Before the film begins, the screen is black and music plays, just as David Lean intended. I know it’s tempting to skip the Overture, but don’t do it. Relax. Close your eyes. Unless you’ve already seen the film, what you imagine is nothing to the expansive natural imagery you’re about to witness. The crisp blue sky will lay perfectly on the soft clean sand. Huge red canyons and rocks as tall as skyscrapers look like they were just set there perfectly. When a tiny camel shaped dot comes running across, you’ll realize the grand scale and openness of this land. This is the only music that could explain this land, and let you take it all in and sigh at it’s beauty. Cherish the moment.
The film is based off of T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In WWI Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is a British intelligence officer who seems bored with his work in Cairo. When he is given leave to investigate the Arab revolt against the Turks, he unites the Arab tribes led by Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) and Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness). He becomes accepted and honored by the Arabs and leads them across the desert to attack the Turks. The British army did not expect this from the young man, especially when he shows up wearing white Arab robes, but they cannot argue with his results. As Lawrence continues to lead the Arabs in desert raids, including derailing Turkish trains, he becomes more and more conflicted between his British ties and Arab friends, who at times seem to worship him.
In a conversation, we see Lawrence remembered as both a great hero and “the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum & Bailey.” Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence is an unusual but charismatic man. He enjoys letting matches burn down to his fingertips and believes being in the desert will be “fun.” There is an odd sense of determination about him and regularly puts himself in mortal danger but becomes a hero in his survival. By the second half of the film, it seems he’s just asking for it and gloats his acceptance and power over the Arabian troops. This seems to go to his head, he tries to blend in and pass himself off as an Arab, but to no avail. As he becomes driven by new found blood lust, his friend Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif) holds his barbarous secret. Through it all, we love Lawrence, we understand his human flaws and conflict between loyalties. And is crystal blue eyes are the one thing that can match the desert’s beauty.
The desert is full of exciting obstacles that Lawrence must brave. Learning to ride a camel is the least of his worries when he learns that men from one tribe do not permit men from another tribe to drink from their well. Ali kills his first guide over a well dispute. There are also natural threats, like sand storms, the beautifully eerie sand cyclone and quicksand that can swallow a man in moments without leaving a trace. These seem to frighten Lawrence and fuel his curiosity as much as ours.
Over the years, Lawrence of Arabia has been hailed as one of the best films ever made. It won seven of it’s ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and holds the fifth highest spot on AFI’s top 100 films list. Stephen Spielberg once viewed the film with David Lean and claims to watch Lawrence of Arabia before directing all of his movies. But be warned, Lawrence of Arabia is a nearly four hour epic. It may not be the best film for fair-weather film fans who buy tickets mostly for romantic comedies. However, for anyone who wants to claim even a mild interest in film, this should be at the top of your must-see list. No excuses.
“What attracts you personally to the desert?