Lawrence of Arabia made me love movies. When I was a boy, the scene where Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence first ventures into the desert was a transformative experience. David Lean’s majestic direction, combined with Maurice Jarre’s lush, romantic score and Freddie Young’s jaw-dropping 70mm cinematography, formed a moment of magnificent magic. For the first time, I realized such perfection warranted capitalization and italics. This wasn’t a movie. It was a Movie. O’Toole and Omar Sharif weren’t just acting. They were acting.
Now, I’ll admit that a few revisits have dimmed a little of that luster. I have a list of perfect movies, and Lawrence of Arabia no longer lives there. After all, I can’t bash the 1961 version of West Side Story for putting white actors in brownface, and not ding this film for doing the same. Also, Lawrence‘s intermission makes it easier to judge each half of the whole, and the first section delivers more energy and emotional grip. The film’s overlength becomes more apparent as it goes along, and the growing burden of Lawrence’s moral and spiritual enigmas understandably slow the wheels and gears of the story in the second half.
The saga begins as a biography in its final chapter. We first meet T.E. Lawrence (O’Toole) as a middle-aged man, a venerated hero with nothing left to prove. He dies in the opening sequence, the victim of a motorcycle accident. It’s an everyday end to an extraordinary life. Lawrence is granted an ornate funeral at St. Paul’s, but even the dignitaries who knew him best fumble over the sum of his life and legacy: Yes, he was brave and brilliant, but also shamelessly ambitious, haughty, and hostile. Lawrence lived long enough to become both man and legend, and by his death, it was almost impossible one from the other.
As the mourners file out of the memorial, Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt flash back to Lawrence as a young man. Brash to the point of insubordination, he languishes in the quiet comfort of a basement in Cairo, cranking out maps for the British Army. As World War One rages, Lawrence seems destined to sit on the sidelines, an eccentric malcontent flippantly fumbling through a menial job. His only benefactor is Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains), a droll, elderly intelligence officer for Britain’s Arab Bureau. Dryden believes that Lawrence’s freewheeling intelligence can be channeled into something useful. He convinces General Murray (Donald Wolfit) to release Lawrence to the Arab Bureau and send him to the Turkish Front. There, Lt. Lawrence will apprise the situation, which Murray dismisses as a sideshow to the campaign against Germany.
Thus begins Lawrence’s epic odyssey into the desert, a journey that will remake him physically and emotionally. He is to report to Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the presumptive heir to Greater Syria’s throne. Along this journey, Lawrence runs afoul of Sherif Ali (Sharif), one of Faisal’s most trusted advisors. Their initial animosity evolves into a deep, complex friendship, forever muddied by Lawrence’s volatile genius.
Upon meeting Faisal, Lawrence immediately distinguishes himself from the banal, careerist officers the British have sent before. He’s blunt, fearless, and abstract. Faisal values such unvarnished honesty, and quickly learns to trust Lawrence’s counsel.
Lawrence soon proposes a daring assault on the Turkish fortress at Aqaba. This means a perilous crossing of the Nefud, a sea of boiling sand that resembles something out of science fiction. Here, he meets Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), a ferocious mercenary who joins the cause on the promise of treasure. With his cortège now complete, Lawrence quickly becomes a legendary figure of the Arab Revolt.
The resulting film is one of the most ambitious and spectacular productions in movie history. Lean stages scenes that modern filmmakers would need a building of computers to replicate. These include the attack on Aqaba, the demolition of the Ottoman railway, and the ransacking of Damascus. Lean relies on real-world effects, and utilizes a cast and crew well into the thousands. Lawrence of Arabia represents epic filmmaking at its peak.
For all this visual splendor, Lawrence is a remarkable showcase of otherworldly performances. O’Toole had notched a few supporting roles by this film, but here he plays a revered and difficult figure with the flawless command of a superstar. Sharif is also outstanding, as the man who loves and fears his best friend. And while Guinness playing an Arab is problematic, it also must be noted that onset advisors who knew Prince Faisal mistook the genteel Englishman as the real deal. That also goes for Quinn, who gives Auda a powerful mix of charisma, skill, and bluster. Lawrence might be a technical masterpiece, but it would be a gorgeous misfire without such an all-star cast.
Lean also assembles many all-stars behind the camera, as well. How Robert Bolt didn’t win the Academy Award for this screenplay absolutely boggles the mind. (It must be noted this is the same Academy that never awarded O’Toole a competitive Oscar.) He fills the movie with brawny speeches and quiet character beats, molding his dialogue with intelligence and poetry. Bolt would win the Oscar for Doctor Zhivago and A Man for All Seasons, but this script stands as his finest work.
Pretty much everyone else is in top form: Pioneering editor Anne V. Coates would take home an Oscar. Ditto for Maurice Jarre, whose majestic orchestral cues will sound familiar even if you’ve never seen the movie. Finally, Freddie Young’s 70mm cinematography makes every frame look like a work of art. Whatever your opinions of Lawrence of Arabia‘s narrative substance, the sheer beauty of its sights and sounds cannot be denied.
That’s also why, despite its flaws, I must award this movie with five stars. Along with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lawrence of Arabia stirred my imagination and filled me with joy. I fell in love with movies, and that feeling has never faded. Of course, this could never be just a movie. It’s Cinema. Art. A masterwork.
210 min. NR. HBOMax.