Celebrated British director David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” is a textbook example of “epic” cinema. Like the previous year’s “West Side Story,” Lean filmed it in Super Panavision 70 [mm], to capture stark desert locations with an awe-inspiring sense of depth and beauty. A magnificent establishing shot of the enormous sun rising over the Arabian Desert remains one of the most breathtaking moments in cinema history, and sets the tone for the episodic saga that follows.
David Lean was an immensely skilled filmmaker, already famous for his memorable adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” (1946) and “Oliver Twist” (1948), when he adapted T.E. Lawrence’s bestselling World War I memoir.
Casting the chameleon-like Peter O’Toole in the title role proved to be a masterstroke. O’Toole’s subtle yet emotionally charged performance allowed uninformed audiences of the time to subconsciously grasp the suppressed motivations of a latently homosexual man searching for sexual freedom in an atmosphere of sudden violence in the most remote reaches of the planet.
Maurice Jarre’s overused, expansive theme music sets the film’s operatic tone during an extended intro sequence that winds down to show Lawrence as a retired British soldier who suffers his untimely death at the age of 46 while riding a motorcycle through the Dorset countryside, so ironic considering the dangers he’d survived. Lawrence’s well-attended funeral at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral allows for some snide editorializing from an American newspaper reporter who plays a crucial role in the backward-looking saga that elevated Lawrence from a mere mortal to an unwilling icon of British imperialism. That Lawrence held nothing but contempt for his country’s vile warring machinations only adds to the military officer’s inscrutable complexity as a man in search of meaning, and a mate.
Nothing about the story is predictable. We understand that Lawrence is a masochist from the way he habitually lets matchsticks burn down to his fingers. “The trick is to not mind the pain” he says with pride.
Any preconceptions of a political agenda are put to rest. Filmed during the final collapse of colonialism, the movie resists nationalistic propaganda at every turn. Lawrence accepts a one-man mission from his British officers to assess the Arab revolt against the Turks in the interest of Britain’s goal to destroy the Ottoman Empire. Before leading a guerrilla army against the Turks, the blue-eyed Lawrence reaches an epiphany of self-discovery when he decides the fate of a young man whose life he once saved by reversing direction alone through the desert to rescue him. Other milestone experiences of transformation, endurance, and violence transform Lawrence into a bloodthirsty warlord, if only for a while. Although Lawrence goes native for an extended period of time, he is never able to shed his Britishness in the way he hopes. For him Arabia remains just out of reach.
Rated PG. 216 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)