The definitive David Lean movie. Lean’s signature films had broad, sweeping shoulders, and Lawrence of Arabia—shot on Super Panavision 70—clocks in at just under four hours. Filmed in Jordan and Morocco, the picture fully immerses you in its environments and adventures—namely, those of British soldier T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), who led a coalition of Arabian tribes in military campaigns against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Let’s start with the sand. With an eye for texture and movement, presumably much patience, and perhaps assistance from the weather, Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young use the same substance to paint an array of impressionistic portraits. As Lawrence crosses endless deserts, multiple times, the sand is inescapable but always evolving. A malevolent, blinding force in the heat of the day and a lovely ripple in the light of the moon, it’s not so much a feature of the landscape as it is a forbidding, alluring character.
As the lead character, O’Toole gives a singular performance, refraining from portraying the man as might be expected: as masculine conquerer or capable British officer. Instead, he’s the warrior as theatrical performer. Especially once Lawrence is gifted a traditional robe—notably blindingly white, with polished gold adornments—he twirls and prances as if he’s on a stage. At one point, after his men have derailed a Turkish train, Lawrence climbs to the top of a car and delicately steps across its roof, as if he’s in a ballet. (Lean and Young are sure to capture the flowing shadow that he casts on the dune behind him.) Certainly, O’Toole is over-the-top—his face is almost always quivering, either in joy, violent ecstasy, or mournful anguish—but so is the character he’s playing. This is a man who is always “on,” especially in his own mind.
That ego is also Lawrence’s tragic downfall, and part of the demythologizing of British exceptionalism that Lean and screenwriter Robert Bolt, working from the real Lawrence’s own writings, have in mind. Lawrence ultimately comes undone not because he takes on more than he can handle, but because each time he returns from the desert a bit more broken by the violence and hoping to quit, his manipulative superiors feed his savior complex until they convince him to return for another campaign. Ultimately he’s betrayed and broken by his country, which comes off as a pillaging force more than anything.
If the film has a conscience, it belongs to Omar Sharif’s Sherif Ali, a leader for one of the tribes that falls under Lawrence’s command. Ali, who repeatedly tries to restrain Lawrence’s most savage impulses, has one of the greatest entrances in film history. Fairly early on, as Lawrence and a guide are resting by a remote well, we see a black-clad figure seem to appear far, far off in the shimmering distance. (Lean famously had a line painted in the sand to look like a path, drawing our eye into the depths of the frame.) We wait, and like Lawrence—who stumbles for a moment because he can’t take his eyes off the forming figure—we’re not sure what to expect: a gracious host, a merciless murderer, or some otherworldly specter.
Lawrence of Arabia has other astonishing visual flourishes, including the sudden edit that takes us from a close-up of Lawrence quickly blowing out a match to the widescreen image of the slowly rising desert sun. The movie manages both senses of scale—the intimate and the expansive—with equal majesty, merging them into something moving, mesmerizing, and poetic, in a way only Lean movies could really manage.