Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
“A Mighty Motion Picture Of Action And Adventure!”
Director: David Lean
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn
Synopsis: A flamboyant and controversial British military figure and his conflicted loyalties during his World War I service in the Middle East.
Until the 1960s, moviemakers had a tendency to gloss over – or ignore completely – any psychological problems suffered by the biographical subjects of their films and concentrate on those characteristics for which they were appreciated (unless they were Jack the Ripper or Adolf Hitler, of course). But if we learn anything from David Lean’s epic, near-four hour biopic of T. E. Lawrence it’s that he was a deeply disturbed individual. Effeminate, and viewed with a certain level of mistrust by fellow officers before his exploits won him universal acclaim, Lawrence is depicted by Robert Bolt’s intelligent – and ever so slightly dry – script as undergoing a dangerously unbalanced God complex while developing a taste for killing. It’s a dangerous combination in anybody’s book, and tends to distance the audience from our hero somewhat, especially when, in the expertly mounted battle scenes, he becomes as excitable as a six-year-old birthday boy so overcome by the presents before him that he can’t quite decide what to reach for first…
Screen newcomer Peter O’Toole‘s confidence in the title role belies his lack of experience and, with his pale skin burnished by the fierce sun beneath a mop of blonde hair, he looks every inch the heroic figure in his flowing white robes. More so than the real Lawrence, apparently, who was short and plain. With his strange eccentricities and brooding manner he works hard at capturing the complex emotions at work, and it’s to his credit that Bolt’s uncompromising adherence to portraying Lawrence with all his flaws intact doesn’t result in a complete alienation of the audience.
Lean deliberately picked an unknown for the role, but even now, when viewed from the opposite end of a career (O’Toole announced his retirement from acting in 2012) which never quite delivered on its initial promise, the selection of O’Toole for the role seems an inspired piece of casting – although it would have been Albert Finney in the part had he not turned down Lean‘s offer. It must have been a daunting prospect for O‘Toole, heading a large, distinguished cast which included such luminaries as Alec Guinness (who had wanted the Lawrence role for himself, but had to make do with Prince Feisal), Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy and Donald Wolfit, but O’Toole holds his own, largely because none of the other characters are written with such attention to detail as Lawrence‘s.
Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali is little more than an observer, weakly objecting to Lawrence’s increasingly daring exploits and given little to do other than wave a dagger every now and then at Anthony Quinn, who sports a near-comical hawk-like nose as a Bedouin tribesman, fond of mouthing such lines as ‘Thy mother mated with a scorpion.‘ Despite this, the performances are uniformly good: the film’s real problem is its leisurely pace. While it’s good that a film doesn’t feel it must rush through the background details to get to the juicy parts, when it reverts to a succession of lengthy, talkative sequences to do so, attention quickly begins to wander: after all, middle-aged men talking war tactics is only going to float the boats of middle-aged men interested in war tactics…
Thankfully, these moments are swept away like dry leaves by Maurice Jarre’s stirring theme tune and Freddie Young’s majestic shots of mountainous sand dunes traversed by clumsily graceful camels beneath flawless blue skies. The desert, a necessary character with its own moods and tempers, is harsh and unforgiving, but Lawrence embraces it, challenges and then gives himself to it.
There would undoubtedly be a lot more focus on his sexuality and masochism if Lawrence of Arabia was to be made today. Both subjects are referred to here, but the tone is undeniably timid. Lawrence’s sexual assault at the hands of Turkish soldiers is too ambiguous, depending on an audience’s prior knowledge of events, to be fully understood (back in the early 1960s, it was probably assumed everyone was familiar with Lawrence’s ordeal, but in an age when half the population don’t know who Churchill was, it’s likely that even less will know about Lawrence’s life), and his masochism, while hinted at obliquely on occasion, only comes to the fore in one scene.
Overall, Lawrence of Arabia comes across like a history lesson taught by a knowledgable teacher with a small degree of flair. It’s unlikely to claim any converts, and suffers from its own lofty ambition at times, but nevertheless provides a definitive exploration of a strange, and undeniably unique, man of – and at – war.
(Reviewed 6th September 2012)