I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our
time. I do not see his like elsewhere. His name will live in English letters; it will live
in the annals of war; it will live in the legends of Arabia.
-- Winston Churchill on T. E. Lawrence
World War I. T. E. Lawrence (Peter OToole) is stuck with a desk job in Cairo,
coloring maps. Something of a scholar, he believes that the Arabs are potential allies in
the struggle against the Axis powers. His commanding officers think hes daft,
unpleasant, impolite, and not at all a proper gentleman. Happily for Lawrence, Mr. Dryden
(Claude Rains), from the political team wants to assess the value of utilizing the Arabs.
Lawrence is seconded to the politicos to search out Prince Feisal (Alec Guiness) and
determine whether the British can enlist the Arabs. Lawrence falls in love with the desert
and the Beduin lifestyle ("going native" as the officers referred to it) and
decides that he will deliver an independent Arab republic to his friends. While his overt
strategy is to overthrow the Turks, his covert mission is to beat the Brits. Being an
intelligent and sensitive man, he falls victim to hubris. In the chess game of life,
Lawrences fundamental aspiration was to be a knight; he unexpectedly grew to be a
king, but ultimately, he was transformed into a pawn. The experience breaks him. Lawrence
of Arabia is, finally, a tragedy.
What makes Lawrence of Arabia great
Where to start? Imagine if you had seen the movie in 1962. This was a special occasion
movie -- men in suits, women in dresses, reserved seats with an usher to guide you to
them, smokers in the left section, children restricted to the soundproof rooms at the back
of the balcony. The lights dim to black. Suddenly, the sound of drums explodes from the
speakers. For four and a half minutes, Sir Adrian Boult and the London Symphony Orchestra
treat us to one of films most famous overtures. Written by Frenchman Maurice Jarre
(third choice after William Walton and Malcolm Arnold turned down the project), the score
announces action, heroism, and exoticism in equal measure. The audience immediately knew
they were in for something very special. As the movie begins, you can tell that the style
of Lawrence of Arabia is from a different era. It is slow to unfold and operatic in
pace. But it is also an expedition with all the jolts, turns, lulls, and swoops of a ride
on the Rocket Roller Coaster.
T. E. Lawrences life story falls into the category of "If it wasnt
true, no one would believe it." His autobiography, "Seven Pillars of
Wisdom," was adapted to a screenplay by British playwright Robert Bolt (Dr.
Zhivago, A Man for All Seasons, The Mission). Even though Bolt had never written a
screenplay before, Lean had faith in him. After a brilliant career writing for the stage,
Bolt brought a rich sense of dialog and a dramatists eye to the epic. This forced
the action sequences, impressive as they are, to take a back seat to the true drama of the
work, which was Lawrences constant intellectual and emotional search for meaning.
Steven Spielberg stated that the script by Robert Bolt is "the greatest screenplay
ever written for the motion picture medium."
Newcomer Peter OToole (over 70 movies to his credit, foremost Becket, The Lion
in Winter, and The Ruling Class) inhabits Lawrences skin in a way that no
other actor could. All of his dandied-up, primly educated, recalcitrant traits show up.
The homosexuality is implied, not exposed. His exhausting schedule required that he be in
nearly every scene, yet we never tire of him. Omar Shariff (Dr. Zhivago, Funny Girl),
then already a big star in Arab countries, succeeds in making you forget hes acting.
He is also the only Arab actor in a major role, which brings us to the one casting defect,
common for its time, but nonetheless jarring. Rather than natives in any of the other
major roles, we get Alec Guiness with mascara and Anthony Quinn with chestnut colored skin
dye and a prosthetic nose. Guiness is a guilty pleasure, talking as if each word tasted
like honey, like he wanted to roll them on his tongue to taste their sweetness. Anthony
Quinn (La Strada, Zorba the Greek) chews up the scenery in much the same way that
his character, Auda abu Tayi slashed through his opponents. They are both wonderful, but
they are not Arabs.
Consider the camera work by Freddie Young. Has anyone ever captured the desert with
such veracity? Brilliant, unforgettable visions abound for the entire film. Images are
burned in your brain like a brand on a calf, like a longer-term eidetic memory. A single
scene exemplifies Youngs work. When Shariff appears in the distance (chapter 9) as a
small dot on the horizon, bathed in the reflections of a heat mirage, he gradually comes
into view. It is an unforgettable picture. Spielberg, who watches Lawrence for
inspiration before he starts each new film, said, "The mirage sequence is still the
greatest miracle Ive seen on film."
What makes Lawrence of Arabia a classic is Leans direction. He had proved
himself a skillful director in post-war Great Britain with such films as Blithe Spirit,
Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist. Then he broke through in America with The
Bridge on the River Kwai. None of these would prepare us for the vivid luminosity of Lawrence
of Arabia. While I know little about Lean the man, I can assure you based on the
evidence of this one film, that he was intelligent, insightful, and, above all, an artist.
Exhibit 1: The Match. In chapter 3, Lawrence lights a cigarette for William Potter
(played by Harry Fowler) and puts the match out with his fingers. Potter tries to imitate
William Potter: Ooh! It damn well 'urts!
T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.
Officer: What's the trick then?
T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.
Heres a little philosophy to go with your character development. Six minutes
later, Lawrence is about to pull the same trick with Dryden as they discuss
Lawrences strange sense of what is fun. As he lights the match, he rolls up his
sleeve and holds the match close to his face. We are tricked into thinking he will put out
the match with his fingers again. Instead, he blows the match out and we are
instantaneously transported to a beautiful, blood-red sunrise on the Nafud desert. It is
as breathtaking a cinema moment as any in history. Its up there with the last scene
in Casablanca, the door opening to show Marlon Brando in The Godfather, or
the door closing as John Wayne walks out in The Searchers.
Speaking of The Searchers, lets acknowledge the debt David Lean owed to
its director, John Ford -- not just in the obvious "tortured hero" character
that Ford had perfected in The Informer, The Quiet Man and The Searchers.
Ruminate on the panoramic use of location filming. Several times in Lawrence of Arabia,
I could imagine Fords Monument Valley vistas. The Arabs attacking the Turks looked
like nothing so much as an attack on the wagon train by Indians in Fords Cavalry
Trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande). The primary debt owed
to Ford involves the most subtle and intangible aspects of his art: verisimilitude,
genuineness, and humanity. Its the feeling that you have seen the true essence of a
place, its time and its people. Its as if you were watching an actual event, from a
safe distance, but close enough to be involved. This trait is rare in film. Think to your
own experience. How many movies successfully transport you to another world? Fords
ability to dependably pull off this hat trick is why so many believe him to be at or near
the top of the list of our greatest directors. Leans ability to recreate this
elusive feeling in his three top epics (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of
Arabia, Dr. Zhivago) lays bare the sheer size of his talent.
Visual and sound quality
Can you see the greatness of Lawrence of Arabia on a 21" or even a
210" screen? Doesnt it really require one of the movie palaces of the 1950s? I
hate to equivocate, but I will. Ive only seen Lawrence on the big screen, at
a multiplex, in its 1989 re-release. It was stunning and overwhelming. We have a movie
palace (the Paramount) where I live (Austin) with a hot-rodded 70mm projector donated by
Ron Howard. Hopefully they will show the film so I can relive its earlier glory. Until
then, I have to say that I experienced the magic all over again on my 120" screen.
The restored film elements looked beautiful. OTooles impossibly azure eyes
blazed. The desert scenes were detailed without any of the hyping artifacts you so
frequently see with classics.
Sonically, Lawrence is a blockbuster. From the orchestral score to the rumble of
the opening motorcycle, everything sounds right. With a couple of exceptions, you might
think that not much is going on in the surrounds, but turn them off and you will notice
that the entire soundstage shrinks forward. The surrounds do get a workout during
Lawrences trip through an echoing canyon.
Lawrence of Arabia has the best extras Ive seen yet on a DVD. A wonderful
documentary from the 1989 re-release called The Making of Lawrence of Arabia goes
behind the scenes in more depth and detail than the fluff pieces you usually see. There
are six other short features about the movie, talent files, newsreel footage of the New
York premier, and trailers. There is also a conversation with Steven Spielberg about what
makes this movie so important. At one point, he talks about sitting through a screening
with Lean where Lean described everything he did and why he did it, which leads me to my
only cavil about the extras: Why couldnt we have Spielberg on a commentary track,
telling us what Lean told him? Or better yet, why not have directors Martin Scorsese and
Steven Spielberg and producer Jon Davison (all of which peddled influence and gave money
for the restoration) do a commentary track. Surely theyd be interested as well as
A last thought
1962 was an exceptional year for Oscars. A surfeit of impressive films was released: To
Kill a Mockingbird, The Miracle Worker, The Manchurian Candidate, Lolita, Mutiny on the
Bounty, The Music Man, Days of Wine and Roses, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford
up against Lean!). Lawrence of Arabia dominated and was nominated for 10 Academy
Awards. It won seven, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best
Score. The three losers were OToole, Shariff, and Bolt. OToole lost to Gregory
Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. Shariff lost to Ed Begley in Sweet Bird of Youth.
Bolt lost to Horton Foote for To Kill a Mockingbird. Some of these were good films.
For me, none are in the same category as Lawrence. I bring this up for a purpose.
We re-view older movies through the wisdom of hindsight. Occasionally, you or I might
be disappointed by a film not living up to its reputation (real or remembered). But
somehow, the second or third time around, the best -- the classics -- begin to resonate in
and with your psyche. They take on a life that is enmeshed with yours in ways you
dont recall until you see the film again. Only the greatest films do this. While I
appreciate lots of films intellectually, few are powerful enough to bring about this
symbiotic effect. For me, Columbias exceptional DVD of Lawrence of Arabia has