Lawrence of Arabia (1962) ****
“I’ve always been fascinated by these English nuts,” director David Lean once explained to account for the extraordinary feat of endurance and devotion that resulted in this truly one of a kind film, unquestionably the best and most intelligent of his post-war blockbusters.
While his abandonment of the intimate cinema of manners that he had perfected in the thirties and forties may broadly be regretted, Lawrence of Arabia fully lives up to its reputation as the war epic that even those who hate war epics admire, distinguished especially by its near-mystic visual sense, and by its lush and romantic score by Maurice Jarre.
The subject of the film is T. E. Lawrence, the English aesthete and academic, and nut, who despite shortness of stature, an eccentric nature and no military experience managed to lead an Arab regiment to significant victories against the Turkish army. While in no way skimping on the grandeur, vast canvases and vividly staged action sequences characteristic of Lean’s other epic movies (such as Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago), the film is unusual in placing equal weight on psychological drama.
The only area in which it fails to score is as a war film: viewers with no prior knowledge of the backgrounds will surely struggle to keep up with what is happening and why, and while Lean's frustration with exposition was still to reach its densely incomprehensible apotheosis with Doctor Zhivago, it's well in evidence here too.
As played by Peter O’Toole in his first major starring role (after scores of other, vastly less suitable stars had been considered and either rejected or refused), Lawrence is alternately unassuming and forceful, retiring and pretentious, given to fits of indecision and self-loathing and yet capable of rousing himself to acts of incredible stamina and shocking (not least to himself) ferocity. The screenplay (by Robert Bolt, author of A Man For All Seasons, and an originally uncredited, blacklisted Michael Wilson) is as much concerned with penetrating the mind of its central character as in depicting his achievements; the result is a film as divided and (in a sense) contradictory as Lawrence himself, and thus the perfect marriage of content and form. As an exercise in myth-making it is unusual, in that it sets out not merely to demolish a pre-existing myth but to erect another in its place.
The cast mixes scene-stealing newcomers like O’Toole and Omar Sharif with a fine supporting roster of British reliables, but the real star is the desert itself. Photographed with an almost hallucinatory intensity by Freddie Young, the landscape of the film is its essential defining feature. Logistical problems were considerable: shooting miles from the nearest facilities in intense heat, the cast and crew came under frequent barrage from sandstorms and insects, and production was slowed by the need for teams of men to smooth over the vast expanses of sand after each take. The results, however, entirely justified the efforts of all concerned. Still, one can't help thinking that the only thing Lawrence himself would have liked about the film is the fact that, in nearly four hours of running time, not a single woman ever appears.