Friday 25 August 2017

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence af Arabien
What a gorgeous picture!

“Lawrence of Arabia” has a bit of a reputation so I went out of my way to get a blue-ray version of it and watched it on a high definition screen.

Oh, my…

I think for the first ten minutes of the movie I could think of nothing else but how beautiful this movie looks. The 70 mm film that has used to shoot it gives stunning pictures and the editing is simply world class. Of course it help when the desert landscape offers brilliant panoramas and visuals and colors like few other places. But this is just amazing.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the great films of movie history, one of those everybody knows of, but, sadly, few people these days have actually seen. I, myself, watched it so many years ago I actually only remembered the ending scenes in Damascus. It is the story of a real character, T.E. Lawrence, in the movie represented by Peter O’Toole, who was a British officer sent out to scout the Arab leader Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), but ended up leading the Arab tribes in a revolt against the Turks.

Whether or not this is a correct historical representation of the event I have no idea and that is actually only of minor importance. It does lend it a story arc that is unusual as reality rarely follows a script. This is most evident in the climactic scenes, which do not resolve anything. Not for Lawrence personally and not for the Arabs in general. The victory in Damascus is a Pyrrhus victory that finally deflates Lawrence and demonstrates how the Arab revolt may win the war, but is unable to win the peace. So much for the Hollywood happy ending.

Up to that point we follow Lawrence in his love affair with Arabia. Lawrence demonstrates both an understanding of Arab culture clearly absent from the British officers in Cairo, and a naivety on the harshness of the same culture, war in general and the duplicity of his British allies. He is both the best and the worst suited person for his role. An intellectual dreamer facing the brutal reality. We as viewers share his dilemma. We see the exotic beauty and the brutality. We love him and despise him. We understand him, yet he remains an enigma. This is all testament to the brilliance of “Lawrence of Arabia”.    

Yet its brilliance is also its problem. With so magnificent pictures, a scope this large and a technical prowess of this scale it is easy to forget that “Lawrence of Arabia” is a movie from 1962. I inevitably measure it by modern standards and in that light the acting is sometimes hopelessly overdone. This is especially the case with Peter O’Toole. His is often theater acting, exaggerated as if to a live audience. It is jarring, but in those days it was perfectly normal. Heston was far worse in “Ben Hur”. Even Kirk Douglass in “Spartacus” did it.

Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi are odd choices in brown-face, but they both get away with it. Guinness still sounds very much like Alec Guinness (or Obi Wan Kenobi), but Quinn entirely disappear in his character. Perfectly cast however is Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali. Being Egyptian there was no need for brown-face there and he blends more seamlessly into his role than his British counterparts. This was the role that catapulted him into stardom and it was deserved.

Just last Monday I was Allenby road in Tel Aviv, only now I know who that fellow actually was. Jack Hawkins as General Allenby was impressive, yet it was tiny Claude Rains who kept stealing the picture. I always imagined him as an American actor yet here he is perfectly British, the quintessential quiet, grey manipulator.

In a sense “Lawrence of Arabia” has never ended. The Middle East is still an unruly place where tempers run high and violence is never far away. Damascus is again a war zone and again and again the locals here demonstrate much better skill and fighting wars than winning peaces. It is a sad, but true note to end the film on.   


  1. I love this movie. To me, along with the chariot sequence in Ben-Hur, it's the best argument for letterboxed format that exists. Such a gorgeous movie, with the desert essentially being a character in and of itself.

    1. Exactly. I love that they used to format and the cameras they to showcase what they could do. Even today this is unbelievably beautiful.

  2. Gorgeous for sure! It's one of the few epics I love. I like O'Toole very much in this. I think the real Lawrence was very "dramatic". Can't wait for my rewatch but it's down the line.

    1. I hope indeed you will watch it again, it is so worth it. If you have the chance I can recommend the Blu-ray version.

  3. This is one of those films I want to see on the big screen. I agree with all you said: I also love the score for the film. I actually sat through the overture just to listen to the theme.

    I've yet to see a Claude Rains' performance I didn't like, and he seems to always steal any film he is in.

    1. Indeed. If one of the cinemas near me chose to screen it I would be there in an instant.
      Now you mention it, I have never seen a poor performance from Claude Rains.