REVIEW: Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

“Nothing is written”

Lawrence of Arabia is oftentimes listed as one of the greatest films of all time. Not only that, but many say Peter O’Toole’s performance as T.E. Lawrence is the greatest piece of acting ever to be captured onscreen as well. Being that the movie was made 45 years ago, I wasn’t going into it thinking I would agree with either statement necessarily. Whether the four hour run time was too daunting to get my hopes up or not, I knew that no matter what, I needed to finally see this film. Being that it would show on the big theatre screen of the Market Arcade, I couldn’t make up an excuse. These were prime viewing circumstances and I was going to go for the ride from Cairo to the Middle East along with the band of Arab tribes trying to take back their land from the Turks.

On a technical level, Lawrence of Arabia has few equals. Director David Lean has created something with true epic focus. There are no advanced computer graphics multiplying fake people into huge battle scenes, this had to be done with real extras, sweltering in the desert heat waiting for their opportunity to fight amongst the movie’s stars. The scope is wide and Lean is never afraid to show the desert as a desolate wasteland because the shots are beautiful to behold. The British didn’t understand what Lawrence saw in the sand, but viewing the landscape shots here, the audience can see the tranquility and beauty that it truly holds. This was a big-budget movie and it shows by the settings besides the desert. When we arrive in Cairo and see the excess with which the soldiers live; its affluence is on display. Not only by the material objects, but also by the soldiers’ utter ambivalence to the fight while their Arab counterparts are trekking through the sun-ravaged desert to claim victory.

It is this juxtaposition between the British forces and Arab fighters that backbone the film. Yes, T.E. Lawrence is the focal point and his journey from army outcast to Arab liberator is the story arc we follow, but it is the fact that he tries to live in both worlds which really defines the course of actions on display. Credit does have to go to Peter O’Toole for his ability to grow his character throughout and display the emotion and conflict living inside him. Lawrence saw an opportunity to help the Arab tribes regain control of their land despite Britain’s refusal to give them artillery. Even at this early moment, he might have suspected this lack of true support as a sign of future motives, but he was so focused on his cause and the fact that he could do anything he set his mind to, he just didn’t care. When he finally succeeds with his first mission, he returns a broken man, having killed and seen things he never wanted to see. He knew it was all for the best, though, and needed to stick by his word of setting his new friends into a free land. Only when the men at Cairo, who once laughed at his expense, praise him with accolades and promotions does Lawrence first start becoming a man without a clear purpose. A man that was accepted by no one now finds himself loved by two distinct cultures, and must somehow cope with the success or eventually fall as a result.

Besides the excellent performance by O’Toole—intense, sarcastically humorous, and heartbreakingly real throughout—we are also treated to an acting clinic from the supporting players. Omar Sharif is fantastic as the Arab Sherif Ali who agrees to accompany Lawrence on his suicide mission to take a Turkish outpost. Sharif gives Ali a realistic progression from a man who cannot see a white man surviving anything in their future, to one who would follow Lawrence into Hell if asked. Anthony Quinn is also great as Auda abu Tayi, a leader of a tribe that can be bought by whoever offers most. His interactions with O’Toole are some of the best moments in the film because Lawrence always knows what to say to persuade Auda into doing something for his own interests and not for monetary gain, (although he still likes to take something as a souvenir for his troubles). Even Alec Guinness brings an effective performance despite playing an Arab Prince. There are many moments where the allusions to his later Obi-Wan Kenobi character come through making me smile, but the accent is hidden nicely into a British educated Arab speech that helps me forget he is as much an Englishmen as O’Toole is Irish.

In the end, however, it is the story which truly leaves a mark. During the runtime, I was slowly seeing some redundancies and wondering if an hour could have easily been chopped off without a second glance. Disappointment was setting in and I was thinking I might have to give it a 7 or 8 rating as a whole. Once the final scenes play out though, you realize why we needed everything that came before. It is Lawrence’s success in battle that both leave him broken but also ripe for persuasion into continuing on. The British were looking for a way to have Arabs do the work but eventually swoop in and take the Middle East for themselves, and with Lawrence, they had their man to rally the troops. Lawrence was neither British nor Arab, but instead a man beyond his dreams and ideals. The Arab tribes would never be able to live in harmony for a peaceful unity, and the British were just waiting for the implosion to occur. When all is said and done, Lawrence realizes he is not the God that people, and himself, saw him as, but a pawn that has been played from the beginning. His sanity and drive for good is sucked out of him because while it seemed he was accepted by both worlds, he really didn’t belong to either.

Lawrence of Arabia 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

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