Lawrence of Arabia
Some movies you watch for entertainment value. Some movies give you something to think about. And some movies draw you into the sheer experience of being in a different place and time. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the second of David Lean's war epics to win the Oscar for Best Picture (the first was 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai), is all of this and more—especially if you see it on the big screen, where its depiction of the sun beating down on the Arab rebels and the British officer who leads them across one desert after another has been known to send thirsty moviegoers flocking to the concession stand during intermission.
Lawrence of Arabia delivers many of the goods that one has come to expect from a classic of its sort: vast epic scenery; a cast of thousands; bold, dramatic performances; and a stirring, majestic score, courtesy of Maurice Jarre. But at the center of it all is an enigma, namely the character of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) himself. Who is this man, and why did he play the role that he did during the Arab Revolt? Neither his British superiors, nor the Arabs who fight alongside him, seem to know—and neither does Lawrence himself. And it is this mystery around the man that makes Lawrence of Arabia a compelling work of art that lingers in the mind long after the spectacle has come and gone.
The film, written by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons, The Mission), is essentially about a man with an identity crisis—and the long-term effects of that crisis on one of the most volatile parts of the globe. Lawrence, the illegitimate son of an Anglo-Irish gentleman, and a bookish military intelligence officer to boot, doesn't fit in with his fellow Brits very well, nor can he ever be just "one of the guys" like his fellow soldiers; he is drawn to the exotic, warlike Arabs but he is also repulsed by what he regards as their barbarism; by negotiating alliances between the Arab tribes and leading them in successful battles against the Turks, he becomes a leader of men, but he is also a puppet, of sorts, whose growing legend is exploited by generals and princes alike. One moment he basks in his godlike status among the Arabs and brags about his reputation for invulnerability; the next, he is captured and raped by Turkish soldiers who don't even recognize him, despite the fact that their side has offered a rather large reward for his capture.
But the film is about more than just the one man; it also raises fascinating questions about the nature of freedom, and whether it is ever truly attainable. Can a man be whatever he wants to be, or is there something built into him that determines what he wants? Is a man's fate “written,” or can he write it for himself? And is it possible to give people freedom while also dictating what they do with that freedom?
Lean, who had previously explored passion of a romantic (and dangerous) sort in films like Brief Encounter (1945), also gets to explore "the passions" in a broader sense here, comparing and contrasting them with the strategic calculations and simple practicality of Lawrence's colleagues. ("With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion," says one Arab prince to an American journalist. "With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.")
More than anything else, though, the film is just sheer good cinema, full of startling images—from Omar Sharif's first appearance as a mirage, flickering on the horizon, to the steamship funnel that Lawrence spots sailing over a dune near the Suez Canal—and clever edits, like the famous bit where Lawrence blows out a match and we instantly cut to a shot of the sun. Add to this an unusually literate screenplay and performances filled with sly, engaging wit, and you have one of the best "big" films ever made.
—Peter T. Chattaway