It has been over six months since I last wrote about my thoughts on what I see as a ‘Classic Movie’; I promised then that there would be more like that post, and then… there weren’t. Yeah. Sorry about that. My excuse (which you shouldn’t believe) was that I simply couldn’t choose a particular film to write about. There are so many films of incredible significance, cultural or historical, that I just couldn’t make a decision. Seeing the digital re-release of Lawrence of Arabia a few days ago, however, ultimately made that decision for me.
Directed by widescreen legend (and fellow south-Londoner) David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia depicts in truly epic fashion the exploits of the controversial British Army Officer T.E. Lawrence, who had a key role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire from 1916-18. While showing some of the events of that revolt as they unfold, the film is mostly a meditation on Lawrence’s character: his conflicted loyalties, his issues with violence and inflicting pain, and so on. Peter O’Toole, in his first major role and the one which he is continually defined by, plays Lawrence, and the supporting cast includes Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn.
I will be totally frank: the only place to really see this film is in a cinema. I was incredibly lucky to see it the first time round a few days ago at the BFI Southbank, featuring a moving curtain covering the screen, an actual interval splitting up the near four-hour length and a musical overture. Were it not for the mobile phone usage and chatter during the latter, I would have felt utterly immersed in a vintage cinematic environment. And that’s exactly what the film needs. As long as cinema continues, as long as directors keep directing and budgets keep escalating, there will never be anything like Lawrence of Arabia ever again.
Maybe it is the length. Maybe it’s the exquisite cinematography. Maybe it’s the intense portrayal of character. Perhaps it’s just the 1950s and 60s epic sensibility, of using thousands of extras as opposed to CGI, and the booming, rousing score. But there was something about the film that just struck me when I left the cinema, and not a day has passed when it has not entered my mind.
Mostly, it was to do with the visuals; the images from the film profoundly affected me from beginning to end. David Lean, with his cinematographer Freddie Young, introduce the flaming desert by instantly cutting from a scene where Lawrence blows out a match to a striking, orange-tinted landscape, where the blazing sun slowly rises in the distance. Another very memorable scene is shot in an expansive desert, where Lawrence witnesses a figure on a camel emerging from a distant mirage. Lean doesn’t quicken the pace but holds the audience in anticipation as this tiny, distant dot trots closer to the scene. That figure will turn out to be Sherif Ali, a key character, but the ambiguity and scope of his arrival is truly unique and marks the film’s incredible visual look. (That scene was filmed with a special 482mm lens from Panavision, which has not been used since.)
And what of the acting? Peter O’Toole was Oscar-nominated for his starring role although he didn’t win – he would go on to be nominated a further seven times, still without success. Despite Noël Coward’s comment after seeing the film that, were O’Toole any prettier, it would have to be ‘renamed Florence of Arabia‘, Lawrence’s conflicted, tormented self is brutally and psychologically portrayed, adding a very dark and menacing edge.
Indeed, the story and the intense ideas about Lawrence’s psyche are as epic as the film’s production values. The script, principally written by Michael Wilson but perfected by Robert Bolt, explores Lawrence’s egoism and his mental decline in detail while never seeming sentimental or clunky. It also, interestingly, includes some very topical discussion about the Suez Canal in terms of British interest; the film came out in 1962, five years following the Suez Crisis.
The supporting cast are no less excellently chosen than O’Toole. Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali portrays a character that moves from a purveyor of violence into much more restrained territory; his exit scene is the finest in the film. Anthony Quinn absorbs himself in the role of Audu abu Tayi, the leader of an Arab tribe; before filming, Quinn meticulously added his own make-up with a picture of the real man sitting beside him so he could achieve a near-perfect likeness. And who could forget José Ferrer as the Turkish Bey, a man that appears for little more than five minutes and yet gives a truly unsettling performance as he torments and tortures the eponymous Lawrence?
While I can’t comment on how far the digital restoration improves the film in general, I will say that the landscapes really stood out and were beautiful to look at. Crew illness and increasing costs preventing shooting entirely in the Arabian desert, but rural Spain does just as well: the sweeping, empty deserts, the colossal rock formations that tower over the characters, the densely populated tribal camps and the vastness and colour of the Suez Canal are all part of a vast and overpowering technicolour British film that was, no doubt, unlike any before it.
I also loved the soundtrack. Maurice Jarre was given just six weeks to write and record the orchestral score for a near four-hour film, and he did an astonishingly good job. The overture begins with a round of thumping drums and a complex trumpet arrangement, before slowly transitioning into the rich, atmospheric theme on the violin, a theme that will repeat itself throughout the film (memorably, at one point, on a harp), giving a true sense of place. Just having the experience of sitting in a cinema while the overture blares out was exhilarating, and I found its depth remarkable considering the short scale of time in which it was conceived.
Everything I’ve talked about confirms my assertion that the film could not be made today. There are practical considerations, of the reluctance of modern audiences to give up half of their day for a film, and of budgetary concerns – Steven Spielberg, who calls the film his all-time favourite, estimates it would take nearly $300 million to make today. But there is also a sense of its scale, of its complexity, at which modern studios would likely balk. What Lean did in 1962 was release a film that topped his previous The Bridge on the River Kwai both in terms of spectacle and in terms of the depth of its characters, and came to define not only his career but those of many who worked on the film. I was utterly, utterly astonished by Lawrence of Arabia, and its uniqueness both as an epic and as a film give me no reluctance to refer to this not only as a Classic Movie, but also as a masterpiece.