This review includes full spoilers. Proceed accordingly. For other movie reviews from me, click HERE:
Comment: Ooh! Almost four hours! That ‘urts!
Dusty: Certainly it hurts.
Comment: What’s the trick then?
Dusty: The trick, dear commenter, is not minding that it hurts.
Director: David Lean
Writers: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Stars: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Jack Hawkins
Release Date: December 11, 1962
Run time: 3 hours, 38 minutes
In 1935, T. E. Lawrence dies in a motorcycle accident. His memorial service is held at St Paul’s Cathedral.
During the First World War, Lawrence is a misfit British Army lieutenant, notable for his insolence and education. Over the objections of General Murray, Mr. Dryden of the Arab Bureau sends him to assess the prospects of Prince Faisal in his revolt against the Turks. On the journey, his Bedouin guide, Tafas, is killed by Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish for drinking from his well without permission. Lawrence later meets Colonel Brighton, who orders him to keep quiet, make his assessment, and leave. Lawrence ignores Brighton’s orders when he meets Faisal; his outspokenness piques the prince’s interest.
Brighton advises Faisal to retreat after a major defeat, but Lawrence conceives a surprise attack on Aqaba, whose capture would provide a port from which the British could offload much-needed supplies. To this, he convinces Faisal to provide fifty men, led by a pessimistic Sherif Ali. The teenage orphans Daud and Farraj attach themselves to Lawrence as servants. With difficulties, they cross the Nefud Desert and travel without rest on the last stage to reach water. An Arab, Gasim, succumbs to fatigue and falls off his camel unnoticed during the night. When Lawrence discovers Gasim missing, he turns back and rescues him. Won over, the men accept Lawrence as one of their own.
Lawrence persuades Auda Abu Tayi, the leader of the local Howeitat tribe, to turn against the Turks. Lawrence’s scheme is almost derailed when one of Ali’s men kills one of Auda’s because of a blood feud. Since retaliation by the Howeitat would shatter the alliance, Lawrence announces he will execute the murderer himself. Lawrence is then stunned to discover that the culprit is Gasim but shoots him anyway.
The next morning, the Arabs overrun the Turkish garrison. Lawrence heads to Cairo with Daud and Farraj to inform Dryden and the new commander, General Allenby, of his victory. While crossing the Sinai Desert, Daud dies from stumbling into quicksand. Although Lawrence’s report of Aqaba’s capture is initially disbelieved, he is promoted to major and given arms and money for the Arabs. Lawrence asks Allenby whether there is any basis for the Arabs’ suspicions that the British have designs on Arabia. Allenby states that there is none.
Lawrence launches a guerrilla war by blowing up the Ottoman railway between Damascus and Medina and harassing the Turks. An American war correspondant, publicises Lawrence’s exploits and makes him famous. On one raid, Farraj is badly injured. Unwilling to leave Farraj to be tortured by the enemy, Lawrence shoots him dead and flees.
When Lawrence scouts the enemy-held city of Deraa with Ali, he is taken, along with several Arab residents, to the Turkish Bey. Lawrence is stripped, ogled, and prodded. For striking out at the Bey, Lawrence is flogged and thrown into the street, where Ali comes to his aid. The experience leaves Lawrence shaken. He returns to British headquarters in Cairo but does not fit in.
He recruits an army that is motivated more by money than by the Arab cause. They sight a column of retreating Turkish soldiers, who have just massacred the residents of Tafas. One of Lawrence’s men is from Tafas and demands, “No prisoners!” When Lawrence hesitates, the man charges alone and is killed. Lawrence takes up the dead man’s battle cry; the result is a slaughter in which Lawrence participates, despite Ali’s protests.
Lawrence’s men take Damascus ahead of Allenby’s forces. The Arabs set up a council to administer the city, but the British cut off access to the public utilities, leaving the desert tribesmen to debate how to maintain the occupation. Despite Lawrence’s efforts, they bicker constantly, and soon abandon most of the city to the British.
Lawrence is promoted to colonel and ordered back to Britain, as his usefulness to both Faisal and the British is at an end. As he leaves the city, he looks longingly at the departing Arabs before his car is passed by a motorcyclist, who leaves a trail of dust in his wake.
Lawrence of Arabia is one of those old movies that you’re supposed to enjoy if you have good taste. After watching it for the first time, I can understand the appeal. It is beautifully filmed, with a large sweeping complex story, interesting dialogue, a wonderful and booming score, and a leading man, Peter O’Toole, who went on to become a Hollywood icon. However, the film is also extremely long, with many extended moments where nothing is said at all. The story ends at a fast pace, but the plot does not really pick up significantly until it reaches the intermission. This is a film that asks from its audience an amount of patience that I doubt most present-day movie goers possess, but then for those stick with it, it delivers a spectacle.
I was patient, though, and I found myself enjoying the story as it progressed. The film is a biopic. Lawrence is an interesting figure, eccentric, rule-breaking, and brilliant in a way that touches on madness. In the early going of the story, we see that in both its good and bad aspects. He rescues Gassim, alone, in a nearly suicidal ride across the desert after the other man had been left behind. This act wins over many of the Arabs in his camp. He also agrees to be the executioner of a murderer, to prevent tribal in-fighting within his camp. The murderer turns out to be Gassim. This act further cements the Arabs to Lawrence, but the British soldier confesses after to enjoying his role in the execution.
In the latter half of the movie, Lawrence fully believes in his own greatness, almost as if he is a modern day Alexander or Caesar, making promises to the Arabs he has no way of keeping, while truly believing that he will keep them, and asking things of the Arabs fighting with him that are almost impossible. Yet, he does continue to succeed. The story takes a turn when he is captured and beaten by the the Turks, with some innuendo that he might also have been raped. This shatters his psyche, and he requests from his British higher-ups that he be allowed to give up his assignment. He is pushed to continue on, with some dramatic and negative effects associated with his continued leadership, namely that he seems even more mentally unstable than before. He defeats a retreating Turk army and orders that no prisoners be taken. He does this even over some Arab protest. He also tries to organize Arab independence from the British when they take Damascus, an effort that ultimately fails.
He is ultimately sent home to Britain with both the British and Faisal happy to see him go. Lawrence of Arabia is an unusual way to tell a biopic story. Was he a good man? Was he a great man? What’s the difference between those two things? Was he a genius? Was he insane? Was he treated fairly? Should we feel sorry for him? It is difficult to come to easy conclusions. The film paints a layered and confusing portrait of a consequential figure, but I believe that layering is also what helps the film to stand the test of time.
Peter O’Toole gives an unbelievable performance. His Lawrence is blue-eyed arrogance and passion personified, a believably eccentric oddball, who is intelligent, defiant, mad, and charismatic.
For a long time, the rule with this film was that you should not see it unless you’re doing so in a movie theater. A theater screen was the the only way to truly appreciate the shimmering desert horizon shots, where a spec in the distance can slowly grow into a man. My guess is that the old rule is still true, generally, but not quite as true as it once was. I did not se it in the theater, but I found it enjoyable on my relatively fancy modern flatscreen television.
The cinematography throughout is excellent, and the film’s use of water was particularly effective. After spending an hour staring out at the desert, during the film’s first half, and seeing its almost endless barrenness, when the story takes us to Aqaba, and water, with the sun reflecting beautifully off gentle waves, I found myself rejoicing inwardly. I had a similar inward reaction to seeing the Sinai after Lawrence returned to Cairo to report on his victory.
The one area where I felt the film probably would have worked much better in a theater, than on my at-home television, related to the sound. Much of the dialogue was relatively calm and quiet, while the musical score was booming. The mixture of the two probably worked great in a theater, but at home, I was adjusting the volume throughout.
Maurice Jarre’s score, volume adjustments notwithstanding, was outstanding. The film is a spectacle and the music is more than befitting the story.
Overall, I thought the movie was great, beautifully filmed, well-acted, and that its reputation as classic cinema is well-earned, but due to its length, and its complex and layered story, it is not something I would recommend to everyone and it is not something I would sit down to watch over and over.
Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? What did you think?