Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Lawrence of Arabia

(UK, 1962)

I vividly remember seeing this in a theater in Beaumont, Texas, when it first came out. Roadshow engagement! Reserved seats! Intro music, Intermission music, Exit music! Only two showings per day! Higher ticket price! And it was glorious, just glorious, and worth every penny. That was the same year I saw How the West Was Won at the Cinerama Theater in Houston, and while that was more spectacular, it couldn’t compare at all with Lawrence as a story. It was the first movie by Peter O’Toole (he had bit parts in three previous movies) and I don’t know if there has ever been a more stunning debut. You just couldn’t look away from that blue-eyed, slightly insane stare.

I don’t begrudge Gregory Peck his Oscar won that year as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird at all, it’s one of my favorite all-time movies and favorite all-time characters … but I have to say that O’Toole was actually better, because he was totally new, totally fresh, and we had never seen anything like it before. But O’Toole was unlucky that way (if awards mattered to him, and I suspect they didn’t, much). He was nominated eight times and never won. The year of The Stunt Man was the year of Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. The year of The Ruling Class was the year of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. The year of Becket was the year of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. And so on.

It’s really impossible to say enough about O’Toole’s performance … so I’ll stop right here. (Must mention, though, that Marlon Brando was offered the part, as well as Tony Perkins (!!) and Montgomery Clift! Disastrous ideas!)

The other things that make this a truly great film, a movie for the ages, are of course an intelligent script by Robert Bolt and (blacklisted and un-credited) Michael Wilson, brilliant direction by the great David Lean, and especially the cinematography by three-time Oscar winner (all for David Lean epics!) F.A. Young. He used the Super Panavision 70 camera. Only fifteen films were ever shot in this format, and it hasn’t been used for a whole feature since 1970. But what a glorious choice for this movie! The wide, wide, wide screen was perfectly suited to those stunning shots where you can barely see the ant-like camel riders plodding through the blistering moonscape of Arabia. What a horrible place it is. But how stunningly beautiful … if you don’t have to ride a camel across it.

(IMDb tidbit: Peter O’Toole hated riding camels, found them hideously uncomfortable. So he got a slab of foam rubber and hid it under the saddle blanket. Some of the Bedouin extras saw that, and thought it was a damn good idea. It is said that you can spot some foam rubber in some shots. It is also said that, to this day, Bedu riders still pad their saddles!)

One thing that must be addressed is the historical accuracy of this film, which has been severely criticized by some. My feeling about the need for accuracy in a movie like this are mixed. I really don’t like it when the writers just make stuff up that clearly never happened, but I will allow a lot of leeway if the movie is good enough, as this one is. I have read about most of the objections, which begin right with the casting of Peter O’Toole. He was 6’2”, and Lawrence was … 5’5”! He was a shrimp, and very self-conscious of it. But to me, although physical resemblance is a plus, it is far from a necessity. Most of the other objections could only matter to a historian, and involve the timing of certain events, and the portrayal of some of the other major figures, particularly the Arabs. Again, I don’t really care. If you want to know about the real T.E. Lawrence, there are many biographies, and if you want to know more about the Arabian theater of The Great War, read a history. Never take a movie as your source for facts!