Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


Epic as all Hell

Genre: Adventure Docudrama (UK)

Starring: Peter O'Toole (The Last Emperor The Stunt Man), Omar Sharif (Doctor Zhivago Funny Girl)

Directed By: David Lean (The Bridge on the River Kwai A Passage to India)

Overview: British Army officer Thomas Edward Lawrence is best known for his role in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during The First World War. This is the epic tale of his heroic exploits and how he came to be known as El Aurens, the man who helped win a war by fighting for the independence of a foreign people.

As I considered my review of this epic classic, I kept thinking back to a dialogue I shared with one of my favourite bloggers in his heyday, Thom Ryan.

Years ago, I made comments as to the nature of the man portrayed in 1927's Napoléon directed by Abel GanceNapoléon shares quite a bit with Lawrence of Arabia in that it is a gloriously beautiful film which pushed many cinematic boundaries, it's a film of epic length about a man, merely a man, but one portrayed as nothing short of not only a hero, but a superhero. Much of the dialogue between Thom and I was a discussion on the characterization of someone real in such a completely grand way as would replace any possibility of a realistically-rooted biopic aspect with the study of a champion, of a legend, and not the study of a man, merely a man. My problem with Lawrence of Arabia is entirely this. It's too filmic, too grand, too obviously the story of a statue carved out of bronze and elevated upon a pedestal to be the story of a real person. At the same time, I have to admit that I still enjoyed watching the tale of a God amongst men, especially since this God effectuated real historical changes for a real, oppressed people.
In 1962, Lawrence of Arabia was a smash hit, won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director despite it's length of over three and a half hours. It sits proudly at number 5 on AFI's Top 100 and number 52 on IMDb's Top 250. It's still one of the best known titles of cinema history. I challenge you to find someone who can honestly say "What's Lawrence of Arabia?" The fame and epic production quality of this film is not surprising.

But, in this recent viewing, amidst all this beauty and epic fervour came a surprise when I couldn't help but notice that Peter O'Toole (impressively credited as And Introducing Peter O'Toole) played the part of El Aurens quite hammily. From beginning to end I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at the lack of restraint he showed. Whether he was intentionally directed this way or if that scent of cheddar could have been attributed to his still-burgeoning-career experience is irrelevant. What it did for this critic was to create a character that I found all too untouchably superheroic. The film was not the story of a man, merely a man. Every glorious oil-painting-portrait stance and physical trial endured was larger than life - so much so that every scene wore down my belief that any of what I was watching was ever true. I wanted to experience the trials and tribulations of this Thomas Edward Lawrence and learn why and how he became 'of Arabia', and in director David Lean's telling of his tale, I was disappointed. Once I came to realize that, instead of expecting the humanity of Serpico, I should be putting this story on the same level of truth as Rashomon, I was able to settle into the story and enjoy what I was watching: a fiction, an epic story, but sadly, merely a story.


Grand As Hell!
Grand As Hell!

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 9 Script: 7 Plot: 8 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 76% (Too High Up His Pedestal To Reach)

I did enjoy Lawrence of Arabia, it was pretty. It was Great with a capital 'G' and wonderful, but to me this biopic was just a little too long, and a little too intentionally epic.

What really saddened me most of all were Lawrence's moments of fallibility and pain, those times when the cracks of his humanity seeped through like blood staining through his uniform, those moments where he had to wrestle with himself: the political execution of a Bedouin, the trauma he endured after his torture, confessions of self-doubt. For as enjoyable as it was to see armies in robes racing across dunes, those scenes were not as poignant as those exploring the man.

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I own this sucker on dvd and have watched it about half a dozen times in my life. That said, this last time was the first time I finally understood it's epic place in film history.  

Two weeks ago, i was able to finally see it on a big screen - and believe me it makes a world of difference. You grow to appreciate the immenseness of the landscape, and the seemingly endless stage this story is playing itself out on.

There was that, and there was the throwback feeling that I've seldom experienced thanks to the film's overture filling the theatre with the curtain still down...and an intermission to allow us a breather in the middle of the story.

So yeah, I've said it before, I'll say it again - if you ever get the chance to see this on a big screen - jump on it. 

[ I challenge you to find someone who can honestly say "What's Lawrence of Arabia?"]


I will give you 5-to-1 odds that if my current students (I teach college-level) were polled, more than half would have never heard of this film. I'll lay even money that fewer than 25% have heard of it.

Go ahead. I think you'll find yourself shamed a smidge.

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