Lawrence of Arabia
Director: David Lean
Writer: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Based on: T. E. Lawrence‘ writing and life
Cast: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains
Seen on: 10.4.2016
[I saw the 227 min, 70mm roadshow version.]
During World War I, T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is stationed in Egypt. He is knowledgeable but doesn’t fit in easily with the army. To the Arab Bureau’s Mr Dryden (Claude Rains) that makes him the ideal candidate to meet with Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) and generally assess the power distribution and the development within the Bedouin communities. Lawrence sets off and finds himself drawn into their world more and more.
Lawrence of Arabia is one of those classics everybody keeps raving about and that I had never seen (there are quite a few of those, unfortunately). So when it was announced that they’d show it in a local cinema, I knew I had to go. And I can say that it was a good choice to see it on the big screen. It’s a stunning film, although not unproblematic, especially not from today’s point of view.
Lawrence of Arabia’s foremost selling point, for me at least, are its sprawling desert shots that made me particularly glad that I saw the film in a cinema (and a big one at that) and in 70mm, making all those long takes even more impressive. What really stuck in my head, is the attack on the city which we get to see from far off and can see the horses and camels racing into the city and taking it. But there were many moments that were simply striking.
The story itself is interesting and surprisingly good to the Bedouins, although it’s still speckled with racism. Starting, of course, with the insensitive casting (to put it mildly) that finds its nadir in brownfaced Alec Guinness (not that he wasn’t good, but you know) and ending with the problems a white savior story like this brings. Fortunately, especially in the second half, the film works very hard to show that it isn’t all heroism and wins for Lawrence.
In a parallel universe that isn’t heteronormative and homophobic, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) and Lawrence’s relationship is an epic romance. It is so epic, in fact, that its echoes are also in our version. The chemistry between them is frankly astounding and the movie – that tries and fails to sell this chemistry as platonic – is richer for it. [It’s not surprising that it would read that way since the film has practically no women, not even running around in the background.]
Despite its long runtime the film stays engaging and there were only a couple of moments where I thought that a bit of trimming wouldn’t have hurt. It’s a big story, made even bigger by the way it is told. Nothing here is small or understated. Thus the film truly deserves the attribute epic.