Lawrence of Arabia: Review
One of the most visually stunning pictures in the history of cinema, Lawrence of Arabia achieves cinematic success on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to begin with the accolades.
I was first introduced to Lawrence of Arabia in New York City in 1994. I’m not sure if it was at Lincoln Center or at the Ziegfeld, but it was definitely shown on a huge screen in a large theater. Although it wasn’t displayed in 70mm (as it was originally distributed) it was a restored print, which rendered the projected image as close to perfection as possible. These were indeed the ideal conditions in which to see any classic film for the first time, especially an historical drama on the epic scale of Lawrence of Arabia.
And there are many who believe that the only way to fully enjoy such a cinematic masterpiece would be under those same conditions. But I would argue the point because I believe the magnitude of a film’s impact is not measured by the size of the screen, but by the visceral sensation created by the film itself, and Lawrence of Arabia is most definitely a film that arouses the senses. Set in Arabia during WWI, T. E. Lawrence becomes directly involved with the Arab revolt against the Turks, actually becoming the leader of the desert raids. Eventually, he leads his army northward and helps a British General destroy the hold of the Ottoman Empire. From the inspiring music, to the mesmerizing cinematography, to the enchanting cast, the picture perfectly captures the essence of the time and the place, thanks to Academy Award winning director, David Lean.
Although Lean has just 19 films to his directing credit, his work is comparable to that of any of the greatest directors who ever lived. In fact the last film he directed before Lawrence was the Academy Award Best Picture winner, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and his follow up film was Doctor Zhivago. Obviously, Lean was at the peak of his professional career during that period. It took more than two years to complete Lawrence, which was shot entirely on location, and boasted the use of close to a thousand extras for the Arab encampment and battle scenes. With a keen eye for framing that often looked as if he had all of Arabia within his lens, Lean was undoubtedly the Cecil B. DeMille of his generation.
Of course, Lean worked with some of the greatest actors ever to grace the silver screen. Possessing a great gift for directing actors, Lean never relied on the glamour of star power, but cast according to whom he felt was best for the part. In the form of Peter O’Toole Lean just happened to get lucky and got both a personality who would become a Hollywood icon and a man who was already a damn good actor. O’Toole was young and handsome with a healthy ego and a grand sense of adventure – everything required of his on screen personae. It was easy for O’Toole to evoke the spirit of Lawrence and is to this day most remembered for this introductory role. For classic movie fans O’Toole and the character of T. E. Lawrence are synonymous. O’Toole really should have received an Academy Award for his work. However, it was the same year Gregory Peck appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird, and I don’t think anyone can deny Peck’s worthiness. It just happened to be one of those years when the decision could have gone either way.
The rest of the all male cast reads like a who’s who of classic cinema: Academy Award winner Alec Guinness, two time Award winner Anthony Quinn, four time nominee Claude Rains, Academy Award winner Jose Ferrer, nominee Omar Sharif, and many more. Most of these men (each an icon in their own respect) appear in pivotal, but small roles with the exception of Sharif. Sharif plays the all-important role of Ali, a recurring companion to Lawrence. As with O’Toole, Sharif’s role was an introductory one, and Lean provided him with what is perhaps the single greatest introduction in all of cinema. I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t seen it yet, but the moment ranks right up there with John Ford’s introduction of John Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach - and then some! Sharif’s Ali lives up to the auspicious intro, providing a passionate performance full of depth and nuance, enhanced by his large dark eyes that express so much more than dialogue ever could.
Two other mighty influences upon the ultimate success of the film are Freddie Young’s Academy Award winning cinematography, and Maurice Jarre’s Academy Award winning score. The two elements stand as the perfect marriage between sight and sound and are as linked to one another as O’Toole is to Lawrence. For you cannot hear the music without visualizing the desert, and you cannot think of the wandering landscapes without conjuring the memorable tune. The images are that much more vibrant and the music that much more bracing when paired as one, working together to pull the audience in and carrying them off into another world full of adventurers and sheiks, battles and victories.
This is what I mean by saying that the size of the screen doesn’t really matter when it comes to watching an epic film like Lawrence of Arabia - the film provides abundant stimulation for an active imagination to do the rest. Of course, if I’m given the opportunity I will always opt for the big screen experience, but I’m not going to rob myself of viewing an exceptional film while I wait for a revival run. Wherever I watch Lawrence I feel like I’m back in that large theater in New York, middle row, center seat. I don’t even have to work at it; Lawrence of Arabia just takes me there.