David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia is one of several films labeled as historical epics, and is arguably the most celebrated. But what does it mean, exactly, for a film to be epic? The American Heritage dictionary provides three adjectival definitions for epic. The first is that it is suggestive of a literary epic, a narrative celebrating the feats of a legendary or traditional hero. Focusing on the real-life T.E. Lawrence, the film is certainly that. The second definition is that it surpasses the ordinary in size and scope. At nearly four hours in length, the film is most assuredly epic by that definition.
The third definition, and the one most popular on the internet today, is that it is heroic and impressive in quality. And Lawrence of Arabia is most assuredly epic by that definition as well.
Mel Gibson, eat your brave heart out.
The story is about T.E. Lawrence, a young British officer who is sent to appraise the situation of the Arab revolt against the Turks during the first world war. Lawrence proceeds to interpret his orders as helping the revolt to take place, trying to spur the Arabs into acting as a cohesive unit, driving them to oust the Turks from a previously impregnable stronghold, and gradually forming something resembling a nation. To say he exceeds his officers’ expectations is an understatement.
Lawrence is played by a young Peter O’Toole in his first lead role. Normally it would be something of a backhanded compliment, a joking insult, to say that an actor peaked so early in their career. Here it would simply be an honest acknowledgement of the exceptional quality of his performance. Lawrence is a deeply conflicted man, requiring a deeply nuanced performance. He is a soldier, but hates bloodshed, yet finds he has a taste for it which he despises in himself. He loves the Arab people, but has deep contempt for them from their inter-tribal squabbling. He embraces Arab customs while holding himself apart from them. He is plagued with self doubt, constantly telling his British superiors he is not the man for the job; yet he has something bordering on a Messiah complex in his faith that the Arabs will follow him anywhere. O’Toole portrays all these complex emotions with a deft hand, with an incredible intensity and a great deal of range.
And an extravagance befitting Lawrence the showman.
O’Toole is surrounded by great actors as well. His military superiors don’t get much focus, but there are solid performances from Donald Wolfit, Jack Hawkins, and Claude Rains. But out in the desert, there are a host of individuals who have their own agendas and personalities, and their actors are often nearly as fascinating to watch as O’Toole. Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton provides a more traditional counterpart to Lawrence, particularly early on. Arthur Kennedy as American reporter Jackson Bentley provides someone for Lawrence to show off to and explain things to. But it’s the Arab characters who nearly steal the show, even from the commanding performance O’Toole gives. Omar Sharif plays the Sherif Ali, the main tribal leader that Lawrence interacts with, and there’s a great deal of tension between the two, with Ali respecting and fearing Lawrence all at the same time. Anthony Quinn plays Auda Abu Tayi, another tribal leader, who is loud and presumptive and provides another dramatic foil for Lawrence. The contrast between Ali and Auda is striking, and all three personages play well off each other. And then there’s the esteemed Alec Guinness, who as Prince Feisal is nearly as compelling as O’Toole’s performance as Lawrence, despite having much less screen time.
Additionally, in this film of great performances, mention must be made of José Ferrer’s scene as a Turkish Bey; it doesn’t last long, but he is memorable and threatening as the only visible villain of the picture.
The film was shot beautifully as well. The desert has seldom looked so beautiful, probably because it’s not an easy feat to achieve. But it’s done very well here. Director David Lean manages to transition seamlessly between expansive shots of the scenery and close focuses on the characters. Scenes are further elevated by the terrific score. In perhaps the only questionable decision in the film, Lean even devotes the first five minutes to a sort of operatic overture, playing the music while showing only a matte black screen.
The “do not adjust your set” aspect aside, it’s still a nice musical treat. Just sit back and enjoy, the movie will start soon enough. And after that, there is seldom a dull or wasted moment in the entire film. At three hours and forty-seven minutes, it seems like there ought to be something that should have been trimmed… but nothing comes to mind. Every single minute feels important, and is interesting to watch. The film was originally shown with an intermission, and this may still be a reasonable way to view it today, but a shorter cut would be a travesty. It’s great through and through.
Long? Yes. Worth it? Also yes.
Due to its length, Lawrence of Arabia may not be an impulse viewing for most people. But it’s still a very worthy picture to check out when you have the time to devote to it. I would say that your patience would be rewarded, but very little patience is actually required, as there is nary a tiring moment in the film. The film may be four hours long, but it’s well worth those four hours.