Cinematography for the WIN. Let your eyes soak up wide shots of sky and sand. Drink in the towering cliffs and dunes. Drown in the dusty expanse of nothing by dry, bleached earth for miles around. I am so very, very thirsty.
If I learned anything from Lawrence of Arabia it is that I know nothing at all. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is a British officer serving in Cairo in 1916. He accepts a mission to track down an Arabian prince, Feisal (Alec Guinness), and “assess the situation.” In other words, (or as Lawrence apparently understands it) poke a stick at feuding tribes and somehow start a rebellion against the Turks. Of course, once the day is won, the British will be free to swoop in and take control when everything inevitably goes to shit. Lawrence is the perfect man for the job: he speaks his mind, has a compassionate attitude, is accepting of other cultures, and actually likes the desert. Teaming up with Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), a noble lord, rival, and friend, Lawrence takes Arabia by storm, charming tribes, conquering cities, and feeding a personal demon he didn’t know existed. Basically, Lawrence of Arabia is a very long story about a very open-minded man who throws the most close-minded empire for a loop.
And long it is. After three hours of watching (including a few pauses to ask my personal historian what, why, and *frustrated sigh*) Lawrence returns to his base a heroic idol, accompanied by cheering and shoulder slaps which, obviously, signals the conclusion of the film. The music crescendos, the scene fades, and one word spreads across the screen: “INTERMISSION”. Three. Hours. Later. In total, Lawrence of Arabia is 227 minutes long. They don’t call it a life’s story for nothing.
It is wondrous to stare at a whole lot of nothing while that speck you thought was dirt on the screen grows bigger and more defined, trotting towards you with a weapon in hand and murder in his eye. I specifically say “his” because the only women who appear in Lawrence of Arabia are three British nurses (background extras) and a crowd of wailing, Arabian, cliff yodelers sending their men off to battle.
Larger than the women’s roles by far are the necessary secondary characters. That’s right, the camels. Those dopey-eyed mammals our Creator designed on a drunken whim are front and centre in Lawrence of Arabia, groaning, spitting, bobbing, and putting up with their humans from point A to B to Z. I’m convinced that Lawrence of Arabia on mute is just a National Geographic exposé on these desert swans.
With the volume on, you get a surprising amount of to-the-point dialogue: “Yes.” “His.” “I was.” For a film that requires so much explanation to understand the coiled-up history of the Middle East, an awful lot of time is spent in silent meditation or with one-word answers. I limped by with the aid of my human Wikipedia who was patient enough to fill in necessary historical details. Through a few foggy moments I clutched my coffee-table atlas like a plank of wood in the ocean, and when all else failed, I hung by the apathetic catch phrase: “Well, if Moses could do it…”
Lawrence does seem blessed in his ability to make one smart decision after the next – starting with learning the Quran to respecting Arabian princes. Seems pretty basic, perhaps, but ye olde British Empire wasn’t too open to learning new things. That said, it sure is convenient that everyone from Jordan to Syria can speak fluent English…
Lawrence of Arabia is the movie that invented the word “epic”. The shots, settings, and sheer extent of cast, props, and Rolls Royces are overwhelmingly sublime. Peter O’Toole is everything the role needs him to be: bold, generous, witty, kind, traumatized, doubtful, and a complete independent despite being the hinge on which swings the door of Arabia’s uncomfortable future. He also pulls such believable madness out of who knows where that I fear for his sanity off screen. Lawrence of Arabia is a marathon you need to be well-prepared for: mentally, physically, schedually, and especially historically. Do your research and you will love it. Go in with nothing but a Western education and an atlas and you are undoubtedly doomed. 7/10.