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Lawrence of Arabia

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

One of the greatest films of all time, David Lean's LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is as close as cinema gets to great literature.

You could never make this film again. It's the ultimate blend of ambition, history and perfect casting coming together to create a nearly four hour long experience you have to experience on the big screen.

Peter O'Toole embodies the eccentric, rebellious soldier T.E. Lawrence, whose disdain for tradition and social skills are at odds with his British superiors. O'Toole is hypnotic, investing every word of Robert Bolt's legendary script with power.

While the dialogue is excellent, it's often the wordless passages that come to mind when I think about Lean's masterpiece.

Lawrence at a watering hole in the middle of seemingly endless desert, watching as a tiny spec on the horizon become a man on camel heading straight for us. (Film history notes that to film Omar Sharif's entrance through a mirage, they used a special 482mm lens. Panavision still has this lens, and it is known among cinematographers as the "David Lean lens". It was created specifically for this shot and has not been used since.)

The full scale assault on a Turkish train, with hundreds of men on horseback overtaking it and Lawrence dancing on top if the locomotive...

Lawrence nearly dying in the desert after he goes back for one of his men, even though he's in sight of a watering hole...

All classic scenes in a film full of them.

While the dialogue in the scenes in which Lawrence is assigned to ally the desert factions alongside the British against the Turks is military and detailed in its precision, Lawrence's passionate pleas to the Arab desert leaders are all based on emotion. Who could resist O'Toole delivering inspirational speeches, often at odds with his own military?

The desert leaders are all film classics. Sherif Ali is played by Omar Sharif, who would go on to star in Lean's next film, 1965's "Doctor Zhivago". Sharif is legendary in the role. Alec Guinness (The Bridge on the River Kwai) has plenty of fun as Prince Feisal, who's always got ulterior motives up with long, flowing sleeves. Anthony Quinn (The Guns of Navarone) owns every scene he's in as Auda abu Tayi, whose respect for Lawrence grows alongside his loyalty.

Arthur Kennedy is an American journalist packaging Lawrence's exploits into an American palette-friendly version for the masses. Early on, Kennedy's character Bentley admits that he's "looking for a hero".

Surely Lawrence is one of the oddest heroes in the history of film. Lean, lanky and looking impossible young in all his 1962 quirk, O' Toole was nominated for Best Actor. He should have won!

Lean had immense guts in making the film, staging all the action full-scale, with no models, long before CGI. Spielberg has said recently that LAWRENCE would be impossible to make today, a nearly four-hour historical epic that would cost over $450 million in today's dollars.

Spielberg, Scorsese and George Lucas worked with film preservationists to save the film after nearly every negative was destroyed by time and neglect. They restored nearly 30 minutes of footage unseen since the 1962 premiere and frame by frame created a new 70mm print. I sought it out at the widescreen Cine Capri during its 1989 re-release and my appreciation for the film increased ten fold.

While I watch it at least every other year at home on a large screen, nothing can equal seeing it on the big screen.

Maurice Jarre's score is his all time best and it won the Academy Award, as did Lean for his direction, Robert Bolt (Doctor Zhivage, A Man for All Seasons) for his screenplay, Freddie Young (You Only Live Twice, Ryan's Daughter) for his cinematography, John Box (Rollerball, The Great Gatsby) for his art direction, John Cox (The Guns of Navarone) for Best Sound and Anne V. Coates (In the Line of Fore) for Best Editing.

Of course it won Best Picture of 1962 and still stands as one of the greatest films of all time. I know it's hard to imagine a film that runs 3 hours and 38 minutes plus intermission can keep you engaged for its entire running time, but Lean and O'Toole do just that.

Lean has noted that almost all the movement in the film is from the left side of the screen to the right to signify Lawrence's long journey. What a journey it is. As Lawrence's hubris and humility is replaced by ego and arrogance, his story becomes more complicated but no less compelling.

Filmed for 14 months in the desert, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is one of my favorite films, earning an A+, a spot next to my Top 10 and often popping back into it when I re-watch this classic.

When Lean created the shot in which Lawrence blows out the match and it becomes the blazing sun of the middle east, film history took a giant leap forward.

If you haven't seen this amazing film, I envy you.

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