Academy Awards, Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Bridge on the River Kwai, David Lean, Freddie Young, Jordan, Lawrence of Arabia, Maurice Jarre, Michael Wilson, Morocco and Spain, Omar Sharif, Ottoman Empire, Peter O’Toole, Robert Bolt, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Steven Spielberg, T. E. Lawrence
Imagine the pitch when Lawrence of Arabia was presented to its producers – to be shot almost entirely on location in Jordan, Morocco and Spain, across a 17 month shooting schedule, the leads will be unknowns, there are no female characters – so no romantic plot or subplot, the running time will be near four hours and cost $13 million ($280 million today). And yet, after seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture in 1962) and inspiring a mammoth number of living directors – it has been restored in high definition 4K after 50 years from its original theatrical release. When you consider the time, cost and vision, it is nothing short of being epic.
Our hero in this story is T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), who dies within a minute of appearing on screen in a motorcycle accident. His funeral service is held in St. Paul’s Cathedral where a newspaper reporter approaches the attendees for a few words, providing a brief insight into a man who was considered brave, charming and, arguably, arrogant. It then quickly shifts back in time to World War I, where the young Lieutenant Lawrence, serving in the British Army in Cairo, is sent to the Arabian Peninsula to visit Prince Faisal (Alec Guiness), an Arab tribal chieftain, to assess his intentions on a revolt planned against the Ottoman Empire. “I think it’ll be a lot of fun,” Lawrence tells his seniors.
Lawrence’s journey crosses paths with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) who initially appears as a mirage across the desert and escorts him to meet the Prince. “I think you are one of these desert loving English,” Faisal tells Lawrence upon their first encounter. The Lieutenant has peaked the Prince’s interest when the soldier suggests they make a surprise attack against the Turks in a port called Aqaba. A secured win would mean a route in for the British Army to provide additional military supplies and ultimately give the Arabs a state of their own. Inspired by Lawrence’s tactics, the Prince provides him with 50 of his men and Ali to lead them to Aqaba. Lawrence swells his numbers by persuading Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), a leader of a local tribe, to join him on the attack. Aqaba is besieged, its treasures looted and the British Army offer their valuable resources but along the way, Lawrence’s temperance and ideology changes. Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kenedy), an American war correspondent, introduces Lawrence to the world as a war hero and asks what attracts him to live and fight in the desert. “It’s clean,” replies the Lieutenant, only because the sand dunes cover the blood he spilled for land and the men he buried from pride.
Peter O’Toole’s introduction as T. E. Lawrence is quite spectacular. Upon offering a cigarette and lighting it for William Potter, an Army officer, Lawrence extinguishes the match stick with his fingers. “Ow! It damn well hurts!” cries the officer when attempting to try it himself. “What’s the trick then?” he enquires. “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts,” replies Lawrence, immediately creating an aura that he’s able to control both pain and heat, as well as proving his godlike qualities. The sight of Peter O’Toole is electrifying. His ocean blue eyes and sculpted face are all that can be seen when he adopts a traditional white, Bedouin garment, signifying his immersion from a western outsider into a desert warrior. For his first leading role, straight out of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, the producers wanted an unfamiliar face to portray a character who himself had many faces and O’Toole does not disappoint.
Images of O’Toole dancing on top of a derailed Turkish train are indeed iconic but not until the audience absorb the whole scene will they comprehend the scale of the set up from a real derailed train, surrounded by thousands of extras in temperatures beyond the controlled environment found in Pinewood studios, some 300 miles away. This was how films were made and the audience will question why we ever stopped making it like this.
If Lawrence’s opening was bold and charismatic, Omar Sharif’s introduction is considered by Steven Spielberg as the greatest miracle ever to appear on cinema. Sharif takes his time to materialise from a mirage. Almost two minutes. And Director David Lean requests the audience’s patience in doing so. The result is something that has never been seen before, nor has it ever been seen since. Sharif’s portrayal of Ali as one of the few Middle Eastern actors on set was hugely significant at the time and is wonderfully compelling throughout. The journey to Aqaba is filled with great tension, as both Ali and Lawrence are just as stubborn as each other, however the desert binds their relationship into a brotherhood which makes it all the more tragic when Lawrence decides to leave the Arabs when they cannot agree on a resolution. It’s heartbreaking to see the reasons that brought them together were the same ones that pulled them apart.
The restoration allows the audience to appreciate a number of factors from Freddie Young’s gorgeous 70mm cinematography (which was one of the last films to be photographed in 70mm), to Maurice Jarre’s awe inspiring, magnificent score. T. E. Lawrence recorded his experience in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson adapted and successfully presented a complex character initially filled with optimism (and hinted sexuality) sanded down to hopelessness and profound uncertainty. Hot off the heels from Bridge on the River Kwai, which starred Alec Guiness, David Lean had earned the kudos needed to direct this type of movie and only a few could ever manage the scale and conditions the film had to be shot in. Soon after Lawrence’s introduction and accepting the mission to find Prince Faisal, he extinguishes another match which immediately cuts into a majestic sunrise across the Arabian Desert. It is within these minutes you realise why cinema was created and even now, after 50 years, it still has the ability to give you goosebumps. There are certain films that can be enjoyed at home but not Lawrence of Arabia. Not this David Lean masterpiece which, many critics consider, is the greatest and most influential film in the history of cinema.
Lawrence of Arabia will be on general release from 23rd November and will be released in its original roadshow format, with an overture, intermission, intro and exit music. This isn’t just a film. It’s a true, cinematic experience that will leave you breathless. Check out a list of where the film will be showing right here.
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha