Lawrence of Arabia Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Yes, it was my privilege to know him and to make him known to the world. He was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior... he was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey.

"Lawrence of Arabia" has everything going against it. It is a slowly-paced picture runs three-and-a-half hours long. There are no female characters, so any kind of romance is out of the question. Most of the film takes place in the arid wastelands of the desert. Other than a few battle sequences, this film is mostly composed of the banter between the title character, T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and the various desert denizens he comes across. But somehow, this film won Best Picture at the 1962 Academy Awards and is listed as one of the top films ever made. In 1989, a new director's cut was released, reintegrating 35 minutes of 'lost' footage found in the film vaults of Columbia Pictures under the painstaking care of Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten over a 19 month period (contrast to the length of time spent on making the original film-- 18 months).

Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution.

This film chronicles the efforts of T.E. Lawrence, an officer in the British Army during the First World War. He is sent out into the desert to convince Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) to lend his support to the British against the Turks. Along the way, he comes across different factions of the Arab people, under the leadership of Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). As the story progresses, Lawrence gradually adopts the lifestyle of the Arabs that he admires, turns his back on the British Army, and unites the various tribes against the Turks. The quirky character of T.E. Lawrence succeeds because of two things: he appeals to the self-interest of the Arabs to convince them of the need to attack the Turks, and because he is an outsider, the tribes feel comfortable with his leadership since he has no understanding or interest in the long-simmering conflicts between the various factions.

Is that [Britain] a desert country?
No, a fat country, fat people.
You are not fat?
No, I am different.

Technically, it is a stunning film, shot on 70mm (most films these days are filmed on 35mm and blown up to 70mm for the theatre), preserving the rich detail and cinematography of David Lean's direction. Ideally, this film would be best seen in the theatre. The videotape, though an excellent widescreen transfer that captures the panoramic shots of the desert landscape, suffers because of the decreased resolution of television screens. The most noticeable loss of resolution occurs at the beginning of the film, when Sherif Ali first appears on horseback. In the theatre, as you watch the shimmering sand and sky, a tiny black dot appears on the horizon, which after a long wait, gradually becomes a man on a horse-- Sherif Ali. On the television screen, you still see the desert, but the black dot is indistinguishable in the background. But still, much of the film does translate well onto video. The dolly-shot used in the approach towards the Bedouin camp is absolutely stunning in terms of the sheer scope of the image-- tents, Bedouins, and jagged rocks stretching off into the distance. And the amazing thing about shots like these was that no matte paintings were used-- all the landscape you see is real. Now contrast this to a more recent film that tried to capture the epic quality of films like LOA, "Stargate". Though this sci-fi epic had fantastic desert landscapes and swarms of extras, it was technology that made it possible. Seamlessly-integrated computer graphics combined matte-paintings and sets together, and a cast of hundreds was multiplied into a cast of thousands via 'cut-and-paste' technology.

Ooh! It damn well hurts!
Certainly it hurts.
What's the trick then?
The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

There are certain spots where the restorations are apparent, especially with the looping of dialogue. For example, about two-thirds of the way through the film, there is a conversation between Prince Feisal and Lawrence, and Feisal's voice suddenly changes in tone and inflection before the cut-away-- Harris and Painten had found the footage without any corresponding soundtrack, so they asked Alec Guinness to go into the studio to re-record his dialogue for this scene.

All in all, it is a stunning film to look at, though I found it a little bit too talky without being deep. As one of my colleagues said, "This is so 'English Patient'". Yes, it was to a certain extent, though it lacked the symbolism and subtext found in "The English Patient". Recommended, but it would be best to watch it over a period of two nights, because of the length (I nodded off towards the end).

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