After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.
An inordinately complex man who has been labeled everything from hero, to charlatan, to sadist, Thomas Edward Lawrence blazed his way to glory in the Arabian desert, then sought anonymity as a common soldier under an assumed name. The story opens with the death of Lawrence in a motorcycle accident in Dorset at the age of 46, then flashbacks to recount his adventures: as a young intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916, he is given leave to investigate the progress of the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War I. In the desert, he organizes a guerrilla army and--for two years--leads the Arabs in harassing the Turks with desert raids, train-wrecking and camel attacks. Eventually, he leads his army northward and helps a British General destroy the power of the Ottoman Empire. Written by
I first saw this film on its release, aged 13, and it forms an important part of my transition towards adulthood. I am pleased to see that it consistently rates 20something in the IMDb listings, even from others (whom I envy, for I can't see it with fresh eyes) who are seeing it for the first time. Pleasing too is that some of those are also teenagers, for whom a forty-three year old film must itself seem part of the past. As for the minority who are bored by intentionally slow pacing (and for whom punctuation, paragraphing and grammar are a lost art), I suggest they learn a little about the history of film-making (from which it may become apparent that much of today's fast editing techniques were invented in the 1920s: try Eisenstein's October, for example).
From the universally admired cinematography of Freddie Young, the long shot of Omar Sharif's floating mirage entry, the pre-CGI battles and pan-up scene changes, to O'Toole's florid but career-defining performance and the (then) novel time-shift narrative, this film set standards not matched even by Lean himself, and, as many reviewers have commented, financially and practically unlikely to be attempted today. I too have rarely seen such clarity of image outside of Imax, and in my view the script by Robert Bolt (and I now have learnt, an uncredited Michael Wilson) is the finest in cinema. Maurice Jarre's music and some of the acting style now seem a little excessive, but repeated viewing (around 35 times in my case) does not diminish the impact and quality, and the restoration and now DVD release still, after all these years, approaches the effect of that first 1962 viewing.
It is rare that repeated watching of a film (as opposed to a live performance) does this, and the reasons go beyond the photography, performances and editing. In my opinion, it is because the characterisation and storytelling encourage an appreciation of the ambiguity and inconsistency behind our motives and behaviour, and, in a wartime scenario, in the contrast between political expedience and personal morality. For a 13-year old, this opened a window into the adult world, and it explains why the story has resonance far beyond its setting. The film doesn't require an understanding of middle-east politics (though it does have some very current relevance), but it does require an ability to look, listen and understand. The fact that so many people rate it so highly says everything about its wider impact. When The Matrix and even Lord of the Rings have slipped out of the ratings (and the adolescents who inhabit these pages have grown up), I believe this film will still be in the 20s or 30s, perhaps enabling young people to once again see the world through adult eyes.
Like Ali, I fear Lawrence. I fear the power of art to change us, to challenge our preconceptions. Every time I see this film I learn a little more, discover something new. When I was 13 I didn't understand much, but this film helped me to see that I wanted more, knew more, than my peers. I can't rate it more highly than that.
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