The best motion pictures span genres and overcome their limits. They open a window into the mind and soul of fully developed, complex, imperfect human beings. They push the artistic and technical limits of the medium. And they do it all while entertaining an audience.
Lawrence of Arabia is one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.
Within the last two years, I’ve written three posts about Lawrence of Arabia, two of them in the last three months. But all three concentrated on theatrical presentation–an important part of appreciating a roadshow epic like Lawrence. But Hollywood released many big roadshow blockbusters in the 1950s and 60s, and they all required a giant screen and great projection. What makes Lawrence of Arabia so special?
At its heart, this big, epic adventure studies the enigma of one very strange man. T. E. Lawrence, at least as betrayed here, is a military genius with a love/hate relationship to violence. An idealist, an exhibitionist, and a raving egomaniac, he believes that he and those who follow him can do anything. The fact that he usually succeeds only feeds his already too-high self-esteem. Yet he also knows that, deep down, he can never truly become what he wants to be–an Arab.
During World War I, the British saw Arabia as a sideshow, but also as a potential conquest. It was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had allied itself with Germany. By aiding an Arab revolt against the Ottoman, the Brits could keep the Turks occupied outside of Europe. But helping the revolt was tricky. Well-armed Arab freedom fighters wouldn’t easily become part of the British Empire.
And into this comes Lawrence. First sent to Arabia as an observer, he disobeys orders and pulls off a daring raid. Suddenly he’s a hero, both to the British and even more to the Arabs, whom he truly wants to liberate. But somewhere, in the back of his mind, he must know that his superiors have less idealistic intentions.
I don’t know much about the historical T. E. Lawrence, but I do know that he was gay. That sort of historical fact had be either ignored or danced around carefully in 1962, and the filmmakers rightly chose to dance. Peter O’Toole’s performance is slightly feminine (the Mad Magazine parody was called "Florence of Arabia"). It all makes you wonder about the extremely close friendships he makes with other men.
This film has something very close to an all-male cast. You never hear a woman’s voice, and the only shot of a female face is in a photograph. The few times you see women, they’re wearing vales. Women in the audience have the pleasure of watching O’Toole and Omar Sharif when they were young and gorgeous.
Speaking of gorgeous, Freddie Young’s photography turns Lawrence of Arabia into a visual feast, intended to be served on a giant canvas. The desert never looked so hot, so foreboding, or so enormous. Or, for that matter, so beautiful. Important characters often appear as tiny dots in the distance, emphasizing the size and emptiness of the environment that they inhabit. You can easily understand why Lawrence falls in love with desert life.
David Lean and his exceptionally talented collaborators took the ingredients of the roadshow epic–long length, lush music (including an overture and intermission music), and a large, wide frame that fills a giant screen–and turned it into a masterpiece. There were bigger epics, and longer ones, but there’s only one Lawrence of Arabia.