Movie Project #48: Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]
Director: David Lean
Writers: T.E. Lawrence (writings), Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Genre: Adventure/Biography/Drama
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif
Running Time: 216 minutes

The word “epic” is thrown around a lot these days, especially when it comes to film. Just this year alone, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises were recipients of this buzz word. But if there were one film to truly deserve the “epic” moniker, it would be Lawrence of Arabia.

Arguably the most intimidating entry in my project — largely due to its nearly four hour running time — I waited until just the right time to finally see the film. Thanks to this year being the 50th anniversary of its release, a fully restored version has been making its way around select theaters nationwide. As such, I spent my Christmas evening at my favorite cinema, the Music Box Theatre, taking in Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen as it was meant to be seen.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The film tells the story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a man who I knew little about beforehand. Set during World War I, we follow along as Lawrence rises from being an eccentric British Army lieutenant to an improbable leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. The journey there is anything but conventional.

Lawrence befriends a number of desert leaders along the way, including Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). He earns their trust and respect thanks to his noble actions. In one pivotal moment, the Arab group notices a man has fallen off his horse quite a ways back. While the general consensus is that it is too risky to go back for him, Lawrence takes matters into his own hands and rides back alone. He emerges, a small blip in the seering desert horizon, no longer alone, but with the man clinging to his back. This response cements Lawrence’s status as a leader, and soon the Arabs become even more accepting of him.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

The fact that Lawrence is able to emerge as a crucial figure in the Arab revolt is nothing short of fascinating. He is anything but a traditional military hero, and it’s easy to see why director David Lean wanted to film his story. Peter O’Toole, in his first leading role, delivers an unprecedented performance as Lawrence, bringing about an unusual form of charisma. He is enigmatic, a rebellious figure who is also a bit effeminate. He’s a man of action, and some of his behavior near the end of the revolt is startling.

The supporting cast is phenomenal as well. Omar Sharif plays a key role as Lawrence’s main compatriot in the desert, with Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn also performing admirably as important Arab leaders. On the British side of the spectrum, Donald Wolfit and the always reliable Claude Rains play military and political leaders, respectively. Arthur Kennedy makes an appearance as an American war correspondent, looking to make Lawrence out to be a hero. Special mention should be made of José Ferrer, who is only in the film for five minutes but is a driving force in one of the most memorable scenes.

Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

Perhaps the most important figure in Lawrence of Arabia is the desert itself. The cinematography by F.A. Young is simply amazing, and the landscape is used to maximum efficiency. Several scenes show the sun beaming down on those below, with long, sweeping shots that show just how minuscule humans are in the grand scheme of things. An especially memorable moment happens when Sherif Ali is introduced. At first, we see a tiny dot in the distance. In the hazy heat, it’s difficult to tell if there is actually something there or if it is an illusion. Slowly but surely, the small dot grows bigger, and it isn’t too long before Ali enters the scene. What happens next is unexpected, but this moment perfectly encapsulates just how daunting these massive deserts truly are. I can’t recall another film that so effectively uses Earth’s own natural beauty.

Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven of them (including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography). It’s one of the most widely recognized films of all time, with unanimous praise from most. The accolades are more than deserved, as this is a near flawless work of art. As of this writing, the film is still being shown in a handful of theaters. If it’s playing anywhere near you, this is a cinematic viewing experience you must not miss.


22 thoughts on “Movie Project #48: Lawrence of Arabia [1962]

  1. Morgan R. Lewis says:

    Great review, Eric. Glad you got to see this on the big screen, kind of wish I had (though hopefully with an intermission — four hours is hard to sit through even with a great movie.) I still really enjoyed watching this at home a few months ago, though. A really great film.

    • Eric says:

      Thanks, Morgan. Yeah, fortunately there was an intermission of about fifteen minutes. It was spaced out well enough so part one lasted 2:20, and the second part was a more manageable 70 minutes or so.

        • Eric says:

          Hah, yeah I’ve noticed that a lot of major films seem longer these days. Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, TDKR, Django Unchained, Les Mis, etc. all pushed toward three hours long. Really interesting.

  2. ckckred says:

    One of the greatest epics ever. It’s cool how you got to see it in theaters, this is a movie that I think really deserves to be seen on the big screen. Nice review.

  3. VictorsMovieReviews says:

    Great point about the desert itself being one of the most important figures.

    One of the most impressive things I was always amazed about is all the tracts in the desert are always virgin; as if the first take is always the one the show and the scene required no setup.

    • Eric says:

      That’s a great observation, Victor. They really made perfect use of the desert, making us feel like we were there along for the journey the entire time.

  4. Gary Smith says:

    This is on my list of films to see, but it has been on there for a couple of years. It’s one of only a handful of films that I want to see but have never gotten around to (probably because of the run time.)

    This review makes me want to finally spend an evening with the film (although I don’t think I could stand to be in a theater for such a long period of time).

    Excellent review Eric!

    • Eric says:

      Thanks, Gary. This would make for an excellent inclusion in your upcoming project. Fortunately the theatrical screening had a much-welcomed intermission that split the film into two manageable sections. It was nice to be able to get up, stretch out, etc.

  5. Chris says:

    Good review, seems pretty flawless! I have this one scheduled for 2013, glad to see you enjoyed it so much! I keep pushing it back due to the 4 hour running time, that’s no excuse, I know. Maybe I’ll see it in two sittings. Seeing epics on a big screen is definitely the right way to go about it, as you did.

    • Eric says:

      Thanks, Chris. Yeah, I can’t think of any flaws, really. Maybe it’s a little long, but in the grand scheme of things I can’t imagine changing anything. Hope you enjoy it in 2013!

  6. Fogs' Movie Reviews says:

    I’ve never been a huge fan of this one, but its stature alone makes it an MTESS, so one day soon I’ll be giving it its day in court again. Maybe I’ll change my mind now that Im watching movies with a critics eyes, you know?

    • Eric says:

      Oh man, yeah this is a perfect MTESS entry. I think it will help seeing it again with “critic eyes”, as you said. It’s hard not to appreciate everything the film offers — it would be an impressive feat even today.

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