Lawrence of Arabia is a small epic. I don’t mean this as anything more than a compliment. So many epics get bogged down with too many storylines, complicated action sequences where the viewer can’t understand what is going on (I am looking at you Transformers), or costume design to be considered a success. This film takes it subject matter of a British solider deciding to lead an Arab revolt and made so simple that even a child could understand it (whether or not they would want to sit still for almost four hours is another matter). This simplification however does not make the subject matter any less interesting.
Based on the myth of T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia stars Peter O’Toole in the title role as a young, crazy Englishman in love with the desert. At one point Prince Fasil (played by the monumental Alec Guinness) commented that “only Englishmen fall in love with the desert. Real Arabs fall in love with trees and water. There is nothing in the desert.” This comment describes Lawrence so well. He is so in love with the Middle East that he will do anything in order to stay in it. Prickling at the thought of going home to Britain or even obtaining an advancement in rank, he prefers to be among the tribal people fighting for their freedom and eating crazy amounts of dust. Although the Arabs wonder at his motivations, they are soon won over by his devotion and ability to travel long distances without complaining. In fact he suggests feats that would kill regular people, but he accomplishes them with just his lonely camel and his two servants. He shows compassion about the price of human life, but as the film progresses this distresses him more and more. At one point he found that he actually got a thrill from killing two people who were close to him. Through trials and tribulations, Lawrence becomes a hero to the Arab and British people alike. He also becomes a modern-day myth in American newspapers thanks to a journalist who travels around with him and photographs a British man in an Arab uniform. But all of these victories belie a sense of incompleteness and a developing need for bloodshed.
Watching a man appear in the horizon and slowly move towards the camera is made incredibly fascinating by the cinematography. The whole film seems to pause when an enemy or upon waiting for Lawrence to reappear with his fallen comrade and all you see is gorgeous desert. I want to make sure that I say here that Freddie Young deserved the Oscar and maybe possibly to be made director of everything in the world forever and ever for his work here as cinematographer. Something that I found fascinating when I started research on the making of this film was that Mr. Young used a 482mm Panavision camera lens to film the character Sharif Ali emerge from a mirage. The lens was especially constructed for this shot and has never been used ever again. The whole film was also shot on 70mm, one of the last films to be shot at this cumbersome width. (Many films are shot at a lower 32 or 38mm and then upconverted to 70mm prints after production.) This might seem dry to you but to me it is fascinating.
I only have one regret with this film. I wish I could have seen it in a movie theater. My television tragically too small in order to be totally overwhelmed by this film. I bet when people first saw this film projected n all of its 70mm glory, people were dazed for days afterwards. That is what I want to be. I hope my beloved art theater shows it soon.