If D.W. Griffith is the father of epic films, then David Lean's 1962 historical epic Lawrence of Arabia is the prodigal son. A masterfully shot and superbly acted film, Lawrence of Arabia is impossible not to enjoy even though it clocks in at nearly four hours in length. Next to Kes, which I have yet to see, this film appears to be the masterpiece of British cinema on all accounts. This film, like no other I am aware of, jumps between genres flawlessly. In one moment the film is a war film, at others a melodrama and in yet other moments poetic realist film. Loosely describe as a drama, Lawrence of Arabia is something far grander, it is neither a simple biography, nor is it a sweeping study of World War I. It is as impossible to perfectly describe this film, as it was for characters to perfectly describe the title characters life. What David Lean offers is a series of vignettes about a controversial hero and he does so beautifully.
Lawrence of Arabia, as the title suggests, chronicles a brief period in the life of British historical figure T.E. Lawrence who is played flamboyantly by a young Peter O'Toole. The film begins with Lawrence's untimely death via a motorcycle accident, which leads to reporters attempting to find an in-depth and accurate account of the icons life. Reporters are quickly disappointed when they realize that Lawrence's past is rather convoluted and those who claimed his companionship know little, if nothing, about his life. A reporter stumbles upon a man who claims to know a decent bit about the late veteran's life and begins the story of how Lawrence forever changed relations with Britain and the Arabic world. A younger Lawrence is introduced to viewers as a rebellious college educated man who sees the war as futile and is simply floating by in his post, assuming little will change between feuding Middle Eastern tribes. However, Lawrence's desires to remain anonymous through the war quickly change when he is appointed to gather better information about the feuding tribes. Agreeing reluctantly, Lawrence endeavors on a quest through the Arabian desert to discover the larger issues of Arabian relations. On his quest, Lawrence discovers not only the illogical nature of the feuds between the tribes, but much about his own passive participation in the oppression of the native peoples. In a fit of disillusionment, Lawrence takes it upon himself to repair the entirity of Arabian relations, often sacrificing his livelihood in the process. His quest leads him to encounters with a veritable who's who of British actors circa 1960, including Alec Guiness as the paranoid Prince Feisal, Anthony Quinn as a head of a feuding Arabian tribe, and Omar Shariff as Sherif Ali, a cautious Arabian who at first sees Lawrence as a threat, only to discover a bond with him greater than tribal feuds. After various desert treks, train attacks/robberies and a rather unproductive political council, Lawrence realizes his efforts, no matter how grand, are useless. The intervention of Lawrence, and Britain as a whole, cannot assure peace in Arabia...only the people of Arabia can assure such things. The film closing, while cynical, shows Lawrence returning to England, his "home," to concern himself with his own countries issues.
The fact that this films closing portions focus heavily on Britain's failed interventions is the Middle East is of note to me. Lawrence of Arabia is very much an anti-imperialist film. Sure Lawrence proves beneficial to those he aids, but he is also fatal to those he opposes, most notably the Turks who he kills on countless occasions throughout the film both passively and actively. Even in the face of adhering to Arabian tradition, Lawrence finds joy in the destruction of what we can safely call the other. It is tough to determine whether Lean is praising or criticizing Lawrence for his interventions, however, it is obvious that Lean is showing their futility. I find this film to be terribly pertinent to a global audience, but more specifically to an American audience. I am elated by the fact that troops will be removed from Iraq by the end of this December, however, I am also quite aware that this only represents a small fraction of our involvement in the Middle East, which could continue well into the next decade. I know it seems rather silly, but I cannot help but wonder if our government could not learn a few things from watching this film, particularly the fact that Western intervention does not necessarily imply a positive advancement. In many instances, it is quite hazardous to countries advancements. We have seen this in many of our previous war efforts and a film like Lawrence of Arabia only reminds viewers of its inherent problems.
Ignoring my political diatribe, I cannot emphasize this film enough. As is the case with my last review of Chinatown, Lawrence of Arabia still lacks a Blu-Ray release. As such, a DVD will have to suffice. I strongly encourage you to set a few hours from your day aside to watch this masterpiece...it will stick with you.