Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 5/5 (3)


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Rating: The Good – 94.5
Genre: Adventure
Duration: 216 mins
Director: David Lean
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn

Perhaps the greatest epic of them all, David Lean’s biopic of T.E. Lawrence is definitely a gargantuan landmark in the history of cinema. Charting Lawrence’s journey into the desert in an attempt to unite the Arab people under one fearsome banner, Lawrence of Arabia is a magnificent portrait of a personality whose dimensions are reflected only in the expanses of the desert. It’s a figurative journey into the heart and soul of an enigmatic soldier who is driven by pure ideal and the weight of self-imposed responsibility.

More than any director ever did before or since, Lean transforms the screen into a living canvas sweeping his camera across it always from left to right to accentuate the journey at the centre of the story. It’s a seamless collaboration with cinematographer Freddie Young as their complementary use of wide and close angles capture the awesome qualities of both the desert and the drama alike while their audacious framing, lighting, and composition give the near incredible vistas a life of their own and, with it, make the desert a central character in the film. Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable score provides an energy to that journey punctuating the nearly four hour long film with perfectly timed moments of invigoration. Robert Bolt’s adaptation of Lawrence’s own writings is immensely perceptive and balances the inner passions of the characters with the broad scale of the various battles’ tactics and logistics. The story of the British Empire’s role in uniting the Arabs (for the former’s better or worse) is itself told in impressive detail considering this is in fact a biopic but, so crucial was Lawrence to that uprising that to tell his story is to tell the other. Thus, we have a tale that bears all the intrigue of a political thriller, all the action of a classic war movie, and all the fascinating character construction of a drama. The result is an edge of your seat saga which immerses the audience in the time and place.

Of course, this film is all about what Lean and Peter O’Toole were doing on their respective sides of the camera. O’Toole, for his part, is irrepressible as the eccentric British lieutenant and it’s fair to say we’ve never seen an acting performance like it. Brave and subjective, O’Toole inhabits Lawrence from his bold adventuring spirit to his deep lying insecurities. Moreover, his blond hair and piercing blue eyes provide Lean with a glowing reference point that at all times works flawlessly with the golden sand of the desert. In support, Anthony Quayle is every bit the British officer as Lawrence’s beleaguered commander. Omar Sharif, as the only actual North African to play an Arab of consequence, adds a welcome air of authenticity to some of the more stilted yet enjoyable Arab-approximations offered by Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn. Jose Ferrer does his usual bit of show stealing when he pops up as a sadistic (and perhaps even worse) Turkish General who unwittingly lets Lawrence slip through his fingers but not before he emotionally scars the latter (this latter incident being a brave inclusion in the film).

At nearly four fours in length, Lawrence of Arabia is epic in length too but it doesn’t feel as long to watch due to the compelling story at the centre of it, the magnificence of the way it was shot, and the fact that, in every way, Lawrence of Arabia is a monument to the cinematic spirit.

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