In college, I majored in TV and Theater Productions (no, really), and during the summers, the department assigned various films to watch before coming back in the fall. I liked some, didn’t care for others, and once the assignment included Lawrence of Arabia. I watched it, and quite frankly found it dull. It’s a long film, close to four hours in length, probably the longest film on the AFI list. I said at the time you could probably cut the film by a third if you just removed all the scenes of Lawrence crossing the desert, and then by another third if you removed every conversation where Lawrence just answered every statement with a simple “Yes”. But then classes resumed, and two friends of mine, a pair of aspiring actresses, hadn’t seen it yet, so I offered to watch it with them since I did have a thing for one of them (nothing ever came of it, Watson). And, well, we never finished the film because both of my friends ended up falling asleep.
But hey, as much as I was dreading revisiting Lawrence of Arabia, maybe I’ll appreciate it more this time now that I am a bit over 20 years older. It wouldn’t be the first time during this series.
Well, for starters, good news: I did appreciate it more. I wouldn’t say I consider Lawrence of Arabia an all-time favorite. It’s still a nearly four hour film with a lot of scenes of the title character crossing the desert. But this is another film from director David Lean, and I’m not sure the man could even make a film that ran less than three hours. Plus we got Omar Sharif back for the second time and Alec Guiness for the third. There’s plenty of things on display here that certainly points to a great film. The visuals are great. The acting is great. The musical score is iconic, signaling vast desert dunes with every note today. The writing is fine. There are even a few action scenes since, you know, there is war on. Why then would this film be so problematic for so many?
Well, it seems to take its old sweet time getting anywhere, and I don’t just mean with Lawrence constantly crossing the desert. Those scenes are slowly paced, in part to show the beauty of the desert, and there aren’t many films that can claim to make deserts beautiful, and Lean manages to pull that off. But Lean’s work in this series has always been rather deliberately paced, so everything takes its time to get to where its going.
It helps that Peter O’Toole played Lawrence in this, his first major starring role. His clear blue eyes and generally calm demeanor make the film what it is more than anything else. If there’s a point to this film, that doesn’t seem to have a single, solitary female speaking role that I can remember, it’s that Lawrence was essentially a mysterious and unknowable man. The film opens with his death, and the funeral that follows shows none of the mourners really knew the real Lawrence. And as we see more and more of him, well, we still may not know much about him.
Well, at least, the English never knew him. Lawrence, the bastard son of a nobleman, took a real shine to the Arabs. He saw them as friends and not just wartime allies, and when the film comes to a close, arguably Lawrence fights harder for the Arabs to form an independent nation than the Arabs themselves do. That’s the big reason why I would be hesitant to call Lawrence a “white savior” type of character. He ultimately doesn’t save the Arabs. The English are doing things behind their backs, none of which seems to surprise the Arabs as they find out about it, and the Arabs can’t stop squabbling amongst themselves long enough to get anything like a government put together. Lawrence may be instrumental in making the Arabs a real fighting force, but he can’t get them to make a long term plan to save themselves, and they may not be interested in doing such a thing anyway. Lawrence goes native in his dress and even joins in on a slaughter, but he’s not really one of them. He still thinks like an Englishman.
O’Toole really made this role. The actor did a lot of crap roles in his career, but one of my personal favorites from O’Toole may have been a rather unlikely and unorthodox choice: food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille. O’Toole could have probably done the role in his sleep, but listening to the transformation in his voice as Ego goes from implacable critic to nostalgic foodie charmed the hell out of me when I saw that one. If that’s what O’Toole could do with his voice, what could he do with his body onscreen?
Quite a lot, actually. The wistful smiles as he lets a match burn too low, the exuberant whoop when he runs into a battle, the silent determination during that really weird, possibly homoerotic interrogation scene, well, it’s all a testament to O’Toole. And considering he shares the screen with the likes of established actors like Sharif, Guiness, and Anthony Quinn, well, that isn’t too shabby.
So, bottom line, I may not think Lawrence of Arabia is as dull as I used to, but it still isn’t a favorite of mine. Would I want to see it again? Well, maybe if I do a project like this again. In the meantime, Lawrence of Arabia is probably more of the kind of film that causal filmgoers won’t be very interested in, but that genuine film buffs may appreciate for all manner of reasons beyond whether or not Lawrence crossing the desert seems all that exciting or not.
NEXT UP: Now that Lawrence of Arabia is out of the way, let’s look at the second longest film on the entire AFI list, shorter than Lawrence by a mere seven minutes: 1939’s Gone with the Wind.