Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia

“There may be honour among thieves, but there’s none in politicians” T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence-of-arabia-2

(Poster source: http://www.wikipedia.com)

I have doing a lot of movie “collecting” in the last few months. I have watched a lot of movies since then but not all has been reviewed in this blog. One of the reasons for that is I don’t have much time to sit down and write down the review. Other times, some of the movies do not need special reviews – they are simply too good and too classic.

For example, in my collection, I have David Lean’s two greatest masterpieces namely “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago” and I am planning to add his other movies into my collection, “A Passage to India” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” as soon as it is possible. The movie “Lawrence of Arabia” came before “Doctor Zhivago” and has been touted as:-

“…one of the greatest and most influential films in the history of cinema”

The movie “Lawrence of Arabia” was nominated for 10 Oscars and won 7 Oscars for the following categories:-

  • Academy Award for Best Picture
  • Academy Award for Best Director
  • Academy Award for Best Art Direction
  • Academy Award for Best Cinematography
  • Academy Award for Original Music Score
  • Academy Award for Film Editing
  • Academy Award for Sound

The movie is rumoured to be Steven Spielberg’s favourite all time and going through the movie, one sees why. I have been watching the 3 plus hour movie on a daily basis – sometimes watching the actual scenes and sometimes listening to the background theme.

(There is plenty of contrast between the characters and the landscape in this David Lean’s masterpiece)

The Plot

David Lean’s movie runs for almost 216 minutes that is divided into 2 Acts and includes the opening and ending musics and intermission. The fact was it took almost 2 years to complete the movie as reported here:-

What was supposed to be a 150-day shoot turned into two years and three months of production history, and over those years untold chaos could have derailed this project at any time.

Instead, Lawrence became one of the greatest movies of the 20th century, and one of the weirdest, most counter-intuitive epics ever committed to film.

Read the details of the plot in Wikipedia.

The movie is basically is about Colonel T.E. Lawrence who was a British Army office who was posted to the Middle East in the 1916s and how he played a crucial role is uniting the Arabs to fight against the Turks. There has been substantial commentary on the plot in the movie and the one that actually took place.

From Wikipedia:-

The historical accuracy of the film, and particularly its portrayal of Lawrence himself, has been called into question by numerous scholars. Most of the film’s characters are either real or based on real characters to varying degrees. The events depicted in the film are largely based on accepted historical fact and Lawrence’s own writing about events, though they have various degrees of romanticisation.

Some scenes — such as the attack on Aqaba — were heavily fictionalised, while those dealing with the Arab Council were inaccurate, inasmuch as the council remained more or less in power in Syria until France deposed Faisal in 1920.

Many more criticism was mounted on the projection of T.E. Lawrence in the movie and even to extent of comparing the physical differences between the real T.E. Lawrence and Peter O’Tootle.

(The opening scene of the desert adventure – the morning sunrise over the horizon is simply spectacular!)

Directorship

Sunrise – it was said that in the movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, Sir David Lean specifically travelled 150 miles to capture it.

Once again, seeing the “Lawrence of Arabia”, we cannot ignore the genius of Sir David Lane in capturing the story of the Arabic Revolt against the Turks and how that transformed Lawrence into an almost mystical character. The opening scene in the desert starts with a sunrise in the horizon.

David Lean is able to match the 3 main elements of the movie (acting, music and cinematography) into one balanced display of art and craft. David Lean won his second Oscar for Best Director for this movie (he won the same for “The Bridge on the River Kwai”)

David Lean on the other hand was inspired by John Ford’s style of using the vast background against the character. John Ford was a 4 times Oscar winning director who was famous for directing most of the John Wayne’s western movies.

(Peter O’Tootle as the maverick Colonel T.E. Lawrence)

Acting

There are several main characters in the movie and all has been executed with surgical precision.

T.E. Lawrence acted by Peter O’ Tootle. Peter was not the first choice to play Lawrence in this movie but he nonetheless excelled to portraying Lawrence of Arabia. The way that Peter looks at Omar Sharif after he had saved a strayed man from the desert looks real. Peter does an excellent job of portraying someone who is very tired but did not show it in front of Omar Sharif.

Sheriff Ali acted by Omar Sharif. The way David Lean ‘introduces’ Omar Sharif in this movie is now a well known classic. The chemistry between Omar Sharif who dislike the British selective meddling in what he perceives to be an Arab Revolt and Peter O’Tootle who found some strange admiration for the desert going Arabs is so natural and convincing.

(Anthony Quinn or the real Auda Abu Tayi?)

Auda Abu Tayi acted by Anthony Quinn. It was said that Anthony Quinn got very much into his role – he spent hours applying his own make-up and used a photograph of the real Auda to make himself look as much like him as he could. Anthony was to act as Bedouin leader again in the movie “Lion of the Desert”.

Prince Faisal acted by Alec Guinness (the orginal Obi Wan Kenobi). Alec Guiness was said to have clashed with David Lean many times but this is the interesting part. Despite the often clash with the director, Alec Guinness has been wiling to act for David Lean’s other movies namely “A Passage to India”, “Doctor Zhivago” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai”

(The iconic scene where Omar Sharif is ‘formally’ introduced. David Lean had people to paint part of the desert with black paint so that the focus will be solely on Omar Sharif)

Cinematography

No one has captured the beauty of the unforgiving dessert like Freddie Young often takes long and near shots of the desert. Once again, utilising a lot of different angles to tell the story, Freddie Young was brilliant.

It also mentioned that:-

To film Omar Sharif’s entrance through a mirage, Freddie Young used a special 482mm lens from Panavision. Panavision still has this lens, and it is known among cinematographers as the “David Lean lens”. It was created specifically for this shot and has not been used since.

(Maurice Jarre’s theme blends well with the cinematic shots of the desert)

Music

David Lean has special place for Maurice Jarre in his movies as one would realised that in both “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”, the opening of the movie is especially dedicated for Maurice Jarre’s theme music. Maurice Jarre won 3 Oscars for Best Music and all 3 was won for David Lean’s movies.

It was reported:-

Musically, Maurice Jarre was hired to write the dramatic score, Aram Khachaturyan was handling the eastern themes and Benjamin Britten was to provide the British imperial music. Neither Khatchaturian nor Britten was able to properly get involved so Sam Spiegel hired Richard Rodgers to fill in the musical gaps.

When Spiegel and Lean heard Rodgers’ compositions, they were hugely disappointed, so they turned to Jarre to see what he had done. The minute Lean heard Jarre’s now-classic theme, he knew they had the right composer. Jarre was given the job of scoring the whole film – in a mere six weeks.

(Lawrence after rescuing Gasim – he looks at Sheriff Ali and says “nothing is written”)

DVD Copy

The copy that I have here is the restored versions which have restored almost the same as the original version. From what I read it was not easy for the restoration. The original ran for 222 minutes, and then it was cut to 202 minutes and then further to 187 minutes. Thankfully the DVD version was restored to 217 minutes although some of the scenes from the original was indeed could not be restored.

Restorer Robert Harris and editor Anne V. Coates went through 450 rusted old film cans for the 1989 restoration.

(For a movie that was made in 1962 – the restoration did justice and brought back the rich colour of the scenes)

User Comments

This user’s comment at IMDB seems to say it all:-

Ignore David Lean’s painterly technique, the way he fills the screen like a canvas. Ignore Freddie Young’s stunning cinematography in fulfilment of Lean’s vision. Ignore the fabulous score by Maurice Jarre. Ignore the stupendous cast. Ignore the top notch script.

What we have, beyond all this, is an absolutely gripping and psychologically perplexing character study of a uniquely enigmatic individual that keeps us on the edge of our seats for the full length of the movie. “Lawrence”, at over 200 minutes, goes by faster than many a movie of half its length, due to Lean’s brilliant pacing and direction, and superb acting all around. To make a comparison in the world of music, this movie, like Mahler’s 8th symphony, is a universe contained within itself.

Final say

The plus points: Almost everything

The negative points: The movie is not long enough

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