Full Disclosure: Epic is a term that gets thrown around quite a lot these days. I hear that word maybe thirty times a week, almost never in the right context. To me the word “epic” means something huge, vast, and complex. Epic, in my mind, is connected to ideas that are all encompassing and universally relatable. “Epic” is not a synonym of “cool.” When the words “epic film” hit my ears, they better refer to a large scale spectacle that will take my breath away, and then make me think about the story and themes for weeks afterward. It is for this reason that I love epics.
Lawrence of Arabia is, by many accounts, The Epic Film, an assertion that I agree with wholeheartedly. The cinematography alone is enough to make me giddy with excitement and almost childlike wonder at what I am experiencing. It is such a huge movie that even though I have a television that is much too large for the room where it sits, when I play Lawrence of Arabia on blu-ray at home, the picture simply isn’t big enough. I doubt a projected home theater system would solve the problem. If there were ever a movie that was absolutely meant to be seen in the theater on the biggest screen possible, it is this one.
Lawrence of Arabia opened in theaters back in 1962. It was immediately recognized as a masterpiece of cinema, and the acclaim since then has only increased. Directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Jackson have called it one of the greatest and most monumental films ever made. Needless to say, it has gained a reputation for being a “must see” film. The sheer abundance of critical praise can seem daunting, and may elevate this film to a point of deification that no work of art could hope to match. For that reason, I think it’s important to mitigate this review and detail exactly why it has such a reputation, instead of merely gushing over it like a wet sponge full of acclaim, the previous section notwithstanding.
To many audiences of the day, the story of T.E. Lawrence was well known, especially in his native England. The sweep and grandeur of his story seemed ripe for film, but for various reasons it was never adapted to the screen until David Lean directed this film as his follow-up to The Bridge on the River Kwai, a film that was similarly acclaimed and went on to win seven Oscars in 1958. Lean and his producing partner Sam Spiegel wanted to work together again on another large scale picture, so when they were given the opportunity to make a film based on the life of T.E. Lawrence, they eagerly accepted.
To modern day audiences, the story is less familiar, despite the popularity of the film. Much of Lawrence’s fade from at least the American field of view has much to do with the similar fade of World War I from our cultural consciousness. Nevertheless, Lawrence’s story is still extraordinary, and reveals a great deal about the sources of the current state of conflict in the Middle East. This cultural context is especially important when watching the film as a work of political art, as it focuses on one man’s attempt to shape the world to how he sees fit, and the devastating consequences that result.
But the film is not simply an examination of the political past. At its heart, Lawrence of Arabia is a character study, and a deep one. Over nearly 4 hours of film, Lawrence’s soul is laid to bare, exposed for us to judge and contemplate. The story itself follows T.E. Lawrence from his role as a map maker in the British Army to the leader of the Arab revolts against the Turkish Empire during World War I. The film begins with Lawrence’s death, then moves back to when he was first tasked with finding the prince of the Bedouin tribes and “assessing the situation.” We follow Lawrence as he leads, with insubordination and reckless daring, a small regiment of Arabs, grows it into an army though diplomacy and trickery, and uses it to take the coastal city of Aqaba. It is here that most filmmakers would have ended the story, letting Lawrence revel in his triumph for all time. Lean however, is much more interested in seeing the man behind the myth, and discovering the “true” Lawrence. A famous line from the movie is shouted at a stoic and ghostly Lawrence from a distance, “Who are you?” This line was spoken by Lean himself, as if trying to grasp at Lawrence’s spirit and make him talk. No, Lean allows Lawrence to fail, and in spectacular fashion. It is this character arc that makes the film unique; because it gives us enough time to experience his journey as a man, we can believe that Lawrence’s greatness was earned, and then lost, and we can make our own conclusions as to who, in fact, was the real person.
One of the most famous aspects of the film is its sweeping shots of the desert with the sun rising in the distance on an impossibly flat horizon. The kind of scale involved in this movie is almost never seen in film anymore, and when it is it is usually computer generated. The movie was shot using the Super Panavision 70 camera system, which uses 70 mm film. This type of film stock is rarely used today because it is extremely expensive, but the resolution and clarity that it is capable of are unmatched. The movie seems to permeate the screen, and transform it into a window. The color of the settings is especially vibrant. One of my personal favorite shots is of Lawrence and his two servants riding off into a blazing orange sunset. The level of detail is simply staggering. We are able to see each man in an army of thousands as they storm a city. And the best part, what makes the visuals that much more impressive, is that it is all real—that it was actually planned, choreographed, executed, and shot on film.
With such tangible enormity, the film could have lost its characters among the visuals. However, these wide shots are equally important in establishing what Lawrence himself sees in the desert and thus establishing his character, as they are to creating an environment for the viewer. What’s even more interesting is that while these wide open shots are rightfully famous for their grandeur and power, they are mainly in the first half of the film. While it never loses its sense of scale, the film seems to zoom in on Lawrence over the course of the story, trying to close in on him and discover the last vestiges of such a complicated man.
Peter O’Toole is probably the only human being still living who could explain Lawrence. His performance is that good. The way he holds his body throughout the film is particularly important. O’Toole is hunched forward and gangly in the beginning of the film, wearing his army uniform like an uncomfortable sweater. When he changes into his now famous Hareth robes, he seems to evolve, growing into a regal and stately figure, and a force to be reckoned with. His facial expressions are telling but not telegraphed, and always seem filled with more than one emotion at the same time, like different aspects of Lawrence’s personality, his egotism and his morality for example, are battling within him. Through O’Toole’s performance, we forget we are watching a movie, and instead believe that what we are witnessing is indeed Lawrence himself.
The genius of his performance can be summed up in two connected scenes, although it shouldn’t be. After first putting on his Hareth robes, Lawrence takes out his dagger and looks at the reflection of himself, childish and proud. Later, after instigating the slaughter of a battalion of Turks, Lawrence sees himself in this same dagger, now covered in blood, a lost and destroyed soul, caught in a storm of his own making. We believe this transition, because we have seen everything that has come before, and have seen the change in Lawrence, slowly but surely, just like the shifting of a sand dune over the desert.