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- FILM REVIEW, L

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – Director’s Cut

Lawrence of ArabiaLawrence of Arabia (1962)

Directed by: David Lean

The cast includes:

Lawrence of Arabia poster Lawrence of Arabia poster

So what’s it about:

One of the screen’s grandest epics, this monumental story recounts the true life experiences of T.E. Lawrence, better known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia. A young, idealistic British officer in WWI, Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is assigned to the camp of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), an Arab tribal chieftain and leader in a revolt against the Turks. In a series of brilliant tactical maneuvers, Lawrence leads fifty of Feisal’s men in a tortured three week crossing of the Nefud Desert to attack the strategic Turkish held port of Aqaba. And following his successful raids against Turkish troops and trains, Lawrence’s triumphant leadership and unyielding courage gain him nearly god-like status among his Arab brothers.

With Oscar® winning cinematography, magnificent locations, Maurice Jarre’s famed score and a screenplay based on Lawrence’s own writings, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is a masterpiece. Over the years the film was heavily cut, but in 1988 a reconstruction of the film was undertaken. David Lean and original editor Anne V. Coates then worked on the film to create Lean’s Director’s Cut. It is this version that has now been lovingly digitally restored by Sony Pictures Entertainment, ensuring that the film will be seen as it was meant to be, for the first time since its initial release. The film will also be screened in its original roadshow format, with an overture, intermission, entr’acte and exit music. (Source: Parkcircus.com)

Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia"

The review:

I first saw David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” some fifteen years ago when I bunked off from what I was supposed to be doing and spent the afternoon in the company of Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness et al instead. It was the best decision I ever made. Now in its 50th anniversary year, and re-released accordingly, I was deeply worried that this 3hr 42 minute director’s cut would not have the same effect on me.

After all, this is a BIG film in every way. Steven Spielberg called it a “miracle” and said it would probably cost $285 million to make in today’s money. The length of the film, the look of the film, the subject matter, and even the acting at times, are all on a supremely grand scale. “Lawrence of Arabia” is the epic movie to end all epic movies.  Consequently, it has, over the years, become a ‘sacred cow’ to its fans (Scorcese and Spielberg among them) who bow down before Lean’s achievement.

Peter O'Toole and Anthony Quinn in "Lawrence of Arabia"

So it was with some trepidation that I went back to revisit this film at a packed cinema last week. I sat nervously, unsure whether it would rekindle in me that same magic that I experienced the first time. What was worse was I was taking someone that had never seen the film before and I feared they may respond negatively to the general hype surrounding the movie, if not its bum-numbing running time.

I should not have worried. As soon as the majestic score by Maurice Jarre started and the cinema curtains revealed that first shot of O’Toole’s Lawrence readying his motorbike for the crash that would kill him I was hooked again. The restoration work done on the film has made it look absolutely stunning in virtually every frame. I could see immediately why it was this film that Ridley Scott referenced in “Prometheus” and why Michael Fassbender’s ‘David 8’ would be so utterly captivated by its story, its cinematography and, of course, by O’Toole himself.

Peter O'Toole as Major T.E. LawrenceThe most incredible thing is that, for a film that is 3hrs 42 minutes long (and which requires an intermission for people to eat a sandwich or stretch their legs) there is no fat on the film. Time does not drag at all while watching it and it is supremely difficult to even imagine where you would begin cutting the film. That, in itself, is no mean feat. The film has been labelled ‘structureless’ and ‘endless’ but really there is a very recognisable structure to it. The first half sees a vibrant Lawrence leading the Arabs to a famous victory at Aqaba while the second half shows Lawrence looking lost and cruel and impotently washed up by the end, having served his usefulness to both the British and the Arabs. A game of two, very distinct, halves indeed.

What is extraordinary to remember about the movie is that the dramatic events depicted in it only amount to 2 years in the real T.E. Lawrence’s life. Two years out of his whole 47 year lifespan and David Lean was reportedly still agonising over the final edit of the movie during the restoration process in 1989, claiming he had never really finished editing it all together.

Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains and Alec Guinness in "Lawrence of Arabia"

Be that as it may, the story itself is fascinating. Robert Bolt’s screenplay is due massive credit for how intelligent and nuanced it was for such a big-budget epic. What I had not appreciated before was how witty the dialogue is; the theatre was regularly in fits of giggles at O’Toole’s pithy badinage. Moreover, for a movie with such a lot of British talent involved in its production, the screenplay is very critical of the British, and in particular the underhandedness with which they conducted their ‘business’ with the Arabs for political gain. In fact, the British army and diplomatic service do not come out of this movie at all well, and while others may disagree, the Arabs are treated relatively compassionately throughout. Of course, the movie’s historical accuracy is not faultless (maybe not even close to faultless) but had David Lean directed a true depiction of the facts then it is a nailed-on certainty that we would have a much less interesting film on our hands. As long as you accept that what you are watching is not a true representation of events then you are better placed to enjoy the romance and poetic heroism of Bolt & Lean’s interpretation of events. For that is what this movie is and purports to be: a romantic dramatisation of historical events.

Of our poetic hero, I’ll say this: Peter O’Toole was robbed of the Oscar that he should have got at the 1962 Academy Awards. His name should have been engraved on that statuette from the moment the movie first came out. While I accept that he had stiff competition that year (Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Burt Lancaster in “The Birdman of Alcatraz”) neither of the other contenders match the complexity and ferocity of O’Toole’s towering central performance. You could not watch “Lawrence of Arabia” without O’Toole holding your gaze in every shot. He makes the movie and is utterly mesmeric.

Peter O'Toole meets his match

O’Toole shows Lawrence’s masochism early in the motion picture by smiling as he extinguishes a lit match with his finger then later his sadism as he smiles shooting the man he saved from the desert (apparently this actually happened to T.E. Lawrence in real life) in order to keep the peace between two Arab tribes. He vacillates between doubting himself (questioning his and others’ motives) then delivers rousing speeches about “nothing being written” and encouraging others to take great leaps of faith as he has done. He leads his followers with great arrogance and egotistical pride one moment before relinquishing command and hiding the next saying he is unworthy. He sets himself new ridiculously hard challenges each and every time he accomplishes the last impossible task. He is always pushing himself, yearning for something which he can never have. And what that is is never made clear. All we know is he is different, set apart, a mass of contradictions. He hates the British imperialism then acts as their chief agent provocateur. He loves the desert and the Arab people then washes his hands of them. This uniquely complex character is the heart and soul of this movie. And it is he that gives the grand sweeping epic its sense of intimacy.

Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif in "Lawrence of Arabia"

The rest of the cast are stupendous as well. While Alec Guinness’s casting as Prince Faisal and Anthony Quinn’s casting as Auda may raise eyebrows, both actors are never less than brilliantly watchable. Omar Sharif, of all the cast, is the pick of the bunch and consistently compelling to watch in every scene as Lawrence’s friend and stalwart companion, Sherif Ali. Indeed, “Old Wet Eye’s” entrance into the proceedings, via a extraordinarily lengthy mirage shot on the horizon, is one of the highlights of the film.

The arrival of Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia

Exploding a train in "Lawrence of Arabia"

The film has so many highlights however. There is the shot of a lonely Lawrence at sunset walking his camel along the coast of Aqaba. There is the exploding of the Turkish railways and Lawrence’s torture by the cruel Turkish Bey (played with prurient zest by Jose Ferrer). Then there is Lawrence leading Auda’s men to Aqaba with the ululating tribeswomen watching them go from the stunning vantage point on the valley slopes. Then there is Lawrence’s long arduous procession through the Nefud desert and his return to the British headquarters in Cairo. I could go on and on and on. Suffice to say, I have my favourite moments which I could bore on about in detail. Instead I will share with you my favourite scene in the clip below. This clip is after Lawrence had suffered as no other man has suffered in order to get his men through the blistering heat of the Nefud desert and taken by force the previously unassailable city of Aqaba for the Arab people. He returns to Cairo with his stout-hearted Arab servant to inform his paymasters of his success:

Watch the officer’s bar scene here:

I could say more about the clip above, or indeed about the film itself, but others have said it before and said it better. The incredibly romantic & tragic tale Lean depicts is “a miracle” just as Spielberg said it was. If you are interested then you should go and see it and read all about it. The anecdotes from the film’s making and from the real T.E. Lawrence’s life make for an even more interesting tale.

To cut a long story short, I fell in love with the movie again and so did my companion. We both think more and more of it each day that passes and find some new undiscovered vein or aspect to talk about. The fact is that it is just an immensely rich film: both in terms of its intelligent, complex screenplay and storytelling and its stunning cinematography.

They sure don’t make ‘em like they used to.

IN SHORT: An epic worthy of the name.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.

Wonderful. See it on the big screen if you can.

What did you think of “Lawrence of Arabia”? Did you enjoy it? Leave a comment and rate it here below:

  1. Check out the film on IMDB.com
  2. Read about the film on Wikipedia
  3. Read about the man himself, T.E. Lawrence, on Wikipedia
  4. Check out what Rottentomatoes.com has to say about the movie.
  5. Read an article in the New York Times about the film’s re-release.

Watch the official HD trailer for the new restoration here: 

Watch Steven Spielberg talking about the film:

Watch Martin Scorcese talk about the film:

One anecdote from the making of the film is recounted by Peter O’Toole thus:

“No, no. The stuntman couldn’t ride [the camel.] Only Omar and I managed to learn to ride the damn things. We were all very nervous. I went into the little tent, where we were to start the charge, and Omar was sitting in a chair, and he had his black keffiyeh on, but he didn’t have the little thing around it, and he had his worry beads. And he looked like a nun with a moustache.
I said, “What are you doing, Omar?”
He said, “Peter, I’ve been working out the odds.”
“What odds?”
“Whether the camel will fall over, or I will fall off the camel.”
“And what did you decide?”
“That there’s more chance of me falling off the camel than the camel falling over.”
I said, “I see. And what do you intend to do?”
He said, “I’m going to tie myself to the camel.”
And I said, “Well, I’m going to get drunk.”

Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif in "Lawrence of Arabia"

About dustforprints

Part bibliophile, part cinephile, part dream weaver. Hmmn... in short, I like books and movies and I write words about both from time to time.

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