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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

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Score: 10/10

Genre: Drama Running Time: 3 hrs. 36 min.

Release Date: December 16th, 1962 MPAA Rating: PG

Director: David Lean Actors: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy

I

t begins where it ended, with Colonel T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) dying in a motorcycle crash in 1935. Many gather at his memorial and attempt to gather information about the legendary man.  “He was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior,” exclaims Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) before muttering that he was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey. During World War I, Lieutenant Lawrence is transferred from his British station in Cairo to Arabia due to his clownishness and clumsiness, which doesn’t appeal to his staunch superiors. They also feel that the real war is against the Germans and not the Turks. Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau has faith in the young man, however, and commissions him to discover the intentions of Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and his revolt.

Lawrence departs with an odd enthusiasm, certain that he’ll enjoy the hellish heat of the desolate desert. He’s also immediately determined to prove himself as tough and resilient as his Bedouin guide – accustomed to the harsh, dry climate and absence of ample water. As they journey to Lord Faisal’s camp, they cross enemy terrain, resulting in the guide being killed for using a rival tribe’s well. The murderer is Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), who works for the highness. Defiantly, Lawrence continues the remaining one-day journey alone, refusing to be escorted by the feuding Ali.

Faisal’s people reveal an interesting battle of morale, determination, and faith versus howitzers, bombs, and advanced mechanical weaponry, proving that organization and instruction have an invaluable place amidst the outgunned. The Middle Eastern campaign shows British and Arab interests to be conflicting, with Faisal’s men unwittingly serving under the English; Great Britain’s motives aren’t necessarily to see Arabia win against the Turks, but rather to eventually control the country. Here, Lawrence establishes his exceptional military strategizing by orchestrating an assault against Aqaba, a city where guns only face toward the sea – based on an unforgiving, nearly untraversable desert from which an army could never be expected to emerge.

Lawrence, Ali, and 50 men attempt the unthinkable and miraculously survive the merciless trek to Aqaba. A solitary man, Gasim, is unnoticeably left behind, having fallen off his camel from fatigue in the night – but Lawrence singlehandedly goes back for him, resolutely winning over Ali and his troops. It’s a victorious, rousing instance (one of the greatest of all movie moments) that spurs the coming momentous historical triumphs of Lawrence’s epic Arabian quest (he eventually likens himself to Moses crossing the Sinai Desert as his success, idolization, and promotions distort his rationale and logistics). “Didn’t you know? They can only kill me with a golden bullet,” he hubristically insists, his ego boosted by American war correspondent Bentley embellishing Lawrence’s grandiosity in readers’ eyes.

A wondrously cinematic dynamic exists between Lawrence and Ali, two distinctly different men with vastly disparate beliefs and allegiances. It’s a highly detailed, adventurous account of a fascinating individual whose influence and command were unmatched in shaping the fate of the Middle East. Regardless of the historical inaccuracies and contestable portrayals, “Lawrence of Arabia” is a booming, celebratory masterpiece of heroic proportions and storytelling prowess. Furthermore, it’s difficult not to become enthralled with the entire production thanks to the riveting music by Maurice Jarre, who knows the exact moments to strike up the theme melody for impeccable force. Splendidly radiant cinematography must also be noted, as it expertly makes use of widescreen like few other films could.

While there is a surfeit of actual traveling, crossing multiple deserts and trudging through numerous dust storms, the repetition strengthens the conception of Lawrence’s nearly insurmountable accomplishments, with the imagery fortifying the treacherous environmental conditions. The second half is noticeably slower and less potent than the first, but the whole is still a boastful occasion. His biography is as much of a spectacle as his appearance to British troops, being offensively dressed in honorary Arab robes; his loyalties as divided as Britain’s intentions are deceitful toward the country he hopes to conquer for Arabian freedom and rule. In perfect apportionment is the character development (through an intelligent screenplay) and acting, led by the always outstanding Guinness and Sharif, with newcomer O’Toole deftly and quickly making a name for himself through a much-lauded, tour de force performance. The film would, not surprisingly, go on to win an extraordinary seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for David Lean – himself no stranger to long historical, period-piece epics, having previously helmed “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (and following “Lawrence of Arabia” with “Doctor Zhivago”).

– Mike Massie

 



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