Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia was the reason film was invented. It is the definition of everything that makes a movie great. It has a fascinating central character on a story of discovery and political intrigue. It is set in a rough, exotic locale. It is a history lesson of a part of the world that continues to make political news today. It has action and sweeping adventure. Oh, and lest I forget, it has some of the greatest film direction ever committed.
Based on his own writings, Lawrence of Arabia tells the story of T. E. Lawrence and his time spent in Arabia. The film opens with his death and then flashes back to him as an intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916. He is given an assignment to journey into the desert and check on the progress of the Arab revolt against the Turks. He is first introduced to this new harsh world when his guide is shot and killed for using a well that belongs to another tribe. This is the arrival of Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali. They create an allegiance that required quite a bit of understanding on both of their parts.
With the help of Sherif Ali, Lawrence organizes an Arab guerilla army that is not used to airplane attacks or tanks. Being that this was during World War I, Lawrence leads the Arabs in raids against the Turks. This mostly involves blowing up trains and attacking the enemy while riding on camels. He eventually becomes a valuable asset to the British army and a hero to the revolting Arabs.
Lawrence of Arabia is filled with moments that will stay with you for as long as you have a memory. Just after getting the news that he is going into the desert, Lawrence blows out a match. The scene suddenly changes to the sun rising over a desert landscape. I regret that I have never seen this movie on the big screen. Another great scene involves Lawrence killing a man in his group. I will not give details but it is a powerful moment.
One scene in particular was very scandalous but important enough to the plot that it had to be filmed. After getting abducted by some Turks, Lawrence is taken to a leader, who makes it clear that he has sexual interest in Lawrence. Made in 1962, David Lean had to be careful how he filmed it. In real life T. E. Lawrence described, in writing, how the sexual assault played out. After the Turk started to grope him, Lawrence kneed him. He then beat Lawrence and sent him away with his guards to be beat more. He wrote about how they would take turns beating him and in between beatings, "...play unspeakably with me." The most fascinating thing about this incident is that Lawrence wrote that nearing the end of the beating he felt a, “...delicious warmth, probably sexual, swelling through me...” Lawrence, also through his writings, admitted that he was a virgin. Thus his first sexual experience was quite horrendous.
This event, is critical to the film in that it changes how Lawrence looks at the world. Just before it happened, he saw himself as a romantic hero to the Arab who chanted his name after a victory. The sexual assault brought his ego back down to Earth. In real life this event lead to much speculation that Lawrence was a homosexual and/or a masochist. David Lean includes a scene early in the film that may support this. Lawrence puts a match out with his fingers. Another officer asks him to tell him the tricks secret. Lawrence responds, "The trick is not minding that it hurts."
Another interesting aspect is that the only women in the film are extras. No female has even a single line of dialogue. My personal gripe is the casting of the Caucasian Alec Guinness as an Arab. If perhaps he was not so famous it would not have mattered so much, but as I know what Guinness actually looks like, it seemed almost a joke to put him under make up and a false nose.
Even with its blemishes, the magnitude and scope of this film is not to be ignored. The exteriors, filmed in Spain and Jordan are breath taking. Filming alone took over a years time. It won the Academy Award for best cinematography and David Lean won his second consecutive Best Director Oscar. Lawrence of Arabia even won for best Editing, which is quite an accomplishment for a nearly four hour film.
Yes, Lawrence of Arabia is a long film, but it is more than just a movie. It is a cinematic masterpiece. It is a piece of art that dazzles your eyes, raises your pulse and leaves you thinking. Even at the end of this epic story, I wanted more. What was next for Lawrence? I looked him up as this film sparked my interest in him. He truly was a man of his time, but one that still fascinates one hundred years later.
Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.
The winner of 7 out of 10 Oscars, and 4 out 7 Golden Globes, Lawrence of Arabia was the top grossing film of 1962--earning the equivalent of $440 million in today's dollars--and has been named one of the top 10 movies of all time by the American Film Institute. It is, quite succinctly and in every respect, one of the greatest epics ever made.
I have been fortunate enough to see it on the big screen during one of its anniversary rereleases and with this movie, bigger is definitely better. The sweeping desert vistas, shot on 70mm film, cry out to be seen on as wide a screen as possible. Each scene is set up to take full advantage of that huge screen. Lawrence's first journey across the desert is filled with magnificent shots. The scene at the well, where Lawrence first meets Sherif Ali, is a perfect example. O'Toole is on one side of the screen, his guide on the other and far off, centered in the distance, Omar Sharif approaches on his camel. Lean's mise-en-scene is meticulous and cinematographer Freddie Young captures it perfectly.
With such overpowering and dominating scenery, it takes a larger than life character to stand out against it and they don't come much larger than T.E. Lawrence as played by Peter O'Toole. Historians and scholars of Lawrence have quibbled over the accuracy of his portrayal, but it's of little matter. No matter how much of it is speculation, this is still a wonderful film and character study.
O'Toole is fantastic in the part. He's almost impossibly handsome and he delivers a bravura performance that earned him the first of his 8 Oscar nominations. The fact that this was his first starring film role simply makes his work that much more impressive. He's playing a complicated man and yet the audience always understands him thanks to O'Toole. He's vain, egotistical, insecure, a horrible show-off and as Eric mentioned, a bit of a masochist. Over the course of this 4 hour epic, you see a transformation happen before your eyes as Lawrence goes from a cocky young soldier, to a full grown man who has been battered by the war.
Lawrence's most human relationship is with Omar Sharif's Sherif Ali. The two begin as enemies, but the trip across the desert to Aqaba bonds Sherif Ali to Lawrence in a personal way. This was Sharif's first English language film and he deservedly received multiple award nominations for his efforts.
Unlike Eric, I wasn't bothered by Alec Guinness. Truly, he doesn't make a very convincing Arab, but he does do a very good job of acting. But then there's not a bad performance in the whole film. Anthony Quinn, Claude Rains and Arthur Kennedy are also quite good in their respective roles.
No review of this movie would be complete without mentioning the famous score. The stirring music is nearly as famous as the film itself and has been re-used and spoofed on numerous occasions. It netted composer Maurice Jarre one of the film's seven Oscars.
Some films are considered classics, but don't age well or else fail to entertain. Lawrence of Arabia though, is just as entertaining and impressive today as it was over 50 years ago when it was released. It is without question, one of the greatest movies of all time.
Peter O'Toole and Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia.
David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia hasn't aged it has only continued to ripen over time. As a film it modernized the Hollywood epic, bringing it into the 1960s. Lean brought a contemporary mindset with an adult perspective to his subject matter. Even today his editing skills and storytelling style remain fresh. Unlike most films from 1962, Lawrence of Arabia has only gotten better. And unlike William Wyler had done while making Ben-Hur, David Lean refused to trust any of his vision to a second unit director. He was far too much of a perfectionist to allow that to happen. Lawrence of Arabia is his singular vision.
The use of CGI in today's movies ensures that an epic on this scale will never be produced again. That's what went through my mind over and over again while watching it. All those background details, the people, the camels, the aircraft and that gorgeous bone white sand rippling away in the distance as far as the eye can see. They would all be faked today. Imagine the scene where Lawrence first dresses in traditional Bedouin robes and walks out into the desert. He playfully admires his reflection in his sword as he has no mirror. If they had to do more than one take they would have had to rake the sand to erase his footprints from the first take, and then again with each subsequent take. Meticulous and time-consuming work to say the least.
Like Scott, I wasn't bothered by the casting of the Caucasian Alec Guinness as the Arabic Prince Feisal. He isn't overly made-up and he plays his character with dignity, not as a stereotype. Anthony Quinn is of Mexican and Irish ancestry and he also plays an Arab. His swarthy complexion may be more convincing but his fake nose is more distracting than Guinness's (see photo), and his character, Auda Abu Tayi, is more of an Arab caricature.
This movie may not have an overtly gay sensibility but it does have a sensibility that appeals to gay men, if you see the difference. For one thing there is the marked absence of any females in this world. Eric mentioned the fact that there isn't a single line of dialogue in the entire movie spoken by a woman. It is all about men and the bonds that join them together in order to fight other men.
T. E. Lawrence has been described as asexual by those that knew him in real life but his writings express (at the very least) a tolerance for same sex love. In a documented letter to Charlotte Shaw he wrote, “I've seen lots of man-and-man loves: very lovely and fortunate some of them were.” Lean creates an atmosphere where the romantic ideal of love between men seems possible even without being in the least bit explicit or graphic about it. The prison rape sequence makes its point without coming right out and stating the obvious, but you would have to be pretty naïve indeed to mistake the way José Ferrer caresses Peter O'Toole's chest and to misunderstand just what he means when he tells his guards to, “Beat him.”
Much has been written about the legendary cinematography, the indelible performances and the wonderfully colorful life of the lead character. All of which deserve every bit of the praise heaped upon them but as a result the screenplay, by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, sometimes gets overlooked. Lawrence of Arabia has several classic lines. Here are a few of my favorites.
Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden: “If we've been telling lies, you've been telling half-lies. A man who tells lies, like me, merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”
Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal: “With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.”
Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley: “You answered without saying anything. That's politics.”
Peter O'Toole's finest moment as T. E. Lawrence comes when he leads a charge against the Turks after a comrade is slain. His cry of, “No prisoners! No prisoners!” inspires his men to savagely attack the enemy. It leads to a massacre in which Lawrence partakes in the slaughter with obvious relish.
As both Eric and Scott already wrote, Lawrence of Arabia is simply and undeniably a movie masterpiece.
Photos © Copyright Columbia Pictures (1962)