Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - Classic Review

There are a number of "classic" films that many would consider a prerequisite watch  before ever talking about or reviewing films seriously. Well, this reviewer has seen his fair share over the years but there are still a good number that remain unseen to these eyes. So, in an effort to right this wrong this review column has been created to document the first viewing of these "Golden Oldies of the Silver Screen" by this particular reviewer.

The criteria for these reviews is the same as any other review and despite the historic signifigance of any one particular film, they will all be treated the same. That does not mean their status as a classic will be neglected, it just won't influence the final verdict on the film. These are the opinions of a film lover seeing these classics for the very first time. So, this time the film in question is the David Lean sweeping epic "Lawrence of Arabia".

Review Vital Stats

Release Date: December 21, 1962 
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn
Directed by: David Lean
Total Lifetime Grosses: $44,824,144 figures courtesy of
Distributed by: Columbia
Most memorable quote/moment: T.E. Lawrence: "The best of them won't come for money; they'll come for me".
Fun Fact: This was Peter O'Toole's very first lead role in a film.

David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia is widely considered to be a game changer for Hollywood and one of the greatest films ever made. It's influence on modern cinema is incalcuable. Legendary filmmakers such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have hailed it as one of the visual benchmarks for films of its time. It also featured legendary actor Peter O'Toole in his most celebrated role, as it is also his very first starring role in a feature length film (his title credit says, "Introducing, Peter O'Toole").

There is no doubt about it, watching Lawrence of Arabia for the first time is an awe-inspiring experience. Even after seeing countless other epics based on real life historical figures, Lean's film still stands out as a staggering accomplishment, both narratively and visually. Then when you take into account the exacting detail of everything by Lean, from the casting, to the locations, to the sweeping soundtrack, the film takes on a whole new meaning. It trancends ordinary filmmaking and becomes just like Lawrence himself, it becomes a symbol for others to aspire to and/or follow.

Right out the gate the film ditches normal conventions and lets us know immediately the fate of our protagonist. When we witness the death of T.E. Lawrence, it feels almost insignificant at first which is contrasted beautifully later on when we discover the extraordinary life he led. The monumental feats he achieved, the number of times he brushed with certain death but escaped unscathed, it all makes his death that much more tragic in hindsight and helps create one of cinemas most iconic characters.

Much of the praise must be given to Peter O'Toole though, who was given a role that every actor only dreams, especially for their first leading performance. T.E. Lawrence is one of the most interesting characters to ever grace the silver screen. When we first meet him proper he is pompous and more importantly, very elegant in how he presents himself. But under that facade beats the heart of a true adventurer, a man who yearns to discover himself and when he is given orders to report to Arabia to act as a liason, he sees his opportunity and seizes it where his accomplishments become the thing of legend.

O'Toole captures this hidden manic sense of self importance with the elegance of a true Hollywood star. Watching him transform from this self entitled British officer into a desert tyrant and then finally into a hopelessly broken man is endlessly engaging and not once does it ever feel forced. He is joined by a formidable supporting cast which includes David Lean faithfuls Jack Hawkins and Alec Guinness, who despite playing an Arab King avoids the many pitfalls of a white man portraying another ethnic group and gives the character a great amount of dignity.

Omar Sharif may have been making films well before his turn as Lawrence's right hand man Sherif Ali, but this (and Lean's follow up feature Doctor Zhivago) made him a star. The chemistry between Sharif and O'Toole is instantly noticeable as these two men who must work together despite their differences and eventually come to trust one another with their very lives. Lastly there is Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi, a rebel leader who aids Lawerence in his conquest of Arabia but is hardly reliable. Quinn hams it up a bit too much at times though and is about the only distracting performance in the entire film.

Even with all that star power, it's the landscape itself and the masterful cinematography by Freddie Young that steals the show nearly every time. With most of the film shot on location in Morocco and Spain, there is no shortage of draw dropping locales to behold. Even with its monotone brown color palette and sparse sand and rock terrain, the vistas never cease to amaze. While not the first epic to come out of Hollywood, it is clear as day that Lean's film set a standard for the modern day epic that is still held up to today.

Aside from the obvious technical differences between filmmaking back in that era when compared to the present, it is hard not to be impressed by what everyone accomplished with this film. It is grand film experience that deserves every ounce of the praise that has been laid upon it over the years. This may not be Lean's best film ("The Bridge On The River Kwai" gets that honor"), it is without a doubt a monumental achievement and stands tall as a testament to the golden age of filmmaking. If you to have never seen Lawrence of Arabia, do yourself a favor and see it as soon as possible, you will not regret it. Just make sure to set aside a few hours before you begin this epic journey into greatness.




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