Thursday, September 27, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - Sweeping Grandeur

Peter O'Toole's Tour de Force as Lawrence

Original film poster Lawrence of Arabia 1962
"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962).

There are certain films that never should be remade under any circumstances. "Citizen Kane," "Gone with the Wind," and "The Third Man" spring immediately to mind. Add "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) to that list, because it is the equal of any of those films in terms of historical impact, memorability, and sheer sensation. The British excel at sweeping historical films recounting their own glorious past (see "Zulu," "Chariots of Fire," and "Ghandi" as prime examples) in exotic environments. "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) is probably the greatest historical drama ever filmed and never, ever should be remade. Nominally a Columbia Pictures presentation, "Lawrence of Arabia" is a David Lean production all the way. Lean injects an element of grandeur and majesty to humble surroundings that could never be matched, much less exceeded.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
Lawrence admiring his new robes in the reflection of his dagger. This scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" was O'Toole's own idea.

This is a film about journeys. T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is a low-level British specialist on the Middle East. Lawrence takes a hazardous journey through the desert to find Arab forces battling the Turks (German allies) during World War I and barely survives. After finding them, he leads the Arab forces journey across the desert to the enemy-held port of Aqaba and conquers it, achieving what is thought to be impossible. After that, again Lawrence must journey almost alone across the Sinai desert to get heavy forces in support of his victory. But the most important journey in the film is internal, as Lawrence comes to realize the depth and limitations of his own personal power. The Arabs allies, too, begin to understand where events are leading them and begin to realize their own expanding possibilities.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
War is taking its toll on Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Aside from everything else, "Lawrence of Arabia" is excellent history. Sure, certain liberties are taken with the character of , who probably wasn't as tortured by his experiences as is made out here, but that is a minor quibble. "Lawrence of Arabia" features career performances by Peter O'Toole in the title role and several others. Lean keeps the movie rolling forward at a brisk pace and sends "Lawrence of Arabia" into film Nirvana.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole Omar Sharif
Lawrence and his best friend, Sherif Ali, in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Omar Sharif is Sherif Ali, Lawrence's friend and guide. He acts as a voice of reason and stability, along with Anthony Quinn (Auda Abu Tayi) and Alec Guinness (Prince Faisal). Jack Hawkins plays General Allenby, also known as "Allenby of Armageddon," who provides Lawrence with the necessary support but secretly loathes him. All of these amazing actors did the best work of their storied careers right here, in this film, and that is saying a lot.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole Anthony Quinn Omar Sharif
Lawrence with his Arab lieutenants, including Sherif Ali and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn).

Briefly, the plot (based on Lawrence's memoir "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom") involves an attempt by Allied forces in the Middle East to open a second front against the Ottoman Empire, Germany's ally. Turkey had controlled the entire region since seizing it from the Byzantine Empire centuries before and maintained an iron grip on it. The British campaign at Gallipoli was going nowhere, but pressure on the Turks had to be maintained somehow. The best way to take the territory, the British figured, would be to instigate a revolt of the locals, who chafed under foreign rule from Constantinople. It was an alien environment where the British had few friends, so they turned to one of their few officers who actually understood the politics and geography: Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
Lawrence under great strain in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Lawrence, who had traveled extensively throughout the region before the war on Ottoman/German trains, was an outsider. He first had to ingratiate himself with the locals and earn their respect. The balance of "Lawrence of Arabia" shows how he establishes himself as a leader, and how the locals, in turn, affect him personally. Not all is good and positive, just as it isn't in real life. Lawrence is assisted by local tribesmen who admire him personally, but their admiration is severely tested by events because the strain of war wears heavily on Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
Lawrence and his troops in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Once he adapts to the local customs and traditions and is accepted, Lawrence tries to turn a bunch of disparate and feuding tribes into an effective force against the Turks. This he accomplishes, but not without trials and tribulations for all concerned.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
On the attack in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Oscar-winning Director David Lean uses the desert vistas to their maximum impact, and the Oscar-winning music by Maurice Jarre perfectly complements the sweeping desert vistas. The title theme, in fact, is one of the most recognizable in film history. A favorite scene is when Lawrence earns white robes due to a noble deed, and admires himself in the reflection of his own dagger. That scene was O'Toole's idea, and Lean was smart enough to go along with it.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
The scenery is intense in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Just to give you an idea of how well they cast leads Peter O'Toole as Lawrence and Alec Guiness as Faisal, check out the below picture. O'Toole got that slightly impish/eccentric quality of Lawrence down to perfection, while Guiness perfectly captures Faisal's long face.

Prince Faisal Lawrence of Arabia 1962
The real deal, Lawrence of Arabia kneeling on the right with King Faisal.

You need to see this Best Picture winner film on a big, wide screen with good sound - preferably in a movie theater - to appreciate "Lawrence of Arabia." If you do, afterwards you will feel as if you were there, in the desert, with Lawrence and his comrades. "Lawrence of Arabia" is one of my top films of all time, and I highly recommend you take the time to watch it.

Peter O'Toole passed away in 2013 after having been nominated for 8 Academy Awards. You may view more pictures of O'Toole, learn a bit more about his career, and read a brief tribute here.

Prince Faisal Lawrence of Arabia
"Lawrence of Arabia."


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