The neverending desert and the heat melting the screen. The long halls of Britain’s headquarters in Cairo. The scores of fighters charging the terrain on camels. A soundtrack that captures Arabia’s exoticity. And a real-life figure who led the revolt for his love of the region, even at his personal expense.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the legendary epic Lawrence Of Arabia starring Peter O’Toole in his debut role as the titular character. With the great David Lean commanding the action from behind the camera, it remains one of the greatest films ever produced. A sweeping biopic filled with adventure, bravado, and star-making performances, it contains the power of what a movie should be in long form, a remarkable 227 minutes that never leaves your attention and seduces the viewers into this period of history from one man’s view.
I saw the movie for the first-time when I was thirteen-years-old. Saturday night on Turner Classic Movies introduced by the late Robert Osbourne. Curious Brian had started digging into movies and into the past, referring to the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Films (before the revised list in 2007) to see what I could watch. Titanic was over three hours long, so I could make it through this. Entr’acte and Intermission was still a thing in the 1960s, something I hadn’t seen at the time, but would learn it was quite common up to the early 1980s for epic films.
What I witnessed, and certainly everyone did when they first saw Lawrence of Arabia, was a transportation back to World War I that, for once, wasn’t on the Western Front. The prologue is T.E. Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident in 1935, followed by the memorial where those who knew him remark on how extraordinary he was. Going back to 1917, Lawrence was a bit of an outcast who was given the job of seeing what the British could do to help Prince Faisal in the revolt against the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany. There begins his passion in helping the Arab people as he works through blood feuds and politics for their independence.
With the help of Anne V. Coates’ jump cut of a match being blown out to the sunrise over the horizon and Freddie Young’s perfect use of Super Panavision 70 to capture the widened, long stretches of desert for every sequence, David Lean captured everything a masterpiece must have. Yes, I used that word and it has been overused. But, when we talk about the history of film, Lawrence of Arabia deserves that word. It was seen as such immediately upon release. This was an event that was never going to be duplicated and a project that would never get off the ground as it is today.
It also introduced us to Omar Sharif, who played Sherif Ali as he kills Lawrence’s guide, a Bedouin, for drinking out of Ali’s well. Ali’s strides in on his camel and is calm when he approaches Lawrence, almost casually like there’s nothing to it that he killed a man. This is Lawrence’s rude awakening to this part of the world and our first taste of the running blood feud that carries over throughout the film. Lawrence will have to make a decision to keep the peace when the feud comes to blows. It is also a blood feud that carries on to this day, unfortunately, and Lawrence gets a first-hand look at it as shown by the melancholy ending – and his own personal foreshadowing.
There is a ton of power this movie carries by itself. Peter O’Toole, as a relative newcomer (who replaced Albert Finney), held the burden of playing Lawrence like a professional who has worked for decades. It certainly isn’t easy playing a historical figure who is also debated on regarding his actions, as well as his personal life. Being surrounded by a strong, veteran cast including Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, and Claude Rains boosted O’Toole’s performance, as he had to be on par with his established co-stars. O’Toole’s blonde hair and jeweled eyes puts a face to the man with every shot of shock and joy as Lawrence marches through all the way to Damascus.
What we have is a romance of a singular man along with history of his own doing. A charismatic figure who finds his calling and sees the Arab people as human and equal after thinking of them as “barbarous and cruel.” Watching the film always gives me this feeling that I am about to embark on a journey, even though I know the story and the historical background. David Lean didn’t blow it; he piloted moviegoers for the long ride, longer than his previous epic, The Bridge On The River Kwai, with no unnecessary turbulence. This film is his everlasting legacy and the influence it had on many future filmmakers is a testament to its endurance.