“Lawrence of Arabia” is one of those movies I have always heard about but never took the time to watch. At almost 3½ hours long, I needed more than an idle recommendation from a friend or family member before I could commit to it.
That changed, however, with the recent death of Peter O’Toole, the actor who played the main character. I’m not sure why that motivated me to choose it for this month’s installment of “From the film archives,” but I am glad I did because it is genuinely one of the best movies I have ever seen. The movie juggles desert vistas, amazing cinematography, a dramatic storyline and exquisite acting and somehow remains exciting and coherent.
“Lawrence of Arabia” is based on the true story of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who was dispatched to the Middle East to help coordinate the Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Lawrence faces different challenges than your average war movie protagonist. The standard trials are present, such as coping with the barbarity of battle and the moral quandaries that come with commanding troops. But he must also cope with the desert, which is capable of killing as many men as the enemy is, and the stark cultural differences between himself and the tribesmen.
During this time period, Arabia is a collection of tribes that fight among themselves as often as with the Turks, who controlled the area. Despite many Arabs’ initial distrust of British involvement, Lawrence gains acceptance and proceeds to lead them to several victories.
This leads to Lawrence’s primary struggle: his own identity.
Lawrence is a relatable character at first. His naivety and optimism are infectious, and he quickly leads the Arabs to a strategic victory after traversing the Nefud Desert, which was considered impassable at the time.
However, his success and notoriety as a war hero quickly goes to his head. Many of the tribesmen begin claiming he is a savior and a prophet. Then Lawrence himself begins to believe it, even going so far as to say he is untouchable in battle.
O’Toole, who was a somewhat unknown actor at the time, portrays this transformation with a skill rare even for today’s standards.
Despite having relatively little action for a war flick, O’Toole’s top notch acting, along with great performances from supporting actors Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif and Alec Guinness, keep the movie from ever feeling slow or boring.
“Lawrence of Arabia” was mostly filmed in Jordan, Morocco and Spain. And director David Lean uses the sparse landscapes to create some interesting scenes. The flat and empty deserts have an otherworldly feel adding a sense of wonder often absent from historical films. These scenes are contrasted by the bustling cities of Cairo and Damascus.
In addition, the music in “Lawrence of Arabia” is iconic and perfectly fits the tone of the movie. The musical score was composed by Maurice Jarre and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
“Lawrence of Arabia” requires a significant time commitment, but it is well worth it, and there is no better time to watch it than now. The movie looks great on today’s widescreen, high-definition televisions, and many of the current conflicts in the Middle East have roots in the tumultuous period following World War I.
The film has received extensive critical acclaim in the 52 years since its release, and I consider it one of the best movies ever made. It can be purchased or rented online from Amazon and is available on Netflix’s DVD service.
Andrew Akers is a part-time reporter for The Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.