how Lawrence became a pivotal figure in the Arab revolt against the Turks, but of the nearly-Shakespearean rise and fall of his character.

Lawrence of Arabia features five major events: Lawrence's initial foray into Bedouin territory and his meetings with Feisel and Sherif Ali Ibn El Kharish (Omar Sharif), his trek across the Nefud Desert and subsequent attack on Aqaba, his torture at the hands of the Turks in Deraa, his leadership in the massacre at Tafas, and his victory at Damascus. We see how each of these events builds Lawrence's reputation and molds his character. Until his capture in Deraa, he believes himself to be capable of anything - a demi-god in Arab clothing. But, after his brutal treatment and degradation, he becomes a bitter, self-doubting man, thirsting for revenge. When participating in the butchery at Tafas, he screams out the command, "No prisoners!", and, when it is all over, he is seen drenched in blood. Once Lawrence has taken Damascus, he becomes redundant, and leaves for England while the politicians sort things out.

Lawrence of Arabia was the star of the 1963 Academy Awards ceremony, taking home seven out of the ten Oscars for which it was nominated: Best Director, Best Picture, Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Sound, Best Music Score, and Best Film Editing. It lost in the screenwriting competition and for two acting awards - Best Actor (Peter O'Toole) and Best Supporting Actor (Omar Sharif). Viewing the movie, it's not hard to understand why it was singled out for so much praise, especially when the film is seen on a big screen. Lawrence of Arabia is inherently a theatrical experience. Reduced to television-like proportions, it becomes a shadow of itself.

The director's cut runs a little over 3 1/2 hours, and every moment seems necessary. The pacing is tight - there's plenty of action and adventure interspersed with character development, plot exposition, and majestic visuals. Therefore, it's hard to believe that a theatrical version exists in which more than 30 minutes of material was excised. Indeed, most people who saw this film during the 1960s and 1970s weren't getting the entire picture (although Lean was involved in the trimming done to create the 3 1/4 hour print widely seen in U.S. theaters and the 3-hour version shown on television). Fortunately, in the late-80s, the original edition of Lawrence of Arabia was painstakingly restored (with the participation of David Lean and the surviving actors). The restoration was handled so expertly that, watching the new print, it's virtually impossible to see the shifts in visual acuity that often mark the inclusion of previously-eliminated scenes.

The most compelling aspect of Lawrence of Arabia is the way in which it dissects the fluid, often-contradictory personality of the title character. Like many of the best classic "war" movies (such as Patton), this one uses the battles as a backdrop for a character study. The combat sequences in Lawrence of Arabia are perfunctory, with few of the details shown. This allows us to focus on the individual at the epicenter of the storm. When we first meet him, Lawrence is an oddball craving a mission in the desert (calling it "fun"), something that his fellows shun. After spending some time with the Arabs and being asked why he likes the desert, he has a simple answer: "It's clean". The movie explores Lawrence's friendship with Sherif Ali, and shows how the Arabs willingly adopt him as their leader, even though he has white skin. But Lawrence's psyche suffers a severe blow after his torture at the hands of the Turks. Initially, he is unwilling to return to the desert, but, when commanded to do so, he comes back driven by a newfound lust for killing and a desire for revenge. His final mission - the capture of Damascus - shows Lawrence's dark side.

One issue not addressed directly is Lawrence's sexuality. Widely believed to be a homosexual, Lawrence lived in an era when gay men did not flaunt their same-sex preferences. From clues in the screenplay and particularly from some of the effeminate mannerisms O'Toole exhibits, it is clear that Lawrence of Arabia's title character is intended to be homosexual. Identifying this, however, requires a little reading between the lines. In 1962, a major motion picture could not have been made with an overtly gay protagonist - even if it had been released, it would have died at the box office.

Seen from an historical perspective, Lawrence of Arabia takes its share of liberties with the facts, as was the case with many of the great epics of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Normally, this particular consideration wouldn't rate a mention, but, lately, certain movies (The Hurricane and A Beautiful Mind, in particular) have come under fire for not maintaining a strict adherence to the established historical record. It should be noted that Lawrence of Arabia, although based on T.E. Lawrence's memoirs, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom", does not pretend to be a documentary, and, as such, should not be held to the same strict standards of factual accuracy. This is an adventure movie and a character study, not a pictorial version of a history text book.

For Peter O'Toole, Lawrence was the role of a career, and he seems perfectly suited to it. His mannerisms suggest the character's ambivalence about nearly everything - his sexuality, his station in life, his place in the world. O'Toole was not the filmmakers' first choice to play Lawrence - Marlon Brando was the first one approached, and, after he was out of contention (he was committed to Mutiny on the Bounty), Albert Finney was offered the role (which he unexpectedly declined). One of the reasons O'Toole is so effective is that he came to the part baggage-free. At the time, he was a relatively unknown Shakespearean stage thespian, so audiences could immediately accept him as Lawrence.

The film also represented the first worldwide exposure for Omar Sharif, who didn't come on board until late in pre-production. For Sharif, who formed a special bond with Lean (he would later star in the director's Dr. Zhivago), this was the beginning of a long and productive international career. To counterbalance the movie's little-known leads, there are numerous recognizable names in supporting parts. In addition to Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn plays the Bedouin Auda abu Tayi; Jack Hawkins is Lawrence's commanding officer, General Allenby; Jose Ferrer is the Turkish officer in charge of torturing Lawrence; and the venerable Claude Rains portrays the oily diplomat, Dryden. It is worthwhile to note that no women have speaking parts.

As important as the actors are, however, they are often rendered insignificant by the scenery, and by the manner in which the perfectionist Lean and his cinematographer, Freddie Young, chose to shoot it. Lawrence of Arabia is littered with majestic, unforgettable shots. There's the famous "mirage scene", where Ali first approaches Lawrence on horseback, emerging from a shimmering haze on the horizon. There's a transition in which, after Lawrence blows out a match flame, the camera cuts to a blazing sunset. There are images of majestic dunes with camel riders making their way along them, silhouetted against the sky. And there are shots of rock formations that one normally does not associate with the desert. Add to these moments the grandeur of Maurice Jarre's score, and Lawrence of Arabia has the power to overwhelm.

There is one visual oddity associated with the manner in which Lawrence of Arabia was filmed. Because it was not possible to shoot the night scenes at night, they were lensed during the day using light-damping filters. So, while it looks like night, the camels and horses cast noticeable shadows. Today, computers would be used to digitally erase these anomalies (then again, today, the filming could be done after dark), but their existence in Lawrence of Arabia adds a certain otherworldliness to those scenes in which the "night-shadows" appear.

For David Lean, widely regarded as one of the masters of epic filmmaking, Lawrence of Arabia represented the most ambitious undertaking of a fruitful career. Restored to its full length in 1989, the version available today shows the story as Lean intended it to be seen - provided the viewer is able to see it projected, not compressed onto a TV screen. While it's true that Lawrence of Arabia still works on the small screen, it is robbed of one of the most important aspect of any motion picture spectacle - the awe factor. When that is present, this becomes an event - something that even the most restless viewer will become lost in.

Lawrence of Arabia (United Kingdom, 1962)

Director: David Lean
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains
Screenplay: Robert Bolt, based on
Cinematography: F.A. Young
Music: Maurice Jarre
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Ranked #102 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 3:37
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1