Back in high school, I watched a lot of films that are considered classics and hallmarks of cinema that I distinctly remember not enjoying. Citizen Kane is the most obvious offender as it’s often considered to be the greatest film of all time while I found it quite conventional, although I blame a lot of that now on the vast majority of the films I’ve enjoyed since then copying most of its style. There were other big names to add to that list such as Raging Bull, Gone With the Wind, and The English Patient, amongst several others. I watched these films when I was younger though and my tastes in movies has noticeably matured since then. So, I was sort of excited when Lawrence of Arabia came in the mail from Netflix since it was another high-profile film that makes many “greatest of all time” lists that I simply did not enjoy. Sadly, my verdict remains practically the same, although perhaps it’s for different reasons now. As it is, Lawrence of Arabia remains a gorgeously shot film that overstays its welcome and fails to deliver on any substance to its historical adventure.
Lawrence of the Arabia is the true story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British military officer who is sent to observe the Arab revolt against the Turkish Empire in the early 1900’s. Lawrence is a very strange man however, and it’s the prime reason he was sent on this mission. He quotes ancient philosophers, has an unseemly tolerance for pain, and (this is strange for the time) has a genuine interest in Arab culture. Upon his arrival, he quickly impresses Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), the leader of a nomadic tribe of Arabs who is leading the rebellion of the Turks. At a seemingly unconquerable imapsse against the Turks, Lawrence devises a scheme that allows the Arabs to gain the first of many victories to come against the Turks while attempting to unify the various Arab tribes into one unstoppable army. What you gain is a portrait of troubled genius set against the backdrop of historical epic.
First, with the positives. Peter O’Toole made his debut role in this film, and he’s simply a natural. Lawrence is an incredibly complicated character (that the script doesn’t spend enough time exploring) with countless quirks and strange mannerisms. If the script failed to make Lawrence a complete character, O’Toole succeeded admirably. His transformation from an idealistic crusader to a shell-shocked veteran is natural and believable. He injects just the right amount of gravitas to the more emotional scenes of Lawrence’s life such as when he must kill his servant lest he be taken captive by the Turks and be tortured. Also, Omar Sharif (who was coincidentally enough in the last film I watched) was also great as one of the more important Arab characters in the film. When he is first introduced, he is seen as “barbarous and cruel”, yet he quickly learn that he is one of the more morally grounded characters in the film. The same great things can be said for Anthony Quinn and Alec Guinness although not at the same level as O’Toole and Sharif.
From a technical perspective, the film is simply a marvel. The wide shots of the desert vistas never get old, and neither does the spectacular attention to period detail. If you’re a history nut, you can easily find yourself getting lost in the costumes and architecture of the film. At the same time, when the film attempts to put together an action set-piece moment, they are pulled off quite well. When the Arab troops ride on the city of Aqaba with Lawrence at their head or rob a train, you get a sense that a lot of time and effort was placed into choreographing these moments. At the same time, Lean’s camera knows just how to capture the loneliness and desolation of the desert, and while there were probably too many never-ending treks into the desert, they encapsulated the isolation to a tee.
Now for the problems. Leaving aside the fact that its four hour length led the film to be more bloated than an aging Marlon Brando with countless scenes screaming for massive editing, the film was coldly historical. Rather than attempting to gain any insight into the events occurring on screen, the film simply let them speak for themselves. T.E. Lawrence is such a fascinating person, but the film only paid pat respect to his psychology, and it wasn’t really until the very end of the film that it ever examined just why he was doing anything. Compared to the more artistic The Last Emperor, Lawrence of Arabia is very stale, but beautiful, history lesson that could have accomplished much of its goals had the film simply been a documentary with dramatic re-enactments. Throughout the entire film, I only ever found myself being emotionally attached to Omar Sharif’s Ali. When your titular character is such a marvel and you leave him so frustratingly ill-defined, that is simply a flaw in writing.
Does the film have value? Absolutely. David Lean doesn’t make bad pictures. This one is simply cripplingly flawed in a way that keeps it from achieving true greatness. David Lean is one of those directors that never truly learned the meaning of “enough”, and it shows here more than any of his other films that I’ve seen. I would have enjoyed the film much more had the length been pared down to something more manageable and had T.E. Lawrence been greater developed as a character. As it, Lawrence of Arabia stands as a film that had the potential to be a masterpiece but instead fell quite short of its lofty goals. Here’s to hoping that I’m not forced to watch any more four hour films in the near future.
Final Score: B