Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lawrence of Arabia (1962 ) ***


Director David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is an epic, three and half hour-plus film about how T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) unwittingly won Saudi Arabia for the British military during World War I.  On the one hand you could say the production was grand and the cast renowned, but on the other hand you could say the film was too long and comprised solely of men—there are only brief sightings of women.  As such, the film often drags and has a primarily testosterone infused plot—even if there are some homoerotic themes to be found.

The film was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards and won seven: Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Original Score, and Best Director.  While it garnered two acting nominations, I must say that I was not overly impressed by anyone in this alec-guinness-3dream cast other than Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif. For me, O’Toole gets a bit hammy in this and Anthony Quinn’s performance is just the epitome of overacting.  Perhaps Sharif had an advantage on most of the cast, as he was actually from the Middle East (Egypt), but his performance as Sherif Ali is engaging and believable, and he deserved his Best Supporting Actor nomination. While Guinness may not have been from the Middle East, he is particularly memorable as King Faisal. I expect he took great pride in doing so well in a role that was originally supposed to be played by Laurence Olivier.

Whenever I think about Lawrence of Arabia I remember an endless desert, camels, and trains being blown up.  The sheer size of the production is mind-boggling, which is one of the reasons I think it is still so highly regarded by film critics.  Filming with a cast of thousands, comprised of both people and animals, in the desert Matsurah Wellwas a monumental task for Lean.  Of course, Lean was no stranger to large productions (The Bridge on the River Kwai and Oliver Twist), so he knew quite well how to be the ringmaster of such a massive circus.  He benefitted greatly from having one of the greatest British cinematographers, F.A. Young, doing the heavy lifting.  Really, it’s not the story that makes Lawrence of Arabia such a memorable movie—it’s all about the images captured by Young. And, these striking images paired with Maurice Jones’ unforgettable score make the perfect pairing. 

In a post-colonial world, Lawrence of Arabia can be a troubling film.  It was actually banned in many Middle Eastern countries (sans Egypt) because of the way it depicted Arabs. The whole idea that Lawrence was some sort of messianic figure to the Arabs somehow infantilizes them.  Also, the depiction of Arabs as gullible savages did not play well in newly emancipated Arab nations.  article-1305786-0049296400000258-285_468x272While no one should ever condone terrorism, there is a reason many in the Middle East don’t like Westerners—you ask them to help you free themselves from the yolks of the Ottoman Empire with the promise of self-rule and then take them over yourselves to plunder their resources (mainly petroleum and gemstones) and there is bound to be some animosity. 

Overall, Lawrence of Arabia is a masterful work of brilliant cinematography.  The story is somewhat interesting, but if you are a student of history the blatant inaccuracies in the movie can be unpleasant to endure. Fine performances from Sharif and Guinness, at least, temper this unpleasantness. 



  1. Hi, Kim!
    I was glad to see LOA on TCM recently. It's important for new fans of classic cinema to soak this one in and of course, see O'Toole at his very best.

    As you mentioned here, I can see how Arab countries would find the film offensive, especially in 1962. You know, there aren't many classic films that I would enjoy seeing remade with all of the flash and special effects, oversized budgets but I would actually like to see what a studio could do with this masterpiece, especially with a cast. Of course, how do you top O'Toole, Quinn and Sharif?

    I enjoyed getting your take on everyone's performances and what you took away from your first viewing. I wasn't born when it came out but when I did see it in the 80s it was a bit heavy for me to completely understand then as a teenager. If someone had asked me what I remembered about it then I probably would have said, lots of sand, camels and men looking handsome in an overwhelming amount of closeup shots. ha ha

    Anyway, I'm glad you tackled it with such an honest approach.

    1. Thanks. BTW, this wasn't my first viewing of LOA--I've seen it several times, but I just now got around to reviewing it.