I must have been 6 or 7 so years old — I don’t really know for sure — when my parents brought me to a drive-in theater where this film was playing. I believe it was a double-feature, playing as the second feature to one of Dean Martin’s silly Matt Helm films. (you may have caught one or two on television — films like “The Silencers”, or “Murderer’s Row” that were the kind of silly parodies of James Bond that were popular around that time. My parents had thought (or maybe hoped) that I was asleep, when Maurice Jarre’s booming overture started, and then proceeded into that majestic theme. My guess is that those drums just woke me up. I was rapt from the very start.
Ever since that moment, David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” has held a very important place in my heart. For a long time, I became obsessed with it, in ways that maybe Star Wars fans of later generations might understand. “Lawrence of Arabia” was the very first tape I got, when I moved into an apartment and bought my first VHS tape player.
The cinematography arguably produced some of the most gorgeous and sometimes iconic scenes ever filmed. It’s influence on the filmmaking of later directors, such as Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, and others, cannot be underestimated. I dare anyone to watch “Lawrence of Arabia”, and then “Star Wars: A New Hope”, and not see that influence.
The story is mostly a true one, and is based on both historical fact, and the memoirs of Major T.E. Lawrence, a British soldier during WWI — granted, Lawrence was prone to exaggeration and romanticism, and some of the characters in the film are actually constructions based on multiple real-life people. But the historical events depicted are considered by historians to be relatively accurate.
The film starts with Lawrence’s death in a motorcycle accident only two years after leaving military service. We see people being interviewed about him after his funeral, with people who didn’t know him talking about him like he was a saint, a superhero who did no wrong. And then you hear an opposing viewpoint, and you realize that this is going to be a nuanced view of a far more complicated person. That idea of the deeply flawed hero has affected my taste in writing and movies to this day.
This was the film that put both Peter O’Toole, and Omar Shariff on the map. Both of them, but O’Toole in particular, have tremendous performances. O’Toole plays Lawrence himself, an odd, minor member of General Murray’s staff the General perceives him as being disrespectful, but Lawrence says that ‘it’s his manner’, that he really isn’t. It seems that when the Arab Bureau (represented by the perceptive, but enigmatic, Mr. Dryden, played quite suavely by Claude Rains) needs someone to meet with Prince Feisal to ‘appreciate’ the state of the Arab rebellion, that Murray is almost thrilled to get rid of him. Omar Shariff plays Sherif Ali, an underling to Prince Feisel, who at first resents Lawrence and the British in general, but Lawrence eventually earns a kind of respect from him. Sherif Ali is a kind of foil to Lawrence’s ‘loyal British officer’, who has to keep reminding him that there is more at stake than just British interests.
All of these people are just great in their roles, even Alec Guinness, who is on the screen for only a few minutes in the whole movie (near the beginning, and near the end) as Prince Feisal, is superb. But for me, my absolute favorite performance is that of Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi. Auda is the leader (shaikh) of the Howeitat, a Bedouin tribe, who Lawrence needs to recruit to help him capture Aqaba.
T.E. Lawrence: My friends, we have been foolish. Auda will not come to Aqaba. Not for money…
Auda abu Tayi: No.
T.E. Lawrence: …for Feisal…
Auda abu Tayi: No!
T.E. Lawrence: …nor to drive away the Turks. He will come… because it is his pleasure.
Auda abu Tayi: Thy mother mated with a scorpion.
A film like “Lawrence of Arabia” could never get made today. For one thing, it is too long, clocking in at 222 minutes for it’s original theatrical release. It really does not feel that long, but the intermission does help a lot. Furthermore, a lot of history has happened between 1962, when it first premiered, and today. Certain generalizations and prejudices, that certainly existed to some extent back then, have become rampant. The film is very smart about how it presents the competing interests of the British and the Arab rebellion, and how the Arab Bureau exploited that rebellion for its own purposes and to an extent, betrayed their ‘allies’. It’s a pattern that appears frequently in history, whenever a colonial nation needs something from a people they see as ‘inferior’. I think that it could be made, but it certainly would have been a far different movie.
In short, I would argue that “Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s certainly in my top 3 favorite films. Keep an eye out for future articles where I’ll talk about other favorites of mine, and not just movies, but my favorite things in general. It’s too bad, but really the movie suffers from seeing it on a small screen. If you EVER have a chance to see it in a theater or on a large screen, with good speakers, and capacity crowd, THAT is how to watch it. But, if a small screen is your only means of viewing, then this is still a film that no film lover should EVER deprive himself of. I am not exaggerating when I say that this is one of the greatest movies ever made.