Lawrence of ArabiaTo follow up his 1957 prisoner-of-war picture “The Bridge on the River Kwai” that garnered him mainstream attention, director David Lean took to retelling the life of World War One’s most famous and at the same time mysterious figure. The circumstances behind T.E. Lawrence and his mission to unite the Arab tribes against the Turkish Ottoman empire in the British interest have sparked controversy as much as they elevated Lawrence to hero status. Lean’s adaption was an instant success and is regarded today as one of the era’s masterpieces. A captivating exploration of the eccentric soldier and spy as well as an insight into the political turmoil of the Middle-East, the film is highly accomplished on every level and is in itself a reason to be a film fan.

The year is 1916 and at the height of World War I, the young Thomas Edward Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is stationed with the British army in Cairo and with the help of Mr. Dryden (Claude Rains) convinces his superiors to send him on a mission into Arabia to “assess the situation” surrounding Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness) and the Arab struggle against the occupying Turks. Fascinated by the deserts and its people, Lawrence acts against orders and begins an attempt to unite the warring tribes in their struggle for independence. Suggesting a daring strategy, Lawrence, with the help of Sheriff Ali (Omar Sharif), crosses the “uncrossable” Nefud desert and launches a surprise attack to take the Turkish stronghold of Aqaba, becoming a war hero in the process. The military success is  dangerous and delicate balance however as Lawrence’s motives become ever more distorted, he himself becoming mentally unstable. His attempts to create an Arab nation may be doomed before they have even begun.

Made in 1962, Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” stands as the crown jewel of Hollywood’s historical epic craze of the 50s and early 60s. Like “Ben Hur” and many others before, half the attraction of these epics were the impressive and costly visual spectacles presented on screen. Filmed in Jordan and Morocco, Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young’s expansive desert vistas possess an earthly beauty that could never be recreated on a computer screen, where the director’s vision of today would be explored. Presenting almost every scene in as wide and lingering shot as possible, every frame (and in a movie of almost four hours that’s quite a few) is bursting with an awe inspiring creativity. From the mirage first appearance of Sheriff Ali, the breathtaking entrance to Auda’s camp and attack on Aqaba to the horrifying massacre of Turkish wounded, never will the viewer’s interest wane. It’s escapist moviemaking at its absolute best.

However, at the same time, “Lawrence of Arabia” is as much a compelling character study as a purely visual adventure. O’Toole’s portrayal of Lawrence as a shameless exhibitionist and egomaniac is one of the more debatable aspects of the production. Regardless of historical accuracy however, the role was perfect for the rising star. Quickly gaining our sympathies with his quirky charm if not with his confused morals and ethics, he is doubtlessly not a classic hero. And as his mind becomes increasingly unhinged, particularly in the second act as his plans begin to unravel and fail, O’Toole and the screenplay never quite let the viewer get close to the character. And while this makes a convenient denouement impossible, it never becomes a hindrance to the plot and succeeds in its portrayal of a contentious personality. The part launched Peter O’Toole’s career proper, brought him his first Academy Award nomination and began a rather unfortunate series of not winning the same. The film’s other roles are equally well filled: Alec Guinness’ screen presence in pre-Ben Kenobi times is no less (despite a rather pathetic make-up overdose to try and have him look like Arabic), while Anthony Quinn deserves equal credit for his impulsive and moody Auda Abu Tayi. And as the only actual Arab, Omar Sharif delivers a performance that would repeat itself throughout his career – right up to 2004’s “Hidalgo” – but one he would never quite match.

Lawrence of Arabia OSTAs a late replacement for and unavailable Malcolm Arnold, French composer Maurice Jarre wrote “Lawrence of Arabia’s” score in a mere six weeks. That the end product was placed by the AFI on spot number three of the greatest film scores, is a testament to the genius of Jarre’s music. Adeptly fusing Middle Eastern elements into a traditional western orchestra and purposefully placed high up in the mix by Lean, the sweeping score is the perfect accompaniment to the epic imagery. Strong themes form the basis of the music, that is presented in order as an overture to the action. Although defining the identity of the British army in a spirited march, the ideas for Lawrence and the Arabs are mixed into one. Consisting of three individual segments, the theme is used liberally by Jarre more as atmospheric and mood ideas rather than as a leitmotif for character and civilisation, thus becoming extremely memorable and instantly recognisable. The score’s enduring popularity has lead to a slew of different album version over the past fifty years. Originally recorded with the London Philharmonic, the sound quality of the music heard in the film leaves much to be desired on album. Two re-recordings are of note: Firstly the remastered and most readily available Silva Screen album of the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by  Tony Bremner and secondly a 2010 complete version played by the City of Prague Philharmonic on Tadlow Records. Highly recommendable on any of the releases, this score is a must for any fan of orchestral film music.

The common phrase “They don’t make films like this any more” could not ring truer of “Lawrence of Arabia.” The sheer size of the filmmakers’ accomplishments will only become apparent on repeat viewings and perhaps some research. However, love it for the unparalleled visuals or the unusual character study (or both), David Lean’s masterpiece reminds us again and again what it means to make pure cinema.

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