Re-appraising LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
by Robert Taylor / IAFT-L.A.
Watching Lawrence of Arabia (1962) on a TV set isn’t enough. Not by a long shot. Unless of course it’s one of those giant wall mounts with a first-rate sound system.
But me? I’ve just spent the last 220-odd minutes with it, and yet I don’t feel like I’ve really seen it.
This magnificent movie does everything but reach out, shake you by the shoulders and insist, You should be watching me on the big screen.
There are images that impress on TV, but believe me, you can only get the full impact on a huge motion picture screen. If ever there was a movie that cries out for Imax, this is it.
And yet…seeing it as I did helped me to appreciate many of the more subtle gestures in a film known for its grand ones.
So much of the writing here is brilliant and, despite the sometimes confusing and intricate histories of Arabian sects and the British military’s motives, the film never feels like it’s talking down to its audience.
At the outset of the Great War (WWI), T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is posted to the British Military Intelligence Department in Cairo and is subsequently stationed in Arabia by his superiors to observe and report on Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness). He ends up leading a major section of Faisal’s army to battle against the Turks, first with the cooperation of the British Army and later not-so-much.
The screenwriters find ways to use the multiplicity of characters—and their fates—to enhance Lawrence’s emotional journey.
Two of them, played by Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif, subtly become the two halves of Lawrence’s conscience and the closest thing he has to friends. These two would be nothing more than cardboard sidekicks in a lesser film.
About the screenwriting: when the film was initially released, in Super Panavision 70, the only credited writer was Robert Bolt, author of the much-admired historical Broadway and West End drama, A Man For All Seasons, turned into an award-winning movie in 1966.
Michael Wilson was the first screenwriter on the project. But after slaving for years on it, director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel were dissatisfied with his work and replaced him with Bolt, who completely rewrote the script.
Lean personally refused to give screen credit to Wilson, despite the fact that his basic structure was still there.
But more than 30 years later, in 1995, the Writers Guild of America ruled that Wilson deserved co-writing credit after all. Since then, all prints, including DVDs and Blu-Rays, have the names of both writers on them.
Of course, all of this would be of little use if the central character was not someone we wanted to spend 227 minutes with. There are a ton of reasons why I cannot believe this movie, on this scale, ever got produced, but centering the story on someone like T.E. Lawrence is right at the top of the list.
He’s genuinely eccentric in just about every way imaginable, develops a horrifying bloodlust, is severely egotistical…and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
As majestic as Arabia is, Lawrence is the real reason we remain engaged. O’Toole’s performance is one for the ages. We care about him but are a little afraid of him. He can pull off a stunning scene where he’s got to kill a man whose life he almost died saving, and also sell a scene where he dances around in his new wardrobe with the same verve and energy.
At no point in the film do we really know Lawrence, and that only adds to how fascinating he is.
I think it’s safe to say there’s never been a movie that’s eclipsed Lawrence of Arabia in terms of epic scope, with apologies to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
The cinematography is perfectly astounding. There are myriad scenes where a character will walk out of an untouched sea of desert, leaving a single line of tracks behind him. How could they have possibly set up for multiple takes?
Other scenes involve intense dust storms. How on earth did the cameras continue to operate, even with protection, through all of it?
Everything here is jaw-dropping, with images the viewer will never forget, which allow the movie to function as a poetic journey as much as a cerebral one.
Among many unforgettably photographed scenes, there’s one at a remote waterhole where Sharif enters the story on a camel from a great distance through a mirage. DP Freddie Young used a special 482mm lens, created especially for this one shot.
Panavision still has the lens. It has not been used since.
By the way, Sharif comes off really well in the film, and his haunting exit from his last scene is an emotional highlight.
As for the action, Lean stages a crackerjack train crash at the beginning of the second half where you convince yourself the train must be a miniature…until an army of Arabs races over sand dunes and climbs all over it.
It turns out Lean is a little fetishistic about trains. Here in Arabia, in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Doctor Zhivago (1965), Summertime (1955), Brief Encounter (1945).
This movie accomplishes more in just one of its almost four hours than most movies do in their entire running time. It’s the thinking man’s epic. And it stands up beautifully on multiple viewings.
Shot on a budget of $15 million—how much would it cost to make a movie this big nowadays? Surely nothing less than 300 million.
See it on the biggest screen you can find.
- Writers: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson, based on a book by T.E. Lawrence
- Director: David Lean
- Actors: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit
- Cinematography: Freddie Young
- Editing: Anne V. Coates
- Music: Maurice Jarre
Pictures: tnlt.com, dvdbeaver.com, watchthisspacefilmmagazine.com