Lawrence of Arabia (1962) review

A film that needs little introduction having won 7 Oscars and being widely regarded as one of the all-time greats. The film tells the story of T.E.Lawrence, a British officer during the First World War who led an Arab revolt against the Turks, not only helping their fledgling attempts to establish an independent state, but also greatly improving Britain's own position in the war. The film begins with Lawrence's death in a motorcycle accident. At his funeral, at which he has been immortalised with a bust, a journalist is asking attendants what they remember about the man. Getting very little answer, people having either not known Lawrence well, or not recalling accurately what they remember of him, the film delves back into history to bring us the story of his escapades. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is first sent to Arabia with the intention of finding an Arab leader named Faisal (Alec Guinness) whose revolt against the Turks may be of help to the British. Lawrence soon falls in love with the desert and the idea of this campaign appeals to him. He sets about organizing the various warring tribes of Arabia, uniting them to drive the Turks out and capture cities. This he does with promises of handing the lands to the Arabs following the war. His superiors intend that the British will take control of the lands after the war, setting them at odds with Lawrence, whose guerrilla campaign, involving blowing up railways, have won the Arabs many great victories.

This film is epic in scale, being over three and a half hours long, with an intermission between the two halves. It covers a huge number of important incidents and the length of the film is absolutely necessary to build a comprehensive picture of the times and of the man. Parts of the film seem almost like a travelogue, with grand vistas, scenes of the sunset over the desert dunes, or the beauty of the port of Aqaba. These are contrasted with the earlier garrison in Egypt where Lawrence is stationed. This spectacular cinematography helps the audience appreciate the emotions Lawrence feels and how it is possible for him to become so besotted with the desert and the cause of the natives. He assumes their robes and becomes accepted into their culture, starkly contrasting with his fellow officers on his return to headquarters partway through the film. As well as the wider story of the war, there is also a deeply personal story running throughout, that of Lawrence himself. It is clear early on that he is something of an eccentric, highly educated, arrogant, and with a peculiar (for the time) love of the foreign Arab culture. As events unfold this becomes almost touching as he attempts to reconcile himself to the fact that he may never truly be considered one of them, despite devoting himself to their cause. The film draws in themes of racism, war, imperialism, religion and sexuality, and covers so much ground that it is quite an overwhelming experience to take in all at once. It encompasses so much that it leaves you reconsidering for a long while afterwards everything you have seen. The characters go through transformations that are believable and given time to mature and nothing feels out of place. There are a couple of scenes where exposition is required, but these are handled well and do not detract from the sense of adventure and action that is driving the main narrative. The score by Maurice Jarre, with its drums and triumphal brass, sets off this sense of scale and importance as well as being a stirring accompaniment to the action. It is fair to say that they do not make films like this nowadays. The huge numbers of extras required for the armies or city scenes is a delight to see. Likewise the sequences of trains being derailed or a large number of horses being freed gain a lot from being achieved for real.

If you haven't seen Lawrence of Arabia already I would highly recommend it. It is definitely deserving of its position amongst the great films of all time. A fantastic war epic with a strong emotional core.