By Carter B. Horsley
A stunning, exotic epic recounting
the exploits of T. E. Lawrence in World War I, "Lawrence
of Arabia" is close to being the perfect film.
Great acting, spectacular scenery and cinematography,
and the unraveling of historical and political dramas combined
with a memorable score by Maurice Jarre, a literate script by
Robert Bolt and the directorial genius of David Lean make "Lawrence
of Arabia" an indelible experience.
The film is fascinating on both the micro and
the macro levels.
At the personal level, all of the leading characters
are intriguing and unpredictable, worthy and fearsome.
None are caricatures. Perhaps no other movie has ever had
some many interesting and fully-developed roles so brilliantly
On the other hand, the themes of myths, tribal
antipathy, nationalities, war, alliances, promises, leadership,
corruptibility, savagery, affection, arrogance, pride, delusion,
and pomp are admirably tackled and handled.
The film also makes much of the role of the
press in supporting the establishment and promoting its causes
and making and finding heroes, a theme that remains contemporary.
The film was made in 1962 when the issue of
homosexuality was not easy for major movies to handle, or even
dare to handle. Lawrence's sexuality in the film is rather ambiguous,
although his scenes with a Turkish garrison commander played with
malevolent sensuality by José Ferrer and with two young
Arab boys who accompany him on some expeditions flirt quite openly
The casting of Peter O'Toole as Lawrence was
not only brilliant, but also critical and, indeed, it is very
hard to imagine anyone else who could have brought it off. In
real life, Lawrence was not tall and not especially good-looking.
In his first major film role, O'Toole is almost too charismatic,
too much a Nordic-looking God, and his very deliberate speech
is too, too perfect for any mere mortal. These are not criticisms.
O'Toole got the role of a lifetime and gave the performance of
a lifetime. The only possible criticism is that he was just too
pretty, which, of course, makes the sexual innuendo in the film,
limited as it was, all the more poignant. The role, of course,
demands a certain suspension of belief. How could a relatively
minor English soldier play so dominant a role in unifying and
leading Arab tribes against the Turks in the deserts of the Mid
East? Well, truth is stranger than fiction and the real Lawrence
did participate in these campaigns, and was ballyhooed by a young,
ambitious journalist, Lowell Thomas, who went on to become the
most influential American journalist before Edward R. Morrow.
Thomas's professorial, if not pompous, oratory would later become
the adopted style of Walter Cronkite, whose voice and delivery
sounded much like those of Thomas, who for many years also headed
the Explorers Club. Thomas wrote a book about his travels with
Lawrence ("With Lawrence in Arabia") and later became
the voice-over for many newsreels in the 1930's and 1940's. Lawrence's
own book, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom," was famous
Richard Burton might have been the only other
actor of the time who could have pulled this role off, but it
would have been a far different and less plausible interpretation
as Burton could never be perceived as a weak man and O'Toole,
to his credit, has human frailties, which are more appropriate
for the enigmatic role of Lawrence.
As terrific as O'Toole is making us believe
in Lawrence as a tortured man of destiny, at times mad with delusions
of grandeur, at times racked by guilt at his own barbarism and
infrequently infuriated at the inanities of mere mortals, the
supporting cast is sensational.
Omar Sharif makes the greatest entrance in
film history, and proves worthy of it, portraying Sharif Ali Ibn
El Kharish, a proud tribal leader not entirely tied to traditions.
Alec Guiness as Prince Feisal is extraordinary as a sophisticated,
wily, but not all powerful ruler. Jack Hawkins as General Allenby
is evil incarnate, pursuing whatever means to a military end,
and Anthony Quayle is properly intelligent, but obedient as his
subordinate. Claude Rains is devilishly impish as a diplomat.
Anthony Quinn is full of bluster (and make-up) as a fiery tribal
leader, Auda Abu Tayi. Arthur Kennedy has the enthusiasm and cynicism
of a journalist revving up to a scoop as the journalist, Jackson
Much of the movie was shot on location in Jordan,
although the cities of Aquaba and Damascus were recreated in Spain.
The desert scenes are magical and Lean lingers
with them with a timeless touch.
There is a fair bit of action in the movie,
but this is an adventure more of the mind than of brawn. Nevertheless,
it is visceral. It manages to change tempos and realities with
aplomb and even to dispense entirely with leading ladies.
The movie, which won Oscars for best picture,
best director, best cinematography and best music, was re-released
in 1989 in a restored version. O'Toole deserved the best
actor Oscar but lost to Gregory Peck in "To Kill A Mockingbird".
A magnificent, compelling adventure!