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.