In between some of the most beloved films of English cinema of the 1940s and 1950s and the tendencies towards gigantism of 1960s big-budget filmmaking, British director David Lean found a sweet spot with Lawrence of Arabia - the sweepingly enveloping romanticised biography of soldier/scholar T. E. Lawrence and of his adventures in the Middle East during World War I. A sweet spot between not only that very British, stiff-upper-lip quality and a more grandiose sense of spectacle, but also between the past and the present, between naïveté and disillusion.

     Mr. Lean's apparently stolid, middlebrow handling is in fact wholly aware of its own classical (some would say academic) limitations and willing to transcend them: just like Lawrence's trial by fire in the desert demands that he travels its length and comes out the other side, so does Lawrence of Arabia travel the expansive trappings of the period epic to find its own core of a character study gaudily wrapped in Freddie Young's sumptuous 70mm cinematography and Maurice Jarre's heroic score. It's all the more appropriate, as the film is essentially the tale of a man who found himself attempting to bridge two worlds but in some ways an outcast of either - a nearly four-hour character study under the guise of a Boy's Own imperial adventure, but one where the hero himself seems to believe his own PR a bit too much.

     In Peter O'Toole's star-making, all-consuming portrayal of Lawrence you see a man who believed all the things the British Empire fed him, and who seizes his moment as he rallies the Arab tribes to strike at the Turks in the name of an united Arabia, but who also finds himself confronted with the venal truth of politics and power games as he realises the consequences of his acts. In between the desert and the civilisation, the dream of absolute freedom and the reality of compromises, Lawrence tastes his own humanity; Mr. Lean's exacting framing and ponderous pacing is designed to bring us with him on that journey, by forcing the viewer to adjust to the slower rhythm of the desert, to focus on what matters. And what matters, here, are the characters, simultaneously lost and found under the harsh glare of the desert sun that is almost like a revelatory, interrogating light.

     Admittedly, Lawrence of Arabia is a film of two minds, one that manages to make its apparent contradictions work on its behalf: the all-star cast working in shorthand on what are essentially supporting roles, while the more detailed strokes are painted by Mr. O'Toole as Lawrence and Omar Sharif as his trusted friend Ali Ibn el Kharish; the striking desert landscapes ravishingly but harshly photographed by Freddie Young simultaneously hiding and suggesting the inner turmoil of Lawrence, a hero caught in a trap of his own making. His tragedy is that he can no longer renege on his heroics, born of a well-meaning yet foolishly naïf worldview, convinced his achievements freed him from the terrible practicality of politics.

     Illusions can be powerful things, and just as the dutiful rhetoric of colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai was denounced as something belonging to an earlier era, so does Lawrence realise the length of the chasm between his dream of Arab independence and the reality of colonial and military politics. Lawrence of Arabia is a film that is surprisingly more modern than its reputation would suggest it to be - but one done at a scale that no cost-conscious major studio, with its test-screened filmmaking-by-committee, would allow to happen nowadays. The loss is ours.

Cast: Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy, I. S. Johar, Donald Wolfit, Omar Sharif, Peter O'Toole
Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Cinematography: F. A. Young  (Technicolor, Super Panavision 70 widescreen)
Music: Maurice Jarre
Designer: John Box
Costumes: Phyllis Dalton
Editor: Anne V. Coates
Producer: Sam Spiegel (Horizon Pictures)
United Kingdom, 1962, 227 minutes (including overture and intermission music)

Screened: 4K restoration distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, May 3rd 2013


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