Lawrence of Arabia
(United Kingdom, 1962)
The first time I saw Lawrence of Arabia, on my parents' 28" television, I was not impressed. It seemed very long and kind of slow. Then, one day in the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to see the restored version on the big screen. If some college friends hadn't dragged me to see it, I probably would have avoided it like the plague. Yet, seeing it in all of its glory in a theater was a revelation. The movie gripped me in a way that only a great epic can. When the intermission arrived, I was impatient for it to be over so the movie could begin again. It's a safe bet that anyone who has only seen Lawrence of Arabia on a television hasn't truly seen it. For this spectacle, the bigger the screen, the better. Of course, seeing it on home video is better than not seeing it at all (and, in an era when televisions are getting bigger and bigger, the drawbacks are not what they once were), but it's still a poor substitution. Lawrence of Arabia is a very good movie on a small screen, but it's a great movie when projected in a theater.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
Lawrence of Arabia recounts the larger-than-life exploits of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole), an officer in the British army serving in the Middle East during World War I. The film opens in 1935, with a prologue that shows Lawrence's death as a result of a motorcycle accident, followed by his funeral. The time frame then shifts back more than 20 years to Cairo, where Lawrence is about to begin the greatest adventure of his career. His commanding officer orders him to enter the desert and make contact with the Bedouin Prince Feisel (Alec Guiness), who is a British ally in the fight against the Turks. What follows is not only an account of how Lawrence became a pivotal figure in the Arab revolt against the Turks, but of the nearly-Shakespearean rise and fall of his character. The movie features five major events: Lawrence's initial foray into Bedouin territory and his meetings with Feisel and Sherif Ali Ibn El Kharish (Omar Sharif), his trek across the Nefud Desert and subsequent attack on Aqaba, his torture at the hands of the Turks in Deraa, his leadership in the massacre at Tafas, and his victory at Damascus. Until his capture in Deraa, Lawrence believes himself to be capable of anything - a demi-god in Arab clothing. But, after his brutal treatment and degradation, he becomes a bitter, self-doubting man, thirsting for revenge. Once Lawrence has taken Damascus, he becomes redundant, and leaves for England while the politicians sort things out.
While it's impossible to single out a single historical epic as being at the inarguable top of the heap, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is certainly a contender for the position. Riveting from beginning to end, featuring stellar performances, amazing cinematography, and a story without a trace of fat, the film does everything an epic is supposed to do - and more. For David Lean, widely regarded as one of the masters of this kind of filmmaking, Lawrence of Arabia represented the most ambitious undertaking of a fruitful career. Restored to its full length in 1989, the version available today shows the story as Lean intended it to be seen. Viewed in its full glory on a big screen, this becomes an event - something that even the most restless viewer will become lost in.
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