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Review: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Directed by: David Lean

Premise: The true story of T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British officer who rallied Arab tribes to revolt against the Turks during World War I.

What Works: Lawrence of Arabia is a fascinating film to watch because it is an old film with a very contemporary style and mind. As Lawrence rallies and leads the tribesmen to overcome centuries of blood feuds and self-destructive traditions, he finds himself confronted with issues that are eerily relevant to the contemporary age. Lawrence of Arabia deals with the forging of the modern Middle East and the film raises very important questions and problems for Lawrence as he must ask who he is fighting for, Arabs or Europeans, and why. Commercial interests and political goals sabotage the idealism and this film neither gives itself over to cynicism nor does it blindly praise naïve idealism. Instead, Lawrence of Arabia finds its story conflicts in the places where those two mindsets clash and is able to dig up some compelling ideas while telling a great story. The portrayal of the Arabs in Lawrence of Arabia is extremely progressive, even by the standards of contemporary cultural awareness, and the film presents acts of barbarity not as a matter of race or culture but as a matter of circumstance and choice. One of the remarkable things about director David Lean’s major works, and especially Lawrence of Arabia, is how contemporary his films look and sound. Compared to many other films of the early 1960s, and especially those of the pre-New Hollywood era, many scenes of Lawrence of Arabia look like they could have been shot very recently. The composition of the cinematography and the editing of the film have a style to them that makes the picture still cinematically relevant and the influence can be seen in films being made today by filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott. The score of Lawrence of Arabia is also worth mentioning. It has a large orchestral sound, but it also includes local sounds and instruments and manages to add an ethnic flavor that enriches the film. The score is also notable because it is used in exactly the right places and never over-used or used in a sentimental way.

What Doesn’t: Compared to films like Kingdom of Heaven or Braveheart, there is not nearly as much action in Lawrence of Arabia as a contemporary epic. The film is also much more complex than most other films of its kind and it resists the morally simplistic rabble rousing that this genre sometimes falls into. Lawrence of Arabia’s complexity should not be taken as a negative but today’s audiences should be aware of the storytelling style.

DVD extras: Documentary, conversation with Steven Spielberg, featurettes, talent files, advertising gallery.

Bottom Line: Lawrence of Arabia is one of the great movies, an essential picture that fans of cinema must take time to watch. It is long but it is also a beautiful and complex piece of work.

Episode: #235 (April 12, 2009)