To see David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen is to be dwarfed by the sheer scale of epic cinema at its finest. Indeed, there is little, if anything, about the film that could not be called epic: its themes, its scope, its length, its reputation. Arguably no larger film exists. For years, it was a mainstay of afternoon television, where many saw it for a first time. It is hard to imagine less magnanimous treatment for a film that makes such expansive use of its running time and the frames of its 70mm cinematography. Lawrence of Arabia harkens back to a time which is said to have ended with the commercial failure of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra in 1963, though really, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and the pared down aesthetic of the New Hollywood put more nails in the coffin of epic cinema than anything else. Speaking in 2000, Steven Spielberg said the equivalent of replicating the film’s $15 million shoot would cost approximately $285 million. Even James Cameron might not be allocated such a budget.
As in Citizen Kane, this (loosely) biographical films begins with the death of its protagonist, T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), in a motorcycle accident at the age of 47. While attendees at his memorial service question whether a bust in St. Paul’s Cathedral is justified, we cut back to Lawrence’s stationing as a British Army lieutenant in Cairo, Egypt during the First World War. Bumbling and out-of-place, Lawrence’s pines for the desert landscapes of Arabia, where he is soon stationed, to locate Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and chart the revolt of Arabs against Turks, with the aim of recruiting Arabs to the Allied cause. Lawrence ingratiates himself with the native Arabs, including the initially sceptical Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). However, the tide of history is against the Arabs in their ultimate quest for self-governance.
Like so many films that deal with Westerner – usually British or American – visiting an exotic locale and mixing with the indigenous population, Lawrence of Arabia sees its central character becoming integrated into those ostensibly less civilised than he. For other examples of this literary trope, see Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves or, more recently, James Cameron’s Avatar. After an especially daring action which stuns even Sherif Ali, Lawrence’s British Army uniform is burned, and replaced with pristine white Arab robes. The most iconic images of O’Toole from the film, ingrained on the public’s consciousness, are in this attire. This is no veneration of Lawrence, however. We see how his behaviour, and his fetishisation of the rituals of the Arabs, result in disastrous decisions such a bloody battle with Turks in retaliation for the massacre of an Arab village.
Lawrence of Arabia is often regarded as Peter O’Toole’s film debut (he had appeared in low-key crime film The Day They Robbed the Bank of England), and carries the ubiquitous ‘Introducing’ preface in the opening credits. It is certainly a performance which displays no trace of amateurism. O’Toole embodies Lawrence’s bravado and ‘shameless exhibitionism’, but also his vulnerability. Fleeting references to his past inform us just enough to make his adoration of the desert plausible, such as his then-unusual birth outside of wedlock. In one of the most heartrending passages in the film, Lawrence risks his life to save Gasim, one of his Arab associates who collapses in the sweltering heat of the Nefud Desert. Later, circumstance dictate that he must execute Gasim to prevent a clash between Arab tribes. Spielberg would later crib this narrative arc for his own Saving Private Ryan.
In its use of the language of cinema, Lawrence of Arabia is unsurpassed. Much attention is made to the stunning early moment which cuts between O’Toole extinguishing a match to the rising sun in the desert, one of the most famous ‘match cuts’ in cinema (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey contains arguably the best-known example). There is an iconic scene in which Omar Sharif materialises in the distance. Equally ambitious, if less celebrated, is the scene when Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) reveals himself to Lawrence in canyons near Prince Faisal’s camp. Seen anywhere other than the cinema, and Quayle seems ludicrously inconspicuous against the landscape.
If one were to gripe, one could say the length of Lawrence of Arabia – including the intermission in Lean’s preferred version, it amounts to almost four hours – risks exhausting the viewer long before a conclusion is reached. Additionally, Alec Guinness’s makeup, used to make him more closely resemble his real-life Arab counterpart, may seem slightly questionable to contemporary audiences. Quibbles aside, Lawrence of Arabia remains a dazzling achievement in cinema.
The Light House Cinema, Smithfield will show Lawrence of Arabia on Sunday 22 December, Monday 23 December and Friday 27 December 2013