Lawrence of Arabia

Directed by David Lean, with Peter O'Toole, Alec Guiness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Arthur Kennedy, Claude Rains, José Ferrer and Jack Hawkins, 1962, 216 minutes

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 portrayed.

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 with homosexuality.

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 for decades.

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 Bentley.

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!

This film is ranked 9th in Carter B. Horsley's list of the Top 500 Sound Films, 5th on the American Film Institute's list of top 100 films, 6th on Time Out's top 100 films, 23rd on the International Movie Data Base Voters' top 250 films as of Dec. 27, 2000, 5th on Mr. Showbiz list of top 100 films and is included in the top 100 list of the great movie site at http://www.filmsite.org.

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