What's the Big Deal?: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

When someone says "grand, sweeping epic in the classic Hollywood tradition" -- you know, all the times someone says that to you -- there's a better than average chance that the first film to come to mind is Lawrence of Arabia. For nearly 50 years, David Lean's lengthy Oscar-winner has symbolized the giant-sized movies for grown-ups that were big business in the '50s and '60s. But who is Lawrence, and why do we care about his Arabian nights and days? Let's hop aboard our camels and take a closer look.

The praise: Not only was Lawrence of Arabia the top-grossing film of 1962, but it also won seven Academy Awards, including best picture, director, cinematography, musical score, art direction, editing, and sound. It was nominated in three other categories -- adapted screenplay, actor (Peter O'Toole), and supporting actor (Omar Sharif) -- but did not win. The film won four BAFTAs, including best British film, and five Golden Globes, including best drama. David Lean won awards from the Directors Guild of America and the National Board of Review. In 1998, the film placed fifth on the American Film Institute's list of the best movies of all time, and fell only slightly to seventh place in the 2007 revised list. Basically, this movie is a Big Deal®.

The context: Director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel had each made successful films before, but their first collaboration, The Bridge on the River Kwai, launched them to new heights. It was the highest-grossing film of 1957 and won Oscars for best picture and director, making a follow-up project for Lean and Spiegel a no-brainer.

For their subject they arrived at T.E. Lawrence, a minor British World War I hero whose memoirs, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, with their vivid accounts of his adventures in Arabia, had made him famous. Two previous attempts to make movies about Lawrence -- including one that would have been directed by Lean -- had fallen through in the '40s and early '50s. A third, called Ross (after an assumed name Lawrence used later in his career), was converted from a screenplay to a stage play and premiered in 1960, just as Lean and Spiegel were preparing to make Lawrence of Arabia. The lead role in the play was filled by Alec Guinness, who'd starred in three previous David Lean films and would play Prince Faisal in Lean and Spiegel's T.E. Lawrence film. (Lean thought Guinness was too old to play Lawrence at the time of his life being depicted.)

Peter O'Toole was not yet well known as a movie actor and was also, at 6'2", a full nine inches taller than the tiny T.E. Lawrence. But he bore a strong resemblance to him otherwise, and his screen test impressed Lean. After Albert Finney and Marlon Brando dropped out of the project, O'Toole was cast. His performance earned him an Oscar nomination -- the first of eight (so far) in his career -- and made him a star.

The movie: It's the days of World War I. A peculiar British Army lieutenant named T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), stationed in Cairo, is sent out into the Arabian desert to determine whether the Arab tribes -- the study of which Lawrence has taken up as a personal hobby -- will be useful to the British in fighting off the Turks, who are allied with Germany. Lawrence helps the Arab tribes cooperate among themselves long enough to make some gains for the British, and in the process everyone learns about life, war, and camels.

What it influenced: Peter O'Toole's career was launched by this film, and he has been identified with the role ever since. Occasional winking references to Lawrence of Arabia turn up in other O'Toole films, as in Stardust, where his character, an aged king, is said to have ridden a camel in his youth.

Lawrence says in the film that he likes the desert "because it's clean." Howard Hughes says the same thing in The Aviator, and Russell Crowe's character says it in A Good Year (which co-stars Albert Finney, who was originally supposed to star in Lawrence of Arabia).

Maurice Jarre's Oscar-winning musical score, indelibly associated with the movie, is sometimes jokingly used when a "walking through the desert" mood is called for -- see The Spy Who Loved Me (YouTube clip) and Spaceballs, for example. James Horner used it in Troy, too, because O'Toole was playing a supporting role, and why not?

Significant portions of the film were shot in Almería, an arid region of southeastern Spain, just across the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco. Not much had been filmed there before, but Lawrence opened the floodgates. Some 150 movies were shot wholly or partially in Almería over the next decade, most of them Italian-produced Spaghetti Westerns (including Sergio Leone's Man with No Name trilogy).

David Lean referred to John Ford's Western The Searchers in crafting the look of Lawrence of Arabia, and both films inspired George Lucas' Star Wars saga. Some scenes in Attack of the Clones were shot on the same Seville, Spain, location as the British Army HQ scenes in Lawrence. And surely it is no accident that Lucas recruited Alec Guinness to play Obi-Wan Kenobi, a man who, like his Lawrence of Arabia character, is a robe-wearing desert-dweller.

What to look for: This is one of the few films that really, truly need to be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated. Much of its appeal lies in the grandeur of the cinematography, and the way the small human figures are photographed against the vast desert backdrop. Movies had started getting bigger and wider to compete with television in the mid-1950s, and at first, the hugeness was sometimes just a gimmick. Not so with Lawrence of Arabia. Lean used the wide screen and 70mm photography to convey how enormous and empty the desert was, to give viewers a real sense of the locations.

Seeing it on the big screen may not be feasible, but you should at least see it on a big screen. It isn't on Blu-ray yet (sometime in 2012, for the 50th anniversary, is the rumor), so DVD will have to suffice. Under no circumstances should you try to watch it on VHS or on a non-widescreen, non-high-definition TV. There's no way you can be caught up in the film's epic scope under those conditions.

The critic in Time magazine (the review is unsigned) may have gotten a little flowery with his description, but his sentiments are spot-on: "Time and again the grand rectangular frame of the Panavision screen stands open like the door of a tremendous furnace, and the spectator stares with all his eyes into the molten shimmer of whitegolden sands, into blank incandescent infinity as if into the eye of God."

Uh, yeah. Anyway, it is a good-lookin' movie.

Lean wasn't happy with the first version of the screenplay, by Michael Wilson, because it focused too much on the historical aspects -- the Arab Revolt, the politics of war, and so on. Robert Bolt was hired to rewrite it as more of a character study of T.E. Lawrence, and only Bolt's name originally appeared in the credits. (Years later, the Writers Guild of America concluded that both men deserved credit, and Wilson's name was added.) But in many critics' eyes, Bolt's efforts didn't work, and the film wasn't enough of a character study.

In the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris called it "simply another expensive mirage, dull, overlong, and coldly impersonal.... On the whole I find it hatefully calculating and condescending." The New York Times' Bosley Crowther was even more damning:

Like the desert itself ... this much-heralded film about the famous British soldier-adventurer ... is vast, awe-inspiring, beautiful with ever-changing hues, exhausting and barren of humanity. It is such a laboriously large conveyance of eye-filling outdoor spectacle -- such as brilliant display of endless desert and camels and Arabs and sheiks and skirmishes with Turks and explosions and arguments with British military men -- that the possibly human, moving T. E. Lawrence is lost in it. We know little more about this strange man when it is over than we did when it begins.

Even some positive reviews faulted the film for being inadequate as a biopic. Variety said it "does not tell the audience anything much new about Lawrence of Arabia, nor does it offer any opinion or theory about the character of this man or the motivation for his actions." Time magazine raved about O'Toole, yet still had reservations:

In his performance, O'Toole catches the noble seriousness of Lawrence and his cheap theatricality, his godlike arrogance and his gibbering self-doubt; his headlong courage, girlish psychasthenia, Celtic wit, humorless egotism, compulsive chastity, sensuous pleasure in pain. But there is something he does not catch, and that something is an answer to the fundamental enigma of Lawrence, a clue to the essential nature of the beast, a glimpse of the secret spring that made him tick.

Modern commentators have found more nuance than those contemporary reviews might suggest. In an online exhibit about Lowell Thomas, the journalist who made Lawrence famous, a scholarly essay on the film makes this point:

Lawrence of Arabia can also be viewed as an anti-epic or as a probing critique of the romantic hero and the ultimately tragic situation that destroyed him. Indeed, Part One of the film is cut in the mold of a classic epic movie, whereas Part Two, a darker, more inward-looking, and more cynical look at the classic hero, seems to be its antithesis.

That's definitely something to look for. Part One is more than two hours long; Part Two is about half that. Why did Lean put the intermission where he did, rather than splitting the film down the middle? Maybe that can be the topic of your midterm paper.

Also: There are no female speaking roles in the entire film, and barely any glimpses of women at all. Weird, right??

What's the big deal: Lawrence of Arabia was the pinnacle of "epic" filmmaking, not just because it was long (it's the longest film to win Best Picture, beating Gone with the Wind by a minute) but because it used the largeness of the movie screen to tell its story. This was a film that could only be a film -- it wouldn't work as a stage play or a TV movie. Yet it avoided spectacle for spectacle's sake, catering instead to a mature, discerning audience that wanted to see an intelligent story aimed at grown-ups. And the central performance is one that people are still talking about half a century later.

Further reading: After the film's initial release, David Lean worked on trimming down the running time. Amusingly, he only managed to cut it by about eight minutes. But his notes about what to cut are fascinating:

Roger Ebert's essay is a good summary of the film's charms and its legacy.

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