Published on July 23rd, 2008 | by Chris1
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Before I start, I should mention that I had never seen Lawrence of Arabia before today. Not even a hint of it. Why not? Sure I've heard how great it was, but because of its length I've never been able to wrangle the opportunity. Until today.
Lawrence of Arabia is the very definition of a "movie epic." It's probably in the dictionary. From the sheer length (nearly four hours!) to the scope of the vision, the camera work, the story, the characters.... It really is that good. You might be saying, "But I thought you hated long movies!" Not so at all. Only when they are too long for their own good do I not care for it.
But I would say that the nearly four-hour length of Lawrence of Arabia isn't nearly long enough. In fact when it was over I was saying to myself, "That's it? Where's the rest of the story?!"
What you have here is the "hollywood" true story of Thomas Edward Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), an officer in the British army stationed in the middle east during World War I. His cavalier attitude gets him transferred out of the Cairo office to be a liaison to Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and help unite the Arab tribal armies under the British flag against the Turks.
What happens instead is Lawrence becomes more involved with the Arab cause than the British cause, and with the help of tribal leaders Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) eventually leads the Arabs to take the city of Damascus from the Turks, and also away from the British.
Helping inflate the image of Lawrence is a Chicago newpaper reporter, Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), who reports back on Lawrence's "freedom fighting" activities....
But ultimately this picture is not about the war, or the Arab cause, or any of that. I think it is a story about humility. Or dare I say, lack thereof. We see Lawrence go from the cocky and disrespectful officer, to learning his place in the Arab camps, to becoming their leader. Subsequently he's beaten back down (quite literally) from his "high horse" position and finally sees the larger picture. Ironically its his same cavalier-ness (is that a word) that winds up getting him killed. In between he has to deal with entities such as Prince Faisal, who despite his position, seems to maintain a certain level of humility that Lawrence does not, to the two "outcast" boys he takes on as his servants, only to lose both of them in unfortunate accidents.
There isn't a frame of film shot in the length of this film that is meaningless, either. Every single shot seems to be quite purposefully and artfully set up. From the truly epic images of hundreds of horse-bound warriors, to closeups.... Nothing is wasted. The DVD I viewed (the 2002 "single disc" edition) was an excellent restoration. The original 70mm source quality shines through. I'm to understand that there has been further work done on the film for a recent HD release, presumably this will make its way to Blu-Ray. If you need a reason to jump on that bandwagon, this will be it.
The score is equally grand and epic, but never manages to overshadow the film as can sometimes happen. The "prelude" to the film, where there is nothing but an empty screen and the score plays, introduces us to the main themes in the soundtrack in a "concert hall" like fashion. I can't imagine today's audiences caring much for it, and normally I would have balked at the idea, but once you really listen to it, the score is absolutely amazing.
What is also evident is the concept of the failing of the British Empire. The theme is unavoidable. On the one hand it seems to dispouse the "arrogance" of the British viewpoint toward "the natives", but yet we still have a portrayal like Quinn's character, the coarse, greedy, arrogant and mostly ignorant tribesman. Contrast still with the refined presence of the other tribesman as portrayed by Sharif, and even their Prince. Difficult to say what they're trying to present, if anything at all. Balance? Your guess is as good as mine.
If you've never witnessed Lawrence of Arabia, like I hadn't, then you are truly missing out. Just like reading Dickens, listening to Mozart, or visiting the Eiffel Tower, taking in a masterpiece such as this has to be done, at least once in your life.
(I'm also classifying this as both "World War I" and "Other" due to it falling into both categories, I'm not sure which would be more appropriate!)
Summary: If you've never witnessed Lawrence of Arabia, like I hadn't, then you are truly missing out. Just like reading Dickens, listening to Mozart, or visiting the Eiffel Tower, taking in a masterpiece such as this has to be done, at least once in your life.