Thursday, March 13, 2014

Complexity, Grandeur and Adventure: My Thoughts on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

The original 1962 poster.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


Director: David Lean
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Story/Screenplay: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Music: Maurice Jarre
Cinematography: Freddie A. Young
Cast: Peter O'Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quayle, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy

MPAA Rating: PG (1988 re-release); original rating: Approved

Run Time: 227 minutes (restored roadshow version); 222 minutes (original premiere); 210 minutes (original); 228 minutes (director's cut); 187 minutes (1970 re-release)

Studio: Columbia Pictures


“Nothing is written.”

"Complex grandeur," in my opinion, is the best phrase to describe the rich epic masterpiece of cinema that is David Lean's 1962 award-winning film Lawrence of Arabia, which has since been recognized as a classic of the cinematic art by not only moviegoers all over the world but also by top critics and prestigious film groups and organizations. Filmmakers were inspired by this movie, including the famous Steven Spielberg himself. It even inspired the Spaghetti Westerns to one degree or another.

And when I got to see this film for the first time (not on an authentic and pristine 70mm print, the intended format, but on the Blu-ray restoration, which was superb), I was engrossed by this impeccably rich and deep epic, which not only involved me in the vast expanse of the film but also the complexity and layers of the writing and the characters, which is ultimately what made the film endure and what made the visuals all that more special.

The plot centers around the life of the historical figure T. E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and his conflicted loyalties during his WWI service in the Middle East, where he helps the Arabs in their revolt against the Turks, winning victory in Aqaba and Damascus. However, the narrative unfolds, showing how he is both engrossed by the expanse of the desert and torn apart between his two loyalties.

There is a reason why Lawrence of Arabia is hailed as a classic, and it is not because of misguided nostalgia for the past cinema. While nostalgia may or may not have anything to do with the love this film receives, the reason it deserves the love it has is that it is ultimately a great film and that it is a masterpiece of the film genre, using the full power of the cinematic medium and the power of 65mm cinematography (filmed on celluloid 65mm, which is held to be the best celluloid film any filmmaker can dream of working with) to give us rich cinematic visuals and engrossing narratives and characters, all of which mix the realistic and the poetic nature of filmmaking.

Peter O'Toole's flamboyant and larger-than-life portrayal of Lawrence is one of the best and most complex film protagnoists in history. On the one hand, we see Lawrence being the champion of liberty for the Arabs and on the other hand we see a sadist who delights in killing (this is a running point in several moments in the film, particularly in the Arab attack on Damascus, the famous "No prisoners" sequence). Peter O'Toole and the screenwriters (Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson) bring this out beautifully.

The other actors are also lifelike in their portrayals, including Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali, Anthony Quinn as Auda abu Tayi, Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden, and Jose Ferrer as the Turk general, who captures Lawrence and tortures him (it is implied that Lawrence is raped, but it is not depicted explicitly).

Everyone of them feels lifelike and real, and at the same time, they feel larger-than-life, like great historical figures and great men. That is part of what makes the film so great, because even with the pomp and epicness, the film manages to be lifelike and engrossing, rather than feeling artificial or corny (though the opposite is true; films can be too lifeless, as is evident in certain blockbusters of our time).

Also, the writing by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson is phenomenal; it is so rich and layered, and at the same time not too complex to keep the viewer from understanding the main plot points of the film. And even when one doesn't always remember the specifics, the writing does help, along with the evocative images of Freddie Young's masterful cinematography, which was shot in the beautiful medium of 65mm (and restored meticulously from the original 65mm camera negative at a super-high resolution to bring out the pristine picture of the original source). And David Lean's direction is also superb, and even while I am not too acquainted with David Lean's other work, I am pleased to say that David Lean kept me hooked into the film, even through the super-long (not over-long, just super-long) time length of the film. Films like this are a treat, and I am glad to say that I saw this film.

Finally, I would like to note that Lawrence of Arabia is a very complex and rich film, because even as it gives us awe-inspiring imagery of the desert, it shows the harshness of it and how it changes Lawrence. Also, like I noted before, Peter O'Toole perfectly portrays the character of Lawrence, contrasting both a man of mercy and a man of killing. And even when one is shown that the Arabs are fighting against the Turks for their freedom, one also senses a hatred for war emanating throughout the film, similar to some of David Lean's other films (especially Bridge on the River Kwai). And many more complexities are part of why I appreciate this grand and majestic masterpiece.

A+ (10/10)

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