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Lawrence of Arabia

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Lawrence of Arabia

Starring: Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness
Director: David Lean
Rated: PG
RunTime: 216 Minutes
Release Date: December 1962
Genres: Classic, Drama, War

*Also starring: Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Claude Rains, Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif, Arthur Kennedy, Jose Ferrer

Review by Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

What strikes me most about watching Lawrence of Arabia again is its length -well over three hours. Yes, I think director David Lean could have edited out a good deal of footage and still had an epic. On the other hand, I admire the pace Lean uses to build momentum; and certainly momentum - of narrative if not of action - is a large part of what gives the film its epic impact.

The Arabian desert fascinates the viewer with its natural shadows and hidden but sure danger. Lean's five-month shoot is legendary, with cleverness and endurance pitted against hardships mustered by nature. Outside of The English Patient, I have not seen such an interesting use of the desert in any film. This awesome land formation should be credited up there with the main players.

The acting is marvelous, too, the casting a series of strokes of brilliance. In his first film, Peter O'Toole proves that the choice of a young and quirky style was the best choice. This man has the eyes of a silent film star, large and expressive, outlined to an almost feminine degree. O'Toole inhabits the character thoroughly; I cannot imagine another actor so intense in his changes of mood and ironies of ego.

As well, Omar Sharif is outstanding as Sherif Ali ibn el Karish. A young, dark and handsome threat at first, his character grows nearly as dynamic as Lawrence's in its alteration by story's end. How to match Sharif's magnetism was addressed by casting Anthony Quinn, that multi-ethnic utility man, as a rival tribal chief, Auda abu Tayi. Quinn truly matches each iota of Sharif's anger and passion. Auda embodies a great Bedouin's jingoism.

How to ensure a solid backup cast? Let's face it, political intrigue is usually a sure way to comment on the ironies of human nature, and Jack Hawkins as General Allenby, and Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden - the plainclothes, behind-the-scenes manipulator - were about the best thing going in the field of character acting. Further, Alec Guiness, the lead actor in Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, is subtly masterful as Prince Feisal. The way the world is portrayed as both cruel and beautiful results mainly from the dimension of the script added by strong supporting roles.

Robert Bolt's screenplay is both spare and poetic. It's like the best writing by Raymond Carver - laconic but not minimalistic, honest but not prideful. Bolt surely relied on the strength lent by the desert, where one's actions are magnified as if by a brightly-lighted stage. He also makes the political strife fairly understandable: the desert tribes need unification if they are to be a threat to the Turks, who have included them for some time in an extensive empire. As it is a World War, the British have it in their own interest to see the Turks defeated, as Turkey is allied with Germany. What throws off British imperialism is the quasi-rebellion of one of their own - T. E. Lawrence, the officer who takes it upon himself to bring together a large faction of these desert peoples. After he assists in the liberation of Damascus, he tries to ensure the area stays under Arab control: not a popular path at a time Great Britain was still expanding its own empire.

Maurice Jarre's music is a masterpiece in its own right. The main theme and its variations reach throughout the entire narrative, accompanying the major characters on their exploits and adding dramatic undercurrent to many confrontations. It's truly music fit for an epic.

Watch for a cameo that has David Lean on a motorcycle asking the resonant question of identity, "Who are you?" as Lawrence and a young companion appear after crossing yet another desert.

It's been ten years since Robert A. Harris restored the old and rotting 70 mm film he found in dented and rusting cans. Had he left it there, perhaps we would not have such a bright and crisp version to enjoy today. This film is a must-see for a number of reasons. Yes, it's way up there on the American Film Institute's Top 100 List, but more importantly, it's a glimpse of vanished filmmaking, a real epic and a valuable piece of history in the areas of film and world politics.

Copyright 2001 Mark OHara

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