What makes a film a classic? A better question to ask is: what makes a film epic a classic film epic? Without boring readers to tears with dry, statistical analysis — and for the sake of argument — let’s say that Sir David Lean’s 1962 desert epic Lawrence of Arabia conveniently and consistently fits both bills.
At roughly four hours in length, including overture, intermission, and exit music (in Robert Harris’ exemplary restoration effort), it’s every critic’s Exhibit A in the “classic film epic” department, no contest about it. But why is that? Well, it’s got style to burn. It’s got wit; it’s got taste; it’s got sweeping romantic vistas and magnificent location scenery. And it has an enigmatic title character in T.E. Lawrence, deftly handled by the young and nearly unknown Peter O’Toole in a wide-ranging (and incredibly revelatory) performance of the first order.
Viewers were equally divided as to whether Lawrence was any more knowable at the end of the saga than at the beginning of it. Certainly the way the character’s been written (Sir Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson contributed to the Academy Award-nominated screenplay, with Bolt taking most of the credit since Wilson had been blacklisted at the time of the movie’s release) makes Lawrence out to be more of a warmongering adventure seeker and less of a stand-up-and-get-shot-at hero — an anti-hero, if you prefer.
Still, all glory and honor are due O’Toole for what must have been an impossible acting assignment. He had to capture Lawrence’s softer “feminine” side, so to speak — his latent homosexuality could only be hinted at in 1962 — without a) giving away the game; b) without making him into a limp-wristed caricature; and c) without giving up any of the manly heroics associated with the historical figure per se.
In addition, O’Toole had to reveal Lawrence’s exceptionally volatile nature, as well as his high tolerance for pain — the torture scene featuring the sadistic Turkish Bey with the troublesome cough (played by José Ferrer) is a good case in point. Although such an electrically-charged term as “male rape” could never have been uttered in an early 1960s feature that is exactly what occurred here and what director Lean was going after. Lawrence’s refusal to go into specifics about his manhandling is an indication of how far he was willing to go to prove his manly (that is, heroic) nature to his Arab friends.
The plot, in brief, concerns a misfit British officer, Lieutenant Lawrence, and his involvement with Saudi Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness, in a false beard and even more faux accent). His orders are to keep a close watch on those Arab beggars (“They’re a nation of sheep stealers,” comments the bigoted General Murray) and report his findings to British High Command in Cairo. Instead, Lawrence takes the bull by the horns by throwing himself headlong into an ad hoc campaign of his own devising. “I’ve got orders to obey, thank God,” exclaims Murray’s replacement, General Allenby. “Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind.” Indeed, a whirlwind that lands him in hot water.
Lawrence’s goal is to oust the stubborn Turks from the gulf port of Aqaba by using a ragtag army of Bedouin tribesmen, the only force available to him. As fate (and luck) would have it, his plan works brilliantly — too brilliantly, one might add – and rather too easily for Lawrence’s future benefit. Sadly, it’s all downhill from there for the heavily burdened “El Aurens,” as the natives now refer to him. A legend of his own making, helped along by the cynical American reporter Jackson Bentley, Lawrence learns that he’s human after all and prone to all-too human failings — among them, a built-in self-loathing for what he’s become, i.e., a masochist as well as a sadist. His unraveling at the Arab council and the realization that he’s been a pawn in the hands of both Faisal and Allenby leads to his abandoning the desert for anonymity in the British countryside.
In his international film debut, Egyptian-born Omar Sharif contributes class, charm, and good looks (along with a sizzling screen presence) as Lawrence’s sympathetic Arab companion, Sherif Ali. Both Ali and Lawrence share a unique love/hate relationship with each other. Today, our so-called modern sensibilities might admit to a probable “bromance” between these two politically and culturally distinctive individuals. This opens up the issue of whether Lawrence, as depicted in the film, had homosexual tendencies. The introduction of two servant boys, Daud (John Dimech) and Farraj (Michel Ray, an Anglo-Brazilian), may even have allowed for such an indulgence. Historically, however, Lawrence was said to have been asexual, so that ends that query.
Others in the all-male cast include Anthony Quinn (with an immensely prominent, hooked proboscis) as warrior chieftain Auda Abu-Tayi, his Arab “ally” in arms; Jack Hawkins as a remarkably convincing General Allenby; Claude Rains as Mr. Dryden, head of the Arab Bureau; Anthony Quayle as Colonel Brighton; Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley, the Lowell Thomas doppelganger; and bushy browed Sir Donald Wolfit as the short-sighted General Murray.
The film is divided into two parts, with the second half dragging slightly. The downbeat ending is, as expected, just that. But there’s no overlooking the award-winning desert cinematography by Freddie Young, or Maurice Jarre’s flavorful and much admired (by this author, anyway) film score, another Oscar® winner. Despite many months in the desert (Lawrence of Arabia was filmed partially in Jordan and along the southern coast of Spain), director Lean held it together, in the process showing how to keep the focus on the human element amid the bloody spectacle of war. Produced by movie mogul Sam Spiegel, whose crowning achievement this undoubtedly was. All that’s left to say is: “Here, here!” Ω