Its excellence in spectacle cinema notwithstanding, as long as the Middle East is in conflict, Lawrence of Arabia will be a relevant and timeless film. As Arab states battle against their Israel neighbours today, David Lean's lauded and legendary epic follows the plight of the Arabs in the days of WWI through the eyes of T.E. Lawrence, the eccentric British officer who sought to unite the separate Arab tribes of the region against Turkish oppressors, sometimes in the name of the British King, sometimes in the name of his egotistical ambitions.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) dir. David Lean
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Alec Guinness
By Alan Bacchus
While there isn't a single female in the film — it's three hours and 42 minutes of masculinity — the romantic feeling is strong. A romance of the windswept Middle Eastern deserts, the spiritual connection to the rigors of the untamed environment and the exotic culture of the Arabic peoples. Cinematographer Freddie Young's unrivalled 70mm photography translates marvelously to high definition Blu-ray. Each shot is so rich, detailed and classically precise that, at times, it looks as if we're viewing a Jacques-Louis David Neoclassical painting.
As cinematically epic as the visuals are, the marvel of the film is Lean's ability to create intimacy within his broad canvas. Peter O'Toole's iconic performance as Lawrence is still as marvellous, delightful and mysterious as ever. It's hard to imagine anyone else's striking blonde hair or piercing blue eyes on the screen. Lean elegantly weaves in the political narrative with Lawrence's ascendance as a military officer. Like his Arab compatriot, Lawrence is inextricably linked by the independent, vagabond lifestyle. Lawrence never fits in anywhere; he's uncomfortable in the starched British officer's uniform and is never fully accepted wearing the Arab attire given to him by the people he's trying to save. O'Toole's off-kilter performance is lyrical, poetic and, at times, grating and abrasive.
Some of the most memorable visual moments in the film are the smallest: the introduction of Omar Sharif, emerging from a mirage, is always discussed. However, a smaller but equally significant moment is Lawrence's decision to take Aqaba, the port city protected by massive Turkish guns. The decisive moment is visualized by two Arab minions who accidentally hit him in the back with a rock. For days they had been sitting in agonizing contemplation of how to turn the tide of war. The seemingly insignificant and accidental action becomes the plan to cross the un-crossable desert and attack Aqaba from behind. The pay-off is one of the greatest sequences and shots in cinema history. The Aqaba attack sequence is brilliantly choreographed with thousands of extras and horses in real time and space, mixing intense on-the-ground close-ups with awe-inspiring wide shots from the hillside. It's capped off with a superlative long take of the camera panning over the army of horses running through the Aqaba village, ending on those heavy artillery guns looking out towards the sea.
Still, as much as the film is beloved, some issues remain. Despite the casting of Omar Sharif, we still have to endure Brits and Americans, such as Sir Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn and Jose Ferrer, playing Arabs and Turks with fake noses and dark face. And it's impossible not to feel the lack of narrative momentum after the intermission — there's no doubt the film's best moments are in the first half.
The Sony Blu-ray comes in two options: a massive box set and a cheaper but still impressive two-disc set. The smaller edition contains two new featurettes for the HD release: a comprehensive discussion with Peter O'Toole reflecting on the film and his creative collaborators, and an interactive featurette that incorporates tidbits of production and historical information into the film. Archived featurettes range from documentaries dating back to the '60s and '70s, material from its restoration in the early '90s and material created for its DVD release in the '00s.
This review first appeared on Exclaim.ca