#12 — Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
I had a professor in college who took the highly contrarian position of criticizing Lawrence of Arabia. Already ensconced firmly in the cinematic canon as a paragon of epic filmmaking, David Lean’s venerated offering was dismissed by her as little more than endless shots of sand, sand and more sand. Now, this was a professor in the English department, but it was indeed a film class, making the unkind judgment seem especially harsh. How could this be? I’d seen it, after all, and totally bought into the notion that it was unassailable wondrous. A few years later, I got the chance to see it on the big screen as part of a rerelease series, and as I sat there getting as close as I ever would to seeing it as it was intended to be seen I had to admit that I could understand where she was coming from. I didn’t necessarily agree, but I was sympathetic to the viewpoint. It’s majestic, intricate, fervently intelligent. But yeah, it’s slow, with Lean especially reliant on grand vistas filling the extra-wide screen to leave the audience rapt. It’s not unreasonable to equate its deliberateness with tedium. And yet….
The enormity of Lawrence of Arabia remains awe-inspiring. If it set the template for countless Hollywood epic dramas that followed to such a degree that its stern, serious beats can sometimes feel too familiar in a modern viewing, then its capability to recreate an entire era and world in tactile fashion has certainly circled back around to be seen unquestionably as a truly astonishing feat given that digital handiwork is now the preferred methodology for such spectacle. In trying to capture the adventures of a man bigger than life, Lean harnessed the boundless power of the movies to make everything seem even larger, improbable as that may be. In ticking between the mammoth–such as battle scenes that must have been as logistically challenging as the original warfare–and the intimate–as the repercussions of those battles weigh upon the souls of those involved–credited screenwriter Robert Bolt (along with originally uncredited Michael Wilson) convey the ways in which personality collide with and therefore shape history itself. The scale of the film is ideally calibrated to the vastness–of terrain, of spirit, of agony, of charm–that it depicts.
And surely if every other element of the film has the capacity to strain the patience of viewers more accustomed to the bang-bang pace of current cinema (and, truthfully, many of the films that share the 1962 copyright date), there is still splendid pleasure to be found in the greatest attribute of Lawrence of Arabia, the part of it signaled with a deceptively understated title card at the end of the cast listing in the opening credits: “Introducing Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence.” It was something of a fib, O’Toole having at least a trio of film credits to his name when he got the part that elevated him to immediate stardom and the first of an amazing eight Best Actor Academy Award nominations, all futile, save for the consolation prize of an Honorary trophy, bestowed in 2003. From the first moments, O’Toole has a magnificent magnetism and a lean, angular physical beauty that is impossible to look away from. He commands the screen as if he were the person it was sized for, everyone else drowning in its shimmering breadth before him. I can’t think of another actor who could make such droll magic out of a line such as the one O’Toole delivers in response to the gruff assertion “I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted”: “I have the same problem, sir.” If Lawrence was bigger than life, so was his portrayer. No matter what my old professor implied, O’Toole was never a person who get overwhelmed by the scenery.