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
The moment David Lean makes you aware you are in the hands of a master comes early on in "Lawrence of Arabia." Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) holds a lit match close to his lips and with one quick puff of air blows it out. Before the action is even completed, however, Lean has cut to a shot of a desert vista, with the sun slowly rising over the lip of the horizon. It's one of the most famous elliptical edits in cinema history, second maybe only to the bone/spaceship cut in "2001: A Space Odyssey." And it's only the first of countless memorable moments in "Lawrence of Arabia." The appeal of David Lean epics has always been his ability as a director to maintain an equilibrium between the scope of his films and the characters in them. Character development is never sacrificed to massive set pieces or knock-your-socks-off action sequences. "Lawrence of Arabia" has these elements too, but at heart it's a character study of one remarkable man. Lean seemed to understand that impressive landscapes alone are not inherently interesting; but if you place a fascinating character among those impressive landscapes, you can have movie magic.
"Lawrence" feels unlike other historical epics of its time. In most "big" films--I'm thinking of movies like "Ben-Hur," "Spartacus," "Cleopatra," all movies that premiered roughly around the same time as "Lawrence"--one gets the sense that directors framed compositions based on how much they were able to fit into their widescreen lenses. One rarely sees characters filmed from anything closer than a medium shot, and usually the background is stuffed to overflowing with garish art direction. Everything feels static and wooden. But in "Lawrence," Lean keeps his frames constantly alive by juxtaposing huge landscape shots with extreme close-ups of actor faces. In one especially brutal scene, after a battle that results in the slaughter of many people, the action cuts to a close-up of O'Toole, looking panicked and crazed, gripping a bloody knife in his hand as if he's reluctant to drop it, obviously both disturbed and titillated by the carnage he just witnessed. It's moments like that---not just an impressive battle scene but a character's reactions to the results of that scene---that set "Lawrence" apart from other standard epics.
And of course, I have to reserve space in my review for the performance of Mr. O'Toole. He is perhaps my favorite actor, not one of the most prolific, but certainly one of the most unpredictable. He has a flair for choosing eccentric characters that give him almost unlimited room in which to perform. He carries "Lawrence of Arabia" almost singlehandedly on his slim shoulders. That's not to say the supporting cast isn't great, but O'Toole towers above them all. O'Toole understands that the most influential figures in history could also be the most difficult and ruthless when they needed to be, and he gives Lawrence an incredibly complex characterization, leaving his audience in doubt as to whether he should be worshiped or feared, or perhaps both.
Lean would never direct an equal to "Lawrence of Arabia" again. His later films are certainly more than watchable, and "A Passage to India" is even quite remarkable in its own way, but we would never get another "Lawrence." Even more reason to appreciate it now.
My Grade: A+
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