Lawrence of Arabia
Directed by David Lean
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Based upon the writings of T.E. Lawrence
Starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, and Anthony Quinn
Available to stream on Amazon Prime Instant Video and Xfinity Stream Pix
The results are in (from the little voices in my head) and David Lean’s sprawling epic has come out on top! I’ve seen some very long, very good movies in my short life, but Lawrence of Arabia was an event in its own class. For the entire 4-hour film, I sat glued to the screen, hypnotized by pathos and the beauty of the story. It’s maybe the closest I’ve come to having an out-of-body experience.
Before I really get started with this review, there is a caveat: you can’t watch this movie on a phone, tablet, or any other small screen. It won’t do. Watch it on the biggest screen possible, with the best sound possible. It needs to be a spectacle.
I’m a huge proponent of the belief that story is first and foremost about character, and that setting and spectacle are like sprinkles and frosting on the cake. But in this film the desert is a character. The others (especially Lawrence) don’t make any sense to me without first being in awe of the expanses, the heat, the beauty, and the almost malicious quality of the setting that surrounds them.
David Lean builds his film around the power of place. The story itself is complex, and not easily contained in a short review, but here’s what you need to know: The film opens with Lawrence’s death and is then told in flashbacks, recounting his days in the Middle East during World War I. His initial mission is to look into the Arab revolt against the Turks. But things get complicated and Lawrence becomes more or less a permanent resident of the desert, embroiling himself in guerrilla warfare and shifting politics of the desert. But the details of the plot are ultimately not that important, and are dwarfed by the location and by the spirit of the Lawrence’s resolve.
Roger Ebert wrote about the film in his Great Movies series saying, “We remember the quiet, empty passages, the sun rising across the desert, the intricate lines traced by the wind in the sand.” He left out one thing–the fierce blue eyes that pierce all of it. See, the thing that makes Lawrence such a memorable and powerful character (and historical figure) is that he is a tiny insignificant speck in the midst of this grandeur, and yet he overcomes it. He stares it down.
Peter O’Toole’s brilliance in playing Lawrence is that he doesn’t resort to the melodramatic flare that would seem to go with an epic like this. Instead, he plays the man as peculiar, impulsive, and playful. He isn’t the caricature of a hero. That wouldn’t be very interesting. He is simply a man with a mission.
It is a great shameful blemish (not the only one) on the history of the Academy Awards that O’Toole had to receive his only Oscar in the form of an honorary award. I give the academy a pass for not giving him the award for Lawrence. Gregory Peck won that year for playing Atticus Finch. Tough choice. Nevertheless, he was robbed in 1969 when he was electrifying as Henry II in The Lion in Winter, and again the next year when he was snubbed for his title role in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. O’Toole was an actor with a true flair for the dramatic and an unyielding command of the subtle. Lawrence of Arabia gave him his greatest role, providing him with a story, a setting, and an inspiration that were all bigger than life.
That does it for the first week of my 7 x 7 series. Check in tomorrow for #7 in a countdown of “The Best Under-the-radar Films” available to stream.