Lawrence of Arabia – a review

Why start out with such an old film? Frankly, because story alone trumps any excessive amount of overblown, over-indulgent special effects to ever assault an audience’s delicate little senses. In the film generation of today, where Transformers and G.I. Joe reign the box office weekends, it’s never too late to go back, sometimes way back, and revisit true classics of cinema. Now I personally have no problem with overblown popcorn mayhem and despite my quarrel with today’s over-use of special effects, I am still a self-confessed Michael Bay fan and any movie for that matter that passes as good, dumb, brain-dead fun. But even these films should know when to put a cork in it. It’s all about story first. Period. No if, ands, or buts. A great story will guarantee a solid picture for years to come, and a bad, cringe-inducing story will land a film face first in the gutter as quickly as opening weekend.
So again, why start with such an old film? Boy oh boy, where to begin with this one. Without question, Lawrence of Arabia is still to this day the titan of epics to end all other epics. Sorry Lord of the Rings, but yes, even you have met your match. On one hand, there are classic films that have left their mark on cinema, and then there are once-in-a-lifetime milestone films that break down barriers AND stand the test of time. Lawrence of Arabia is just such a milestone, so much so that huge-name legends like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and even George Lucas hail it as the greatest movie of all time, particularly in Spielberg’s case who credits Lawrence as the film that made him want to become a filmmaker.
Originally released back in 1962, the film stars Peter O’Toole in the title role as T.E. Lawrence, the eccentric British soldier sent to World War I Arabia to “observe” the current conflict taking place far in the outreaches of the desert. As Lawrence is gradually absorbed further into this desert world he begins to gain the trust of the many Arabian tribes in the landscape, eventually proving himself a leader and becoming a frontrunner in the conflict between the Arab tribes and the warring Turkish armies.
As a leading man, Peter O’Toole commands the screen, and we watch captivated as his T.E. Lawrence begins his journey as a bright-eyed, almost playful officer in the British army whose superiors are constantly agitated by his flamboyant and even, for a lack of a better word, arrogant personality. Never is O’Toole’s Lawrence directly defiant of authority, but there is clearly an air of overconfidence in his presence. As T.E.’s role in desert raiding consumes him, we feel his growing despair as he becomes a man slowly losing touch with his humanity. The hopeful glow in O’Toole’s eyes dwindles as the burden of leadership and combat take their toll, as well as the loss of close, loyal friends to the rules of the land and the harsh desert conditions. Lawrence comes to a startling realization that there is blood on his hands, and even more frightening is his shocking realization that maybe, just maybe, he enjoys it. O’Toole’s compelling portrayal of T.E. Lawrence goes from an exuberant beginner, to a frightened but headstrong hero, then at long last to a burned out, morally guilt-ridden man ready to wave the white flag.
Lawrence of Arabia was directed by the legendary David Lean, the master maker behind other giant epics like Bridge on the River Kwai, Passage to India, and the widely acclaimed Doctor Zhivago. Coming fresh off the huge success of River Kwai, director Lean chose to tackle Lawrence of Arabia as his next project and paint it with the same grand master stroke that the desert tale deserved, and in someone’s hands like David Lean, Lawrence was painted as the mammoth sweeping adventure we know it as today. It’s no wonder Lean was nominated a jaw-dropping eleven times for the Academy Award during his career, winning twice for director.
Never once does the running time play against the film, even if the first hour and a half of the movie is only the transition between act one and act two of the film. From the moment T.E. Lawrence first travels into the scorching desert on camel, we soak up every ounce and every second of the journey along with him. We witness his first encounter with the drifter Sherif Ali, who steadily grows into Lawrence’s most trusted friend, to his alliance with Prince Fiesel and the gradual union of his tribe with another tribal leader Auda Abu, to their inevitable assaults on the Turkish cities, railroads, and supply routes. Lawrence’s growth and conflict evolves slowly from a man who leads hundreds at his command, to a man devastatingly torn between which side he belongs to.
I’d be hard pressed not to mention the massive size and scope of the film as a whole, from its gargantuan running time of nearly 4 hours, to the endless swarms of armies on horseback that engulf the desert sand dunes as they charge into battle. And the most spectacular feat of all is that the herds of people, horses, camels, trains, Arabian robes, and planes are all real. In a timeless age of cinema, decades before CGI and special effects, every aspect of the film was achieved practically. I couldn’t help but marvel at the screen as hordes of hundreds, if not thousands, of real men in full costume rode on actual horses and camels through full sets, ocean-front cities, and magnificent tribal camps made up of hundreds of tents actually set up in the middle of the desert. Logistics of shooting in these locations with hundreds of extras, not to mention an entire film crew, must have been an overwhelming nightmare. I am in total awe that such practical techniques were accomplished. But never once are we taken out of the world we’ve entered, a true piece of Arabia captured so effortlessly in a time warp, and brought vividly, staggeringly to life.
Lawrence of Arabia is mesmerizing, a true game-changer for movies and cinema for all time. It’s impossible to overlook such a colossal picture, a story of one man’s rise to leadership, and to his final descent into lost identity. To this day it is hard to find one picture that can match up to a film scale this enormous, and it is my firm belief that an epic like Lawrence will never be made again to this size, in this fashion, with this much spirit. It is a film that may have been made decades ago, but from the moment we are swept into its adventure it is instantly clear why David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia has survived the test of time and why it will continue to stand tall for many generations to come. Some may think it’s too old-fashioned to be interesting, but in today’s age of films, nothing can beat good old-fashioned practical filmmaking. Maybe that’s just what we need. Breathtaking, 5 out of 5.

-TJ Bengston

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