Lawence of Arabia (1962)

If your familiarity with Peter O’Toole comes from some of his unmemorable roles in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s, then Lawrence of Arabia will be a huge revelation. Here is a charismatic, intelligent and beautiful actor who can play a character viewed by others – and himself – as a near deity and pull it off. Here is a young actor who can be placed amidst greats like Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Claude Rains and Jose Ferrer and stand above them. Here is an actor who can be the centrepiece of a massive and spectacular film and seem not the slightest bit out of place.

Decades after its 1962 release, Lawrence of Arabia still looks awesome and packs a tremendous punch. Based on the actual exploits of Thomas Edward Lawrence (O’Toole), this is the remarkable story of a bad-mannered young British army officer who is transformed when he’s sent to the deserts of the Middle East to convince the poorly understood Bedouin tribes to support the British cause in the First World War. Lawrence’s success is largely the product of open-mindedness and understanding – rather than ordering the Arabs around like a typical Englishman, he instead dons their robes and becomes one of them. Lawrence becomes a proponent for

Arab freedom from colonial rule. Dressed in brilliant white, the tall blue-eyed Lawrence stands out as leader of daring assaults that help turn the desert war in favour of Britain and its allies.

The film chronicles Lawrence’s incredible military success, the larger than life reputation he gained when savvy propagandists latched onto him, and his eventual unravelling. This is a complex character – one that director David Lean and O’Toole have realized with great success. He’s an egomaniac and publicity-hound, a non-conformist who thinks brilliantly ‘outside the box,’ and – ultimately – a deeply conflicted man.

Lawrence of Arabia is at times painfully ethnocentric, showing the Arabs from a narrow European perspective that adds only modestly to the racial stereotype of bloodthirsty Arabs. Considering the date of this production, this is no surprise; if anything, we might have expected it to be worse. At least Ali (Sharif) – Lawrence’s closest Arab friend – and Prince Feisel (Guinness) are relatively well-rounded characters whose presence adds depth to the Arab portrayal. Ethnocentrism might colour the film’s portrayal of Arabs, but it doesn’t alter the ominous, spectacular beauty of the desert in the slightest.

Lawrence of Arabia succeeds hugely when it shows Lawrence on the desert, whether staggering across a killer stretch on the way to his first big success or leading an attack during his heyday. The film’s strengths go well beyond Lawrence of Arabia’s great cast, compelling story and spectacular cinematography. The script – the product of a lengthy and trying exercise – is spare and efficient. The score is memorable. The story eventually becomes an effective anti-war piece. Presented as a true epic, complete with lengthy overture, entr’acte and exit music, this film is huge because its sense of itself is huge. Huge, spectacular and memorable.

Brian Webster

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