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United Kingdom 1962
Directed by
David Lean
222 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Lawrence Of Arabia (Director's Cut)

Synopsis: During World War 1, Lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is posted to the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo. Appointed as British liaison officer to the numerous Arab tribes he leads the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 against the occupying Turks..

From In Which We Serve (1942) to A Passage To India (1984), David Lean’s career was a distinguished one, marked by its intelligence and breadth of vision. Few would dispute the claim that Lawrence of Arabia, which won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars at the 1962 Academy Awards, was his crowning achievement.

Films like this simply aren’t made anymore Yes, we have big screen blockbusters but their bulk is largely provided by computer graphics. Lean’s film, from its endless sea of sands to its battle scenes to its train derailment, is all real. Belonging very much to the late 1950s/early1960s push to overwhelm television's incursions by offering breath-taking visual spectaculars in the form of quasi-historical epics (which from 1959’s Ben-Hur to 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told regularly involved lots of sand), Lawrence of Arabia is intended to provide audiences with a viewing experience such as they had never had before. This is both its strength and its weakness.

On the one hand the film is breathtakingly spectacular with Lean superbly handling the logistics of large-scale film-making (it is little surprise to find out that he closely studied Ford's Westerns, particularly The Searchers (1956) amply aided by outstanding cinematography by Freddie Young and Maurice Jarre's iconic score. These place the film qualitatively well above its "sword and sandals' peers. On the other, its larger-than-life mythicising of Lawrence encourage dramatically mannered or, particularly in the case of O’Toole, wildly exaggerated performances. This no doubt would have been more acceptable fifty years ago than today as would have been the casting of Alec Guinness as the stately King Feisal and Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi, a barbaric Arab warlord. 

Understandably O’Toole became an international star as a result (Noel Coward famously quipped that if he had been any prettier they would have called the film "Florence of Arabia") but sometimes the lack of subtlety tends to reduce our empathy with the film's dramatic core, which is the story of a man and his demons.

The script by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson (the latter did not receive a screen credit until 1978), is based upon The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence's own account of his desert adventures, but takes on board the controversy surrounding his extraordinary behaviour and his dual standing as both a mythic hero who captured the public’s imagination and a man ultimately doomed by his own ego. Once again reflecting the values of the time the film is quite coy about a pivotal incident when Lawrence is captured and tortured by a sadistic Turkish Bey (José Ferrer) while on a spying mission to Deraa. Although Lawrence did not admit to it, the widespread belief is that he was raped by the latter and this contributed to his return to England and brief attempt to vanish from history.

Although the facts are of some interest as they provide the seed-bed for the present trouble across the post-colonial Arab nations, historical accuracy is not the reason that anyone will be watching this film (in fact there was much criticism of the film at the time particularly from the families of some of the British military officers concerned including Lawrence's brother who called it "an unholy marriage between a Western and a psychological horror"), which are rather its grand vision and state-of the-art production values  Aside from O’Toole’s scene-stealing performance, Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, Claude Rains, Jack Hawkins (in a very dodgy hair-piece) and the then-newcomer Omar Sharif all make solid contributions to the standing of Lawrence of Arabia as a much-loved film.

FYI: After the 1962 Royal Premiere in London 20 minutes were edited from the film's general release, and 15 more from the 1971 reissue. This abbreviated version was all that was available for public exhibition until a massive 1989 restoration, at 216 minutes that returned several of Lean's favourite scenes while removing others with which he had never been satisfied. Even in this version, somewhat oddly the taking of Damascus is not shown but whether this was left on the cutting room floor I know not,




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