, 216 m., 1962
Peter O’Toole (T.E. Lawrence), Alec Guinness (Prince Feisal), Anthony Quinn (Auda Abu Tayi), Jack Hawkins (General Allenby), Omar Sharif (Sherif Ali), José Ferrer (Turkish Bey (as Jose Ferrer)), Anthony Quayle (Colonel Brighton), Claude Rains (Mr. Dryden), Arthur Kennedy (Jackson Bentley), Donald Wolfit (General Murray), I.S. Johar (Gasim), Gamil Ratib (Majid), Michel Ray (Farraj), John Dimech (Daud), Zia Mohyeddin (Tafas). Directed by David Lean and produced by Sam Spiegel. Screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (originally uncredited: credit restored in 1978 by WGA), based on writings by T.E. Lawrence.
In an age of films billed as “Cinematic Spectacle,” here is a true cinematic Giant which humbles many films and cuts all the average weekend releases down to size. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is a true epic, with images that awe and characters larger than life. At the age of 50 and a runtime of 216 minutes long, the film is none-too-fleeting but somehow manages to feel both fresh and relatively quick-paced.
As Martin Scorsese suggests in the introduction to the film’s 50th anniversary digital restoration (playing this week as a one day only Fathom event; my first viewing ever!), the film begins with ordinary men who become larger than life characters only to be dwarfed by their own hubris in the face of overwhelming landscapes and indifferent circumstances. Not unlike Barry Lyndon in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 masterpiece or Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ seminal 1942 faux-biopic, T.E. Lawrence is a man for whom his own ambition finally far outweighs his talent, leading to his eventually being brought low by his own flaws in accord with sheer dumb luck.
Like Citizen Kane, the film begins with the sudden and stunningly cinematic death of Lawrence, in this case riding a motorcycle into oblivion. A dumb accident. Like Citizen Kane, this film then transitions to a funeral scene and introduces a reporter, Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), who begins to try to know what others felt about Lawrence. What we eventually realize is that, for a complete outsider, Bentley may be the English-speaking native who knew him best. And despite this somber yet rousing beginning, the film ends on a curiously upbeat note, not with Lawrence’s death by misadventure (an irony given his accomplishments), but with his return to England in one piece and his willingness to settle down and avoid further adventures.
The role of Lawrence was played by Peter O’Toole, in his film debut. It is an astonishing performance, at first cold to the touch and very cerebral, eventually becoming quite buoyant and showboat in nature. When we first meet Lawrence, he is a mid-level officer in the British Army during the 1914-17 campaign against the Turks, whose technical strategies and rather mild-mannered suggestions to the higher-ups gain him favor and attention in their African campaign, based in Cairo, Egypt. Soon, he is dispatched to Arabia to determine the intentions of the Brits’ Arab allies. Here he finds himself in a kind of alliance with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and their tribal rival Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), whose favor they win with Lawrence’s promise of gold. Although at first he is seen as an outsider, someone who doesn’t completely fit in anywhere, he is nevertheless an outsider even in his British Army and is soon given honorary garb and the respect of the Arab soldiers, absorbed into their world. He belongs to a group of outcasts and is, in a sense, one himself.
This leads to the rise of his own hubris, belief in the face of sheer insanity that he can lead the Arab campaign against the Turks and for a while it seems to be working. But mistakes and “necessary” deaths take their toll, and before long Lawrence is second-guessing himself, but still charges forward. Like his actions, the film is a mad, epic folly – a tilting at windmills on a grand cinematic scale.
One of the reasons I put off seeing this film for so long is that it demands to be seen on a large screen and widescreen VHS or DVD wouldn’t have done it justice. It was worth the wait. In a sense, a 70mm epic like this sheds light on an enigma like Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent The Master (2012). Like that film, this is grand, larger than life, and features a lead character who is barely knowable to others let alone himself. T.E. Lawrence, like Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in the later film, is tortured, and like Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, believes he can accomplish the next-to-impossible. And like those two powerhouse performances, O’Toole’s is rather exceptional.
It is a cliche that “they just don’t make films like they used to,” i.e. Lawrence of Arabia. In a sense, that is true. To behold this film on a large screen in a 70mm restored print is to see that giants used to walk the earth and tame its resources to meet their mad demands. The sweeping, romantic orchestral score is a classic for good reason. The film is full of stunning and iconic imagery that was never augmented by computer-generated imagery yet nowadays would be shot with green-screen and effects. The mirage out of which Omar Sharif’s character emerges for the first time. The Arab strike on Turkish forces. The destruction of supply trains via explosive devices. This film was a mad act of the imagination, and to see it is to see what we were once capable of. Hopefully, with cine-literate and appreciative filmmakers like Anderson at work, we will see what we were capable of once again well into the future.