Turner Classic Movies, as part of their “Big Screen Classics” revival series, brings back one of the most beloved and acclaimed films of all time, Lawrence of Arabia, the story of one of the most remarkable men to have ever lived. Directed by the legendary David Lean, this picture follows World War I soldier T.E. Lawrence, a stand-out man. He is seen as an outcast and an oddball by many of his British colleagues. Due to his knowledge of tribes in Arabia, he is sent to lead an Arab revolt against the Turks to assist in the British war against the Ottoman Empire. In the great deserts, Lawrence, and the audience will go on a long journey of struggle and self-discovery.
For a movie over four hours in length, it’s surprisingly light on plot. A hefty chunk of this film is occupied by excessive shots of the desert. Lean manages to find a great deal of variation in a group of camels walking over sand, and every frame in this film is astonishing, but I can’t help but feel that much of this was not entirely necessary for the progression of the story, something necessary to hold attention over a long period of time. During the crossing of the Nefud desert, a nearly-hour long sequence devoid of much dialogue or action, I started to hear a few snores throughout the theater. I’ll just chalk that up to them probably having already seen the film working in tandem with the extremely comfy seats.
I had seen this film just once before, and I’m glad to say after seeing it in theaters I now see clearly what makes this film great. Peter O’Toole is perfect as the eccentric and mysterious Lawrence. His expressions carry the entire emotional weight of the film in them, and they must. This film is entirely centered around Lawrence as a character, which means there is not as much focus on the history or workings of the war in the Middle East, something I would have liked to see. The film only falters occasionally with striking a balance between a coherent plot and an intense character study. The sequence where Lawrence and Ali infiltrate a Turkish town and get caught comes to mind. The purpose they serve there is a bit foggy as the sequence is mostly devoted to a torture scene displaying Lawrence’s alleged masochism as well as rumored homosexuality. I found this particularly surprising upon second viewing, considering this is practically a blockbuster made during the 1960s. For a movie of immense popularity, it’s difficult to see how that was accepted by viewers.
The best part of this movie though is probably the production value. Unlike many older films, some effects and shooting techniques may look dated today, but Lawrence of Arabia looks as good as ever, with scenes shot on location with massive amounts of extras and some very impressive sweeping camera angles. Every battle scene looks so realistic, some of the best put to screen. Costumes and sets are all absolutely on point here.
It’s hard to find a specific flaw with Lawrence of Arabia. My only issue, as is my issue with a lot of epics, is how it justifies its length. There’s a lot to unpack in this story, but Lawrence’s character is intentionally left mysterious. There are many repetitions of the line “who are you?” just before a transition to another scene. Lean is inviting the audience to discuss among themselves about just what drives Lawrence. Is it a desire to help disadvantaged people? Is it a search for purpose in life? Or is it repressed sexual feelings? I love a movie that conjures up some debate. But are shots of sunsets and long scenes of long stares necessary to this character development?
Lawrence isn’t for everybody, but if you have a tolerance for a few dead patches in a movie, it’s worth keeping on the lookout for another revival of the classic film.