Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


The story of enigmatic British military figure T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole, The Lion in Winter), who in 1916 was sent to the Arabian Peninsula to evaluate Prince Faisal’s (Alec Guinness, Star Wars) war against the Turks. Lawrence eventually gets too deep into the complicated politics of the region.

Reaction & Thoughts:

Stylish, opulent, richly textured,  and totally fascinating look at one of British’s history most intriguing personalities. Lawrence of Arabia is a big, expansive eye-candy built around an enigma — a character study disguised as a war epic.

The film’s status as one of the greatest films of all time grows with the years, and for good reasons. Beautifully filmed on location by Freddie A. Young, with an unforgettable music score by Maurice Jarre and well-acted by a superb cast, you’ll finish the movie feeling exalted and stupefied. Despite its pageantry and flamboyance, Lawrence of Arabia has the kind of immediacy most films of this type lack.

Director David Lean never lets the spectacle overshadow the human drama thus creating an epic that stimulates both our senses and intellect. Even more interesting is the fact that when everything is said and done you still don’t know much about the title character — the puzzle is not solved so you’re left with more questions than answers, and that vagueness is invigorating rather than frustrating.

After the extraordinary success of The Bridge on the River Kwai , Lean decided to make a film about the life and times of Gandhi. The logistics of making a movie about a man who was perceived as a deity proved to be too daunting a task for perfectionist Lean. Later, he immersed himself into T. E. Lawrence’s biography Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Lean worked on the screenplay with Michael Wilson, but he was not satisfied with the final product.

Finally, playwright Robert Bolt (A Man For All Seasons) was hired to spruce up Wison’s draft, but he ended up constructing an entirely new script under Lean’s watchful eye. The script is literate, witty, and intelligent. Bolt’s amazingly multilayered screenplay explores Lawrence’s endless contradictions. Above all, it manages to sustain the momentum and interest for almost four hours.

O’Toole is stunning in his first starring role. He got the role only after Marlon Brando (The Godfather) and Albert Finney (The Dresser) turned it down. The role made O’Toole an instant super-star and it is easy to see why.

In addition to O’Toole as Lawrence, the cast includes Guinness as Prince Faisal, Anthony Quinn (Lust for Life) as Auda Abu Tayi, Jack Hawkins (Ben-Hur) as General Allenby, José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) as Turkish Bey, Arthur Kennedy (Peyton Place) as Jackson Bentley, and Claude Rains (Mr. Skeffington) as Mr. Dryden.

They’re all great, but the only other actor who comes close to O’Toole’s extraordinary performance is Omar Sharif (Doctor Zhivago), who plays the role of Ali. It’s a difficult role because Ali is supposed to be Lawrence’s conscience and that kind of symbolic character is awfully hard to pull off. But Sharif nails it, and his scenes with O’Toole are great. I’m not surprised that Sharif quickly established himself as an international movie star — he has the talent, the looks, the charisma.

I also think it would be unfair for me not to mention production designer John Box’s magnificent work. He made it so hard for me to tell what was an actual building and what was a set specifically built for the film. The city of Aqaba, for example, constructed by Box’s team in Almeria, Spain, is an extraordinary piece of work. I can’t imagine the movie working as well as it does without that much attention to detail.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

As far as I’m concerned, Lawrence of Arabia is an essential film for serious moviegoers. Beware of shorter prints. Color,  220 minutes, Not Rated.


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