What strikes me most about watching Lawrence of Arabia again is its length
-well over three hours. Yes, I think director David Lean could have edited
out a good deal of footage and still had an epic. On the other hand, I
admire the pace Lean uses to build momentum; and certainly momentum - of
narrative if not of action - is a large part of what gives the film its epic
The Arabian desert fascinates the viewer with its natural shadows and hidden
but sure danger. Lean's five-month shoot is legendary, with cleverness and
endurance pitted against hardships mustered by nature. Outside of The
English Patient, I have not seen such an interesting use of the desert in
any film. This awesome land formation should be credited up there with the
The acting is marvelous, too, the casting a series of strokes of brilliance.
In his first film, Peter O'Toole proves that the choice of a young and
quirky style was the best choice. This man has the eyes of a silent film
star, large and expressive, outlined to an almost feminine degree. O'Toole
inhabits the character thoroughly; I cannot imagine another actor so intense
in his changes of mood and ironies of ego.
As well, Omar Sharif is outstanding as Sherif Ali ibn el Karish. A young,
dark and handsome threat at first, his character grows nearly as dynamic as
Lawrence's in its alteration by story's end. How to match Sharif's
magnetism was addressed by casting Anthony Quinn, that multi-ethnic utility
man, as a rival tribal chief, Auda abu Tayi. Quinn truly matches each iota
of Sharif's anger and passion. Auda embodies a great Bedouin's jingoism.
How to ensure a solid backup cast? Let's face it, political intrigue is
usually a sure way to comment on the ironies of human nature, and Jack
Hawkins as General Allenby, and Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden - the
plainclothes, behind-the-scenes manipulator - were about the best thing
going in the field of character acting. Further, Alec Guiness, the lead
actor in Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, is subtly masterful as Prince
Feisal. The way the world is portrayed as both cruel and beautiful results
mainly from the dimension of the script added by strong supporting roles.
Robert Bolt's screenplay is both spare and poetic. It's like the best
writing by Raymond Carver - laconic but not minimalistic, honest but not
prideful. Bolt surely relied on the strength lent by the desert, where
one's actions are magnified as if by a brightly-lighted stage. He also
makes the political strife fairly understandable: the desert tribes need
unification if they are to be a threat to the Turks, who have included them
for some time in an extensive empire. As it is a World War, the British
have it in their own interest to see the Turks defeated, as Turkey is allied
with Germany. What throws off British imperialism is the quasi-rebellion of
one of their own - T. E. Lawrence, the officer who takes it upon himself to
bring together a large faction of these desert peoples. After he assists in
the liberation of Damascus, he tries to ensure the area stays under Arab
control: not a popular path at a time Great Britain was still expanding its
Maurice Jarre's music is a masterpiece in its own right. The main theme and
its variations reach throughout the entire narrative, accompanying the major
characters on their exploits and adding dramatic undercurrent to many
confrontations. It's truly music fit for an epic.
Watch for a cameo that has David Lean on a motorcycle asking the resonant
question of identity, "Who are you?" as Lawrence and a young companion
appear after crossing yet another desert.
It's been ten years since Robert A. Harris restored the old and rotting 70
mm film he found in dented and rusting cans. Had he left it there, perhaps
we would not have such a bright and crisp version to enjoy today. This film
is a must-see for a number of reasons. Yes, it's way up there on the
American Film Institute's Top 100 List, but more importantly, it's a glimpse
of vanished filmmaking, a real epic and a valuable piece of history in the
areas of film and world politics.
Copyright © 2001 Mark OHara