Widely hailed as a triumph of the cinema and occasionally listed in dictionaries as the definition of an epic, Lawrence of Arabia is the type of grand, large-scale filmmaking few attempt and even fewer accomplish. Peter O'Toole, in his film debut, stars as T.E. Lawrence, a British military officer who has just died in a motorcycle accident and has been enshrined in one of those hallowed places the British seem to like so much.
The film operates largely as a biopic of Lawrence's life, focusing primarily on his time in the Arabian desert leading sparse bands of Arabs in guerrilla warfare against the hated Turkish army. To do so he must gain the trust of Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and his loyal military leader Serif Ali (Omar Sharif), in addition to Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn), a sort of hired gun paid by the Turks. He quickly becomes their de facto leader after engineering a suicidal mission across the desert, but success goes to his head. He develops a Messiah complex and his quirks and eccentricities, while amusing at first, start to become worrisome.
As anyone who's even heard of Lawrence of Arabia will tell you, the film exists as an example of the power of cinematography in telling a story. Freddie Young won one of the film's seven Academy Awards for his work, which is nothing short of beautiful, and even more impressive when you consider the logistical difficulties of working in a desert where the sand is omnipresent, constantly inserting itself in cameras and film bags and a variety of places one can only imagine. There is, for the most part, a refreshing lack of matte drawings and other such tricks. Instead, the cinematography shows the desert for what it is: a harsh, unending wilderness, barren and cruel.
Director David Lean takes care to, whenever possible, remind us just how small his characters really are in comparison, employing shots where a great man is merely a speck in the distance. Many have pointed out that the film often feels like it was composed with the care of a painting. Lawerence of Arabia was one of the last films shot entirely on 70 mm film stock; consequently, it is a film that is best viewed in a theatre, where the images can overwhelm you, rather than on a DVD player in your living room. Unfortunately, I must resort to the latter. This, I suspect, may have had a negative impact on my viewing experience.
At no time did Lawrence of Arabia take my breath away, instead coming across as a polite examination of a flawed man. The images, from which I expected greatness, felt surprisingly ordinary at times. The sound mixing, while quite good in the desert, borders on awful during the interior scenes in the film's first third. Whether this is a result of the transfer to DVD or not is a question that I cannot answer, and therefore an issue I cannot discount.
Particularly bothersome is a scene after the attack on Aqaba. Lawrence and Serif ride their camels to the ocean, a symbolic moment after the long, impossible journey through the desert, and Serif tosses some flowers into the surf. Lawrence scoops them up and Lean cuts to a medium shot of Lawrence very clearly standing in front of a poorly executed rear projection of the ocean. Serif, in his matching shot, is doing the same. After all these beautiful, gimmick-free shots in the desert, the rear projection looks positively awful. Awful enough to take me out of the film for a couple of minutes. Honestly, I don't know if it ever completely got me back. This begs the question, is it fair to judge an entire film based on a single sequence? In my opinion, if it's something that is so out of place that you still remember it the next day, then the filmmakers have not done their job.
Lawrence of Arabia is, chiefly, a biopic, so we would be remiss to not discuss the person of T.E. Lawrence and his portrayal in the film. Structured around the personal writings of Lawrence, which he self-published for 120 of his close friends, it is an examination of one man's downward spiral into a type of madness, all the while gaining fame and prestige. Peter O'Toole portrays him as an eccentric sort, intelligent and quirky and noble and a little bit effeminate. O'Toole's role is not an easy one, as he must play a character who must experience a substantial number of the extremes in the human experience. This is a man who was a British Officer lauded for his exploits, but also a man who nearly died in the desert, was beaten by Turks, nearly went mad, and developed a repulsive affection for killing.
O'Toole is exceptional in portraying each of these emotions, but at times he seems to be unsure where he is in the film's timeline, that is the character does not build and develop as effectively as he could. It should also be noted that the film gives me the feeling that Lawrence, in his writings, isn't being completely honest with us (or himself, perhaps). Something about the progression of the character just doesn't fit. One minute he's in the desert, ready to take over the world, and the next he's begging for a desk job where he can do paperwork the rest of his life. Then, just as abruptly, he's back in control.
Clearly there's something wrong with him psychologically, but the film never makes an effort to discover what that is. It is content to present us with a Lawrence that is simply flawed for no discernible reason. Whether it is that Lawrence himself lacks the ability (or the stomach) to fully explore the depths of who he is, or the film is too respectful of him to make such assumptions, or something else altogether remains to be seen. But the result is a character who the audience never sees as three-dimensional with motives and honest emotions. What we see is a cross between the man in the newspaper and the real thing, as played by a Shakespearian actor who sometimes looks as if he's just come out of his trailer.
All of this makes Lawrence of Arabia sound like rubbish, like some overrated piece of cinema that hasn't aged well for the new millennium. It isn't. There are a hundred reasons to love Lawrence of Arabia, from the cinematography to the score to the script to the direction to the performances of Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn. And there are just as many reviews out there that will tell you as much, but I can only speak from my experience of how the film played when I watched it on DVD in my apartment late on a Wednesday night. When all was said and done, it was a film that I respected more than I liked. I never felt I was watching great cinema unfurl on screen as much as an expertly-made epic with little emotional investment on my part. It reminded me of the collected works of Anthony Minghella, a director who's films always feel just a little too long and a little too clean. They don't feel alive, and neither does this. It misses greatness by the smallest of margins.
 I have no idea if that's true, but it could be.  The film doesn't tell us where that is, as it apparently isn't all that important, and I'm too lazy to figure it out for myself. It could be a British Military Hall of Fame, if they have such a thing.  The other six were: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, and Best Sound. It was also nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Peter O'Toole), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Omar Sharif), and Best Adapted Screenplay.  It was the intention of Terrence Malick to do the same for The New World (2005), but financial considerations made that impossible.  To elaborate: certain scenes of dialogue were lost and had to be later re-recorded by O'Toole, et al., for the film's theatrical re-release. This could explain the early scenes that sounded as if they were mixed by a freshman film major. However, the problem seemed larger than some basic ADR, so I must assume the problem existed all along, at least in some form. It isn't a major problem, but one worth noting.  There is considerable speculation that Lawrence was gay. Obviously a big-budget movie in 1962 wasn't going to go there.  Still, O'Toole got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for the role, the first of seven, all for leading roles. He has, however, yet to win. The other six were: Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), and my personal favorite, My Favorite Year (1982).  He of The English Patient (1996), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and Cold Mountain (2003).
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, and Claude Rains
Written by: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson, based on the writings of T.E. Lawrence
Directed by: David Lean
NR, 216 min, 1962, UK