Many already (rightly) cherish David Lean’s greatest masterpiece, 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, but thanks to its latest restoration from Sony Pictures (now in 4K for its 50th anniversary), fans and newcomers alike can now gaze at the jaw-dropping landscapes of Arabia and the dazzling blue eyes of Peter O’Toole in all their glory, appreciating a remarkable feat of cinema as it should be seen – on the big screen. This four-hour biopic details the life of one of history’s most remarkable military figures, British army officer T. E. Lawrence, played with tremendous pathos and passion by the dashing and never-better O’Toole.
Depicting the young officer’s life in Arabia during the First World War, Lawrence is shown to be ever the misfit, tasked by the intelligence services with uniting the Arab tribes led by Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), against the Turks with the aid of Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). Always defying destiny (and frequently his military superiors), Lawrence goes on to unite the tribes, earning himself near prophet-like status, but the price he pays in the heat of battle makes him question his loyalties.
The term ‘epic’ is bandied about too casually in film appreciation. Yet the sheer grandeur and scope of Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia makes it, for once, a truly fitting adjective. The complex character of a spy with loyalties to both the Arabs and the English, alongside his obsession with destiny and class, make for riveting viewing. Awash with expansive shots of the desert wilderness draped in the glow of a blistering orange sun, each scene conveys the true power of the cinematic medium. Further bolstering comes courtesy of renowned composer Maurice Jarre, who provides a masterful score that infuses Lean’s representation of Arabia with a timeless majesty that draws you deeper into to this grand narrative.
O’Toole, whose British officer in Arab garb is now the iconic image of this desert drama, was remarkably not Lean’s first choice for Lawrence. Originally, the part was offered to Marlon Brando, yet as tempting as it is to imagine this version, we would have missed out on the finest performance of O’Toole’s career. His aristocratic features and perfectly pompous demeanour capture both the impish nature of Lawrence and the savage rage that bubbled beneath the surface. O’Toole’s performance, along with the superb screenplay provided by Mike Wilson (who showed his skill for military stories in 1957’s The Bridge on the River Kwai), suffuses the picture with a spirit of bullish British mentality in all its complexity. Lean provides an expansive history lesson of the troubled foundations of the Middle East, centred upon one of the most fascinating figures in British military history.
A further layer of the tale is the neat exploration of both Lawrence as a man and a myth. Lean effortlessly shows how our charismatic subject exploited journalists to his advantage, building his iconic status in a desperate attempt to prove his place in the world. For all of Lawrence’s now legendary status, Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia tells the tale of a man possessed; a nomadic devil of the dessert, who was at home everywhere and nowhere.