Arguably David Lean’s greatest accomplishment, this is one of the most spectacular biopics in the history of cinema.
Dir. David Lean
1962 | UK | Drama/Biography | 228 mins | 2.20:1 | English, Arabic & Turkish
PG (passed clean) for some violence
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Claude Rains
Plot: The story of T.E. Lawrence, the English officer who successfully united and led the diverse, often warring, Arab tribes during World War I in order to fight the Turks.
Awards: Won 7 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Original Score, Best Sound; Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Normal (before intermission); Slightly Slow (after intermission)
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
A biopic to put most biopics to shame, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is arguably his greatest accomplishment as a director, winning him his second Best Director Oscar, after The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). He would go on to make another three epics in Doctor Zhivago (1965), Ryan’s Daughter (1970), and A Passage to India (1984).
Starring Peter O’Toole in his breakthrough leading role as the titular non-fiction character, T.E. Lawrence, whose heroic exploits in bridging historical differences between Arab tribes to fight collectively against the Turkish Ottoman Empire during WWI would guarantee him a spot in the annals of British military history, Lawrence of Arabia very much confirms his—and the filmmakers’—place in the history of popular cinema.
Lean, who with cinematographer Freddie Young, shot most of the film in the harsh desert outdoors in Jordan, Morocco and Spain, brings tremendous visual scope to the story as they take pains to show in stupendous widescreen the scale of their production—thousands of extras, endless panoramas where sand meets sky, extraordinarily-staged battle scenes, etc.
“What’s the trick then?”
“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
Yet, what is also unforgettable are its quietly effective conversational scenes that punctuate the larger-than-life sequences, telling us with clarity and remarkable efficiency aspects of Lawrence’s physical quest and psychological strain as they unfold.
Running at close to four hours, Lean’s film does feel its length and is less compelling after the intermission, plus it concludes unexpectedly without much rousing fanfare, which are probably the few weaknesses you might find in a film that has a truly perfect first 140-plus minutes.
Where spectacle gives way to intimate human drama, O’Toole is excellent and sensitive to Lawrence’s courage and vulnerabilities, and so are Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn, who play various Arabic leaders with panache.
Lawrence of Arabia is essential viewing—and on the widest screen possible—for anyone who loves breathtaking cinema. Rarely has one man’s personal ambition be so extraordinarily captured—and matched—to a filmmaker’s equally ambitious vision. This is the kind of motion picture that will never be made—or blasphemously remade—again in the same way.