Peter O'Toole as Lawrence.
March 27, 2013
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia comes from a time – 1962, specifically - when the phrases “epic” and “good” weren’t mutually exclusive. "Challenging" and "thoughtful" also come to mind. For a recent comparison, think of War Horse; a brazen Lean homage that substituted those aforementioned adjectives with “sogginess.” War Horse is practically a tissue ad. Lawrence of Arabia is unsympathetic and unflinching, yet still rousing and romantic. It’s a marvellous contradiction, like its title character. How did Lean and star Peter O’Toole achieve such perfection? If we could define and distil it, we wouldn’t need a special category for those flicks we call ‘classics.’ Lawrence of Arabia is that, and then some.
In screenwriters' Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson’s effort to capture the essence of T.E. Lawrence, we’re shown how the cheeky English lieutenant evolved into a demigod in the eyes of Arab revolutionaries. (His inevitable hubristic fall is not ignored, though.) After requesting a transfer from the Crown’s resplendent barracks in Cairo during World War 1, he is stationed deep in the desert as advisor to Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness). There, Lawrence devises an ingenious – and potentially disastrous – plot to keep their enemies, the Turks, at bay.
Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif.
He leads an army of ideologically opposed tribes across the Nefud - his first of many seemingly miraculous achievements – for a surprise attack on the much-prized port of Aqaba. Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) joins him on the journey, as does the wealthy Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), and two eager teenage boys (Michel Ray, John Dimech). But how long will their tentative truces last? Can Lawrence deliver Arabia democracy as he promised? A cursory awareness of the turbulence in the Middle East today could be considered a spoiler.
Cinematographer F.A. Young, editor Anne V. Coates, and Lean helped further the advancement of cinema as a visual language with their work here. Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film makes special mention of the moment in which Lean cuts from Lieutenant Lawrence blowing out a candle to the burning red horizon of the desert. And rightly so. It's not grandeur for grandeur's sake; it's proper storytelling. Even if we didn’t have such grand vistas to admire, there are plenty of other, less famous frames that pack a punch. I was particularly fond of the final sequence at Damascus, where a dejected Lawrence and his advisors sit in the ruins of their failed Camelot.
As with any feature based on real figures, it comes with its own set of historical inaccuracies. Real or not - some were amalgams - these are intriguing characters that evolve unexpectedly over the picture’s nearly four-hour running time. O’Toole – then unknown – paints a wonderful portrait of the enigmatic Lawrence. Head-strong, egotistical, and eventually damaged beyond repair, he never loses affability. The impressive cast – which also includes Claude Rains and José Ferrer – strive to match him, and mostly succeed. Sharif, making his English language debut, is best of all.
In danger of reveling in the wistfulness that sunk War Horse, it's hard not to feel that they just don't make 'em like they used to after watching Lawrence of Arabia. And I'm not just talking about the aesthetic beauty of the thing, nor the collection of supremely talented thespians that assembled for it. I can't think of an English-language production from the past fifty years that depicted Middle-Eastern protagonists as sympathetically or with such complexity; that considered the region's ongoing turmoil as not merely the result of barbarian behaviour. Like the man himself, this movie is one of a kind.
Lawrence of Arabia is available on DVD and Blu-ray. It can also be streamed instantly on Quickflix PLAY.