This was requested a couple of years ago, which shows how long it is taking me to get through the requests. I like having a request list, though, and am always looking to add to it. It was Jeff Pike who asked for this one.
Jeff has a lot of interesting things to say about Lawrence in the link provided above: that the long first half is more engrossing than the shorter second half (Jeff would say “better”, and I’d probably agree), that the amazing desert photography engulfs the viewer, that the iconography of the Western influences the way we see the visuals. One thing I’d disagree with is when Jeff says, “There's not much character study here—it isn't that kind of movie.” I agree that most of the characters fit stereotypical roles … the acting often brings depth to those characters, but in the end, Omar Sharif is the soulful Arab, Claude Rains is the devious politician with a glint in his eye, etc. But one of the reasons I find Lawrence of Arabia odd is that it is a massive epic that offers a psychological profile of its titular character. I think it is a character study, of Lawrence.
I also disagree with Jeff, who says Peter O’Toole is “carefully wooden”. To me, O’Toole regularly seems like someone just one tiny step away from madness (and, of course, he eventually takes that step). I do think Lawrence is a confusing character … probably because it was 1962, the film only flirts with his possible homosexuality, and since they don’t come down firmly on one side or the other, Lawrence just seems a tad flighty. The progression from a man who doesn’t want to kill to a man with a deep-seated bloodlust is more sporadic than gradual. Lawrence was a complicated man, and I’m not sure how the film could be honest to his story without being complicated itself. Kael wrote, “[Robert] Bolt and Lean turn the hero into such a flamboyant poetic enigma that he is displaced in the film by a simpler hero-Omar Sharif's Ali, a handsome sheik with liquid brown eyes and conventionally sympathetic lines to speak. Ali, an old-fashioned movie hero, was more at home in what, despite the literacy, was a big action movie.”
Still, even these oddities add to the power of the film. Between Lawrence and Ali, Lean has his cake and eats it too … Lawrence is the enigma, Ali the solid one. The film is a masterpiece of epic production … every shot is perfectly placed, and if the themes are sometimes muddled, at the least we are always aware big things are going on. In the continuing discussion about the importance of form in current movie criticism, Lawrence of Arabia stands as an excellent example of a movie that is intelligent and well-acted, but which must be seen in a venue that allows for the visuals to take over. There might be an interesting small-scale movie about Lawrence the man, you could even transpose the scenes and dialogue for this film to that scale, but absent the largesse, you would have something very different from Lawrence of Arabia.
I wouldn’t call this my favorite big-budget epic from the 1950s-60s … that’s still Spartacus. But it is my favorite David Lean movie, this or Great Expectations, and in the context of the typical overblown epic from that era Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus are very much better than the competition. #22 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10. You don’t really need a companion film when Lawrence is as long as it is, but The Bridge on the River Kwai is another successful Lean epic. Doctor Zhivago, on the other hand, isn’t very successful at all.