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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia

D: David Lean / 222m

Cast: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Wolfit, I.S. Johar

We’re at the halfway stage and so far I think I’ve got some pretty good choices for my Top 5: all are classics, all have stood (and continue to stand) the test of time, and all of them have had a profound effect on me as an individual and not just as a film buff.

I first saw Lawrence of Arabia on TV in the late Eighties.  It was one of those movies I’d lifted from my trusty Halliwell’s Film Guide as a must-see, and while I’d seen a few other epics up ’til then – Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and Lean’s own Doctor Zhivago (1965) – what really impressed me as the movie unfolded was the sheer size and scale of everything; even on a tiny portable TV in my bedroom this movie was astonishing in its scope (and it was a panned and scanned version as well – how terrible is that?).  There was so much to marvel at: the desert landscapes that seemed to stretch away into infinity, the shot of the attack on Aqaba with the tribesmen hurtling towards the city defences in that long panning shot that took in so much visual information it almost seemed impossible, the sense of mountains so tall and imposing that the characters appeared like ants in relation, and towering over it all, a performance that stands as one of the greatest in cinema history: Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence.

I was familiar with O’Toole, had seen him in a few films, including The Lion in Winter (1968) and The Night of the Generals (1967), and while I’d thought him a good actor, very intense in his approach, I hadn’t marked him out as an actor to follow (unlike his co-stars Alec Guinness and Claude Rains).  Seeing him as Lawrence I began to realise I was watching something special, something beyond normal screen acting; here was a performance that not only made you forget there was an actor in front of you, but – and I know this is supremely silly – gave the impression that they’d somehow found the real Lawrence and plonked him down in the movie and asked him to recreate those scenes from his life being filmed.  O’Toole wasn’t just astonishing, he was breathtaking.  When he was on screen he was hypnotic, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  If the camera cut away to another character, I wanted it to come back to Lawrence as quickly as possible.  If he wasn’t in a scene at all, I wanted that scene to end as quickly as possible so I could see him again.  (It sounds a bit creepy, I know, but this was a revelation to me, that an actor could be this good; I’m not even sure I’ve seen another performance as good since.)

Lawrence of Arabia - scene

As with Stanley Kubrick and Abel Gance and Marcel Carné (sorry, Terry Jones!), here also was a director with complete mastery and control over the material.  Lean did things in terms of composition and lighting I’d never seen before, things I’d never even considered could be done.  His use of natural light alone was impressive.  Watching Lawrence of Arabia now, over fifty years on from its release, there are shots that have never been replicated by other directors and/or cinematographers.  Lean was truly a cinematic painter, an artist concerned as much with light and shade as character and emotion and motivation; he could fuse these elements together to make an organic, complete representation of the subject at hand, and their environment.  In Lawrence of Arabia this makes for filmmaking of breathtaking beauty and accomplishment.

When I first saw the movie, and as I usually did, I raved about it to friends, even though I knew the subject matter and the movie’s length would put them off.  But one friend did see it (though some time later), and reported that they’d really enjoyed it but was surprised that the movie ended with the attack on Aqaba; he’d really wanted to find out what happened next.  I tried to keep my laughter to a minimum as I explained he’d only seen the first part of the movie.

I’ve seen the movie now around a dozen times, and each time it captivates me and mesmerises me in equal measure.  The last time I saw it was at the London Film Festival in 2012.  It was the first time the recent 4k restoration of the movie had been screened in the UK, and as a surprise, the festival organisers had arranged for two people connected with the movie to say a few words before the showing started.  Those two people turned out to be Anne V. Coates, the movie’s editor, and none other than Omar Sharif.  From where I was sitting I was only about six feet away from them both, and while Sharif spoke about his experiences making the film, several times he looked directly at me as he spoke.  (To say I walked out of that screening on cloud nine would be an understatement.)  And the movie looked tremendous, ravishing and beautiful in a way I’d never seen before, having never seen it at the cinema, only on home video or DVD.  It took me back to that first showing on TV, as I saw a movie I thought I was familiar with, but realised I hadn’t seen really properly in all this time.

For me, Lawrence of Arabia is the epic to end all epics, the grandest piece of filmmaking ever committed to celluloid.  Like the other movies I’ve discussed so far, it opened my eyes to what was possible in cinema, and its lustre hasn’t dimmed after all these years.  It’s also the most beautiful movie I’ve ever seen.

Rating: 9/10 – a movie that mixes the epic with quieter, more intimate moments, and  with skill and considerable brio; Lean’s masterpiece and O’Toole’s finest hour.