Lawrence of Arabia is a great example of a classic film. It’s an epic historical drama based on the life of T.E Lawrence, a British military officer, archeologist, diplomat and writer. He is most known for helping the various Arab tribes to unite and help fight against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War (the Turks were allied with the Germans). The movie primarily focuses on that specific part of his life.
The movie ended up winning seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (colour), Best Music Score, and Best Film Editing. It features a number of famous actors from the time, including Sir Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and it features the debut of Peter O’ Toole in the title role. It was voted as one of the top 100 films of all-time by the American Film Institute in 1998, and also voted the best British film of all-time in a Sunday Telegraph Poll in 2004.
There’s no need for me to defend this film, because there are very few people out there saying it’s not good.
That said, it was made in a time when filmmaking was quite different. The pacing is a lot slower than most movies today. One could make a movie today that touches on all the same points as Lawrence of Arabia, while making it more than an hour shorter. However, the slower pace often works in this movie’s favour. Stretching out the Desert rescue sequence adds to the tension. A lengthened sequence where the Arabs keep shooting at a train that’s already been derailed, despite Lawrence’s attempts to stop them, helps emphasize how some of the Arab tribes are still savage by nature. The length also helps make Lawrence’s own character arc more believable.
This movie doesn’t give you too much of the big picture of what’s going on with the overall war against the Ottoman Empire. It doesn’t mention how the Turks also attacked Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. It only touches on the British army’s own front, and never shows them fighting the Turks directly. As much as a part of me would like to learn more about the fall of the Turkish Empire, the movie benefits from focusing on Lawrence, the same way that Saving Private Ryan benefits from focusing on its core group of characters instead of giving us a bigger picture of the war. Through the dialogue, we still learn enough.
The performances in this movie are fantastic across the board. O’ Toole is consistently entertaining as Lawrence during his showboating moments. He’s got a lot of enthusiasm for life and his mission. But he’s also good at showing raw emotion during harsh scenes, like when he’s forced to execute a man he just rescued to stop a blood feud between Arab tribes at the worst possible moment. As the movie goes on, you can tell he’s starting to become a savage himself, at least until he realizes what’s becoming of him.
Guinness’s role is relatively small, as he portrays Prince Faisal who mostly commands his troops from the background. That said, he oozes dignity and class with his role as a great negotiator and a wise man, but also hesitant at first to start a large campaign against the Turks. Faisal was originally supposed to be portrayed by Laurence Olivier, until he dropped out.
Other noteworthy roles include Auda Abi Tayi (actor Anthony Quinn), the leader of a warrior tribe that first worked for the Turks, but switched sides after meeting with Lawrence. He’s a harsh leader who is mostly motivated by the spoils of war, but as the movie goes on, he starts becoming loyal to Lawrence. The main difference between the character in the movie and his real life counterpart is that in reality, despite all the spoils of war he kept, he was often poor because of his generosity. The movie doesn’t mention that either way. There’s Sherif Ali, a fictional combination of a number of Arab leaders, and Lawrence’s closest confident within the Arab tribes in the movie. He’s portrayed as level headed, focused, and a good teacher for Lawrence learning the ways of the Arabs. Omar Sharif, an Egyptian actor, portrays him.
Although some historians at the time complained about the film’s historical inaccuracies, like questioning Lawrence’s on-film ego and the use of some fictionalized elements, most agree that building a fully historical accurate film wasn’t the point. It’s still respectful of Lawrence’s achievements. Some also complained that O’Toole was way too tall to portray Lawrence (he was just over 6 feet, whereas the real Lawrence stood at 5’5”). In all seriousness, who cares how accurate the actor’s height is? What’s funny is that some later biographies included some of the fictional characters, believing they were real. That’s not the film’s fault. That’s just bad research.
All in all, Lawrence of Arabia is a classic film, worthy of most of the praise it’s received over the years. It’s not the kind of film you watch to witness the horrors of war, even if it does show some of the savagery. It’s meant to celebrate the life of a man who helped unite the Arab tribes that couldn’t be any further apart beforehand. It’s the story of a great leader and diplomat who took a huge load off the British army’s attack force in the Middle East. And despite its 3-hour plus run time, it doesn’t feel overly long. Movie lovers in general should watch this movie if they haven’t already.