SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Lawrence of Arabia, I highly encourage you to watch it before reading this review. It is over three and a half hours long, so be prepared for that. And if you’d like to see a note on the content of this PG-rated film, feel free to jump down to the bottom for a quick summary.
I have learned a valuable lesson, and my teacher has been Sir David Lean.
For a long time I held to the idea that movies are movies no matter where or how you watch them. I shouldn’t deprive myself of seeing any film just because it is only available to me on streaming. I still believe that movies can and even should be watched anywhere. But I have added an amendment of sorts thanks to Lean.
Some films must be watched on the big screen to be fully appreciated.
I first watched Lawrence of Arabia at home. I remember appreciating the wonder of its many desert shots and the editing for which it is famous. I remember appreciating the acting and the technical achievement of the film as a whole. However, I also remember being at arms length and not fully grasping what I had watched. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the experience, but it hadn’t lived up to the hype.
Then I saw it on the big screen, and it became a favorite. Why, you ask?
Because this is an enormous film. I do not mean just in length, though at over four hours with an intermission it is a long film. More than that, this film contains enormity in every frame. Lean was a master director, and he influenced the likes of Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (who both helped with the 1988 remastering of the film). Directors like that do not leave any frame without importance. Here, Lean gets every last inch out of this epic journey.
In this video interview, Spielberg talks about how the film has continued to impact him throughout his life. He rightfully mentions the music as one of the film’s many enchantments. The theme music is one of those iconic pieces of cinema history. I am sure that Spielberg caught on to more of the film’s wonders on his first watch than I did, but even he admits that the film required a second viewing for all of it to really sink in for him.
As I said before, on the first watch you can surely appreciate what makes this film great. But the second watch is necessary for appreciation to turn into immersion. And when you get immersed in this film, there are few experiences quite like it.
The film, which won the 1963 Academy Award for Best Picture, begins in an odd way for one with Arabia in the title. The desert is nowhere to be seen. Instead, we see a man with his motorbike. This is T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), and we should already be able to tell that this will not be your average film. We watch as Lawrence begins to ride his motorcycle, and then an accident occurs. He dies. Choosing to begin a heroic epic with the death of the hero is only the first of many courageous artisitic choices that Lean and his collaborators would make. But it is an astounding one, surely.
The rest of the film takes place in flashback. Here again we get another wonderful artistic choice in that no title card or line of exposition tells us that we are jumping from the present day of the film’s opening scene back to World War I era. The audience is trusted to catch up, and anytime a film trusts its audience, wondrous things can occure.
We begin with Lawrence as a mapmaker destined for more than this lowly station. He gets his chance when an opening in the Arabian theater of war presents itself. It is when Lawrence travels to Arabia and begins his adventures there that the film showcases its legendary quality. We travel with him to Arabia with what many call the greatest editing cut in film history - from the blowing out of a match to the rising sun over the desert.
The film’s screenplay has also been lauded, and rightfully so. While the editing and cinematography of the film jump out at you with their splendor, the writing takes its time to sink in though it is no less powerful than the other elements. The character of Lawrence is especially slippery. I didn’t quite understand him when I first watched the film. He is an enigmatic character, and I don’t know that I’ll ever really understand him. But the power of O’Toole’s performance and the writing of the character impacted me far more when I watched it again.
Take, for instance, the important early scene where Lawrence goes back to his fellow traveler, Gasim (I.S. Johar) who has fallen off his camel. The screenplay does a fantastic job of setting up the fact that they are in a race against the sun. For Lawrence to turn back when they are almost through the desert is putting his own life in his hands. Yet, he does so anyway. This endears us to him as a character through his selflessness and heroism. Any heroic story must have this element - our hero is taking on a task which he seemingly cannot accomplish but will do so anyway.
Yet, here we get another courageous choice. We never actually see Lawrence carry out his act of heroism. Rather than seeing him save Gasim, we get shots of the man trudging on alone in the heat of the desert. We even get the shot of Lawrence’s other companion seeing them off in the distance after Lawrence has found the man. But we never see the actual act of heroism. Why?
Because this is not a story about a quintessential hero. This is the story of a hero who loathed the acts that made him a hero in the eyes of others. So, we don’t get to see the moment of heroism - at least not this one.
Lawrence is billed to us as a man of mercy who does not like violence, and yet as the war drags on, Lawrence must give into the violence around him. In one scene, he even admits to enjoying the act of killing another man. He is torn asunder in his own mind.
He is also torn asunder culturally. As an Englishman, he is wholly out of place in Arabia, and yet he would much rather be there than in England because he says the desert is “clean.” This is where the film begins to unravel many other layers to its screenplay. You have cultural themes, themes of self-loathing and the effects it has, themes of the differences between ages and generations, and on top of it all is the techinal splendor that is always on display.
The acting performances are also incredible. Here, you must give credit first and foremost to Peter O’Toole. How many actors could anchor a four-hour epic in their first feature role by playing an enigmatic character that is not your typical screen hero? O’Toole was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, but he lost to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird. While I can’t really fault that choice (both were fantastic performances in iconic roles), I think I would have given the award to O’Toole.
One thing of which I am sure is that this is a film that simply could not be made today. First of all, I don’t know how Lean and his team were able to get the film produced back then. On paper, this is a film that should not work. It is a four-hour epic that takes place mostly in the desert. There is no love story. In fact, there are not any female roles in the picture. The main character is not a traditional hero in the vein of films like Ben-Hur that came before this. The film ends in an odd way (though it is the perfect ending for the ways that Lawrence’s character is setup throughout the film).
On top of all that, the production was so much more detailed than anything before or after it. It took 285 days of filming. Read that again - 285 days of filming! That’s because they would have to sweep away camel footprints in the sand to get more than one shot. In fact, there would be some days of filming where they would only be able to get one shot.
To make a film in this way, you need a director with a clear vision. Lean knew exactly what he wanted. He had the vision to attempt to film a mirage - something everyone told him would not be possible - that brought him to the famous shot of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) riding toward the well in the desert.
There is one other legendary component of the film that I have not mentioned - the music. Maurice Jarre created one of the most iconic film themes of all time. And the entire soundtrack is the perfect support for the film’s sweeping images and epic story.
Roger Ebert wrote about Lawrence of Arabia saying, “You can view it on video and get an idea of its story and a hint of its majesty, but to get the feeling of Lean’s masterpiece you need to somehow, somewhere, see it in 70mm on a big screen. This experience is on the short list of things that must be done during the lifetime of every lover of film.”
Having now seen the film on the big screen (though I saw the restored 4K digital version, not a 70mm print), I wholeheartedly agree with Ebert’s assertion. This is a film that cannot be fully appreciated when viewed in any other way but in the theater. As I walked from my seat, I was in awe of the experience I had just felt and seen.
NOTE ON CONTENT: The film is rated PG, so there isn’t a whole lot of adult content in it. The main thing to know is that there is some violence in the film. But it is only in a few scenes, and it is fairly tame. There is some profanity, but there is no sexual content in the film.