STARRING: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Miguel Ferrer and Alec Guinness.
DIRECTED BY: David Lean
One of the most celebrated motion pictures of the 20th century, re-released this week in 4K restoration, there isn’t a great deal to be said about Lawrence of Arabia except that, quite simply, it’s a masterpiece of cinema. The review could end there, without qualification, because few experiences even almost sixty years on can match David Lean’s epic for scope, breadth and vision.
We bandy that word around a great deal in this day and age, ‘epic’, but Lean’s film could provide a dictionary definition of that term; almost three and a half hours in length, utilising thousands of extras, filmed across Africa for over a year, and starring some of the most distinguished grand masters of British cinema and theatre of the last century. Not only that but it launched the careers of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif (already famous in the Middle East), who became lifelong friends on the set as their bond front-loads the real-life story of T. E. Lawrence, a British soldier who became a heroic Arabian freedom fighter and morally complicated poet & writer. That’s the biggest surprise when you watch Lawrence of Arabia, just how emotionally psychological the movie is. Dig deep beyond the glorious, artist portraits on film and it’s really about a man grappling with his innate pacifist and inner warrior.
Lean, working from screenwriters Robert Bolt & Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Lawrence’s own autobiography ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, begins the film quite bravely and daring by portraying Lawrence’s sudden and unexpected death in a motorcycle accident in the English countryside during the mid 1930’s, long after and a world away from his legendary exploits across Arabia during World War One. Characters we later see in Lawrence’s story recount stories of the man, the myth, some hagiographic after his death, others awkwardly truthful about the failings of a man by this point considered a national hero.
Lawrence as a figure is immediately mythologised before we get to know the man, essayed quite brilliantly by the putative O’Toole, who brings to Lawrence first a loyalist British devotion tinged with a pacifist defiance, before exploring his descent into growing madness as the more powerful & infamous he becomes amongst the Arab tribes, the more he becomes possessed by a capacity for violence and, indeed, enjoyment of inflicting it which terrifies him to his core. The conviction O’Toole brings to the role is staggering, and one senses much as Gregory Peck was great in To Kill a Mockingbird, the Oscar that year should have gone to Peter.
Almost of equal stature is Sharif as Ali, an Arab tribesman who provides Lawrence’s gateway to uniting the tribes with the help of Alec Guinness’ Prince Faisal, and comes to love Lawrence in a brotherly fashion as he tries to help save him from the abyss of his own making. Sharif brings dignity and conviction, right from his astounding introductory shot in the desert for which a special lens was commissioned and has, remarkably, never since been used in cinema.
Which brings us on to Lean, because while it’s O’Toole especially who carries the film to its perch, it’s the director’s magnificent deftness with such a grand palette which raises the picture to the heights of true greatness. Lean has a way of painting enormous desert vistas, entire towns filled with people, raging fleets of horses on the attack, all with an eye for the personal while at the same time being utterly detached. Sweeping is the best single adjective to use as a descriptor, indeed to convey the passage of time and how Lawrence was always moving, he only ever shoots with a pan from left to right. That’s something you won’t un-see when you notice it.
Lean may not be in love with Arabia, but the way he paints his picture wants you to feel the difficult relationship Lawrence has with this land, a place he feels completely at one with yet is equally scared to let consume him. Lean always connects back to that dichotomy and conundrum at the heart of a screenplay which does, it has to be said, at times meander and no doubt there’s an argument that Lean’s movie could have been shorter. What we would have lost was the time and poise to create some of the enormous set pieces, as Lawrence leads man in seizing towns and helping the imperialist British cause.
We may have lost great supporting turns by Jack Hawkins as a defiant general, or Jose Ferrer in a small but powerful role as a Turkish commander (which Ferrer counted as his best performance, even though he’s on screen for literally five minutes), and even the rich glamour Guinness lends to Faisal, despite he & Anthony Quinn being based in roles that are horrendous examples of Hollywood white washing. All these components are what make Lean’s movie such a lustrous, enthralling experience.
Here’s a bucket list challenge for you, one you have the chance to make happen right now: see Lawrence of Arabia on a cinema screen. The effect of seeing this movie on such a stage, replete with Maurice Jarre’s iconic and moving score, must be quite staggering even now. Perhaps proving the maxim “they don’t make them like this anymore”, Lawrence of Arabia is one of the great triumphs of not just British cinema, but anything produced in the world across cinema’s first century.
An outstanding cast, glorious visuals watched with an emotional tether to T. E. Lawrence’s character journey, it’s a stunning portrait of a complicated man which is unafraid to explore the darker aspects of an English & Arabian folk hero alongside the horrors of war. Beautiful, mesmerising, and utterly unmissable for any scholar of film.
Laurence of Arabia is now showing, on re-release, in selected cinemas. Let us know what you think of the film in comments or on social media.