Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Peter O'Toole, José Ferrer, and Jack Hawkins in Lawrence of Arabia (1962)


(director: David Lean; screenwriters: Michael Wilson/Robert Bolt/from the autobiography “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence; cinematographer: Freddie Young; editor: Anne V. Coates; music: Maurice Jarre; cast: Peter O’Toole (T.E. Lawrence), Alec Guinness (Prince Feisal), Anthony Quinn (Auda abu Tayi), Jack Hawkins (Gen. Allenby), Claude Rains (Dryden), Omar Sharif (Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish), Arthur Kennedy (Jackson Bentley), Jose Ferrer (Turkish bey), Anthony Quayle (Col. Harry Brighton); Runtime: 216; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Sam Spiegel/David Lean; Columbia Pictures; 1962)
“Spell-binding cinema.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sweeping historical biopic epic, shot in a panoramic 70mm image, with authentic desert location shots and with hints of homoerotic happenings. It goes on for four hours as it traces the life of a complex adventurer, T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), who died at age 46 in a freak motorcycle accident in Dorset in 1935. Director David Lean (“The Bridge On The River Kwai”/”Doctor Zhivago”/”Great Expectations”), using Robert Bolt’s literate script that’s based on the 1926 autobiography “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence, traces through flashbacks the enigmatic desert-loving repressed 29-year-old scholar, Oxford-educated and cartographer Lieut. T. E. Lawrence and his orchestration of the Arab rebellion on the Turkish front in World War I. The Turks were in an alliance with the Germans, and the Brits wanted to keep the Turks from gaining control of the strategic Suez Canal. It covers Lawrence’s military deeds in the desert in the years from 1916 to 1918. The stunning picture, one of the greatest ever war epics, won the Best Picture Award and a total of seven of its ten nominations.

Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), the leader of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire Turks, is willing for the time being to allow his tribal army to become just another branch of the British forces. Lawrence had a desk job in Cairo, but was assigned by his civilian boss of the Arab Bureau, Dryden (Claude Rains), as an observer to spy on the Arab rebellion. Lawrence soon becomes the messianic leader of the Arabs. He’s determined to have the rival Arab tribes unite and wishes to prevent the Arabs from falling under British colonial domination. He and the Bedouin chief Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif)–whom is splendidly introduced by ‘the mirage shot’ as a tiny dot on the desert horizon that steadily enlarges–and 50 Arab men, cross the difficult Nefud Desert and join forces with their traditional tribal enemies that are led by Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). In the battle, they rout the Turks at the strategic port city of Aqaba.

The film’s other great shot is the jump-cut from the burning match in Lawrence’s fingers to the rising desert sun.

Gen. Allenby (Jack Hawkins), the Commanding Officer, pleased with the victory gives his approval for Lawrence to camel on, as Lawrence is now revered by the Arabs and is cloaked in their flowing white robes as he leads them in a bloody guerrilla war. In 1918, cynical American journalist Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy), a takeoff on Lowell Thomas, tells Lawrence’s story, as he lionizes him as a freedom fighter. What follows is Lawrence on a spying mission for the Brits, where he is captured, tortured, and raped in Deraa by the sadistic Turkish Bey (Jose Ferrer). This incident is the probable cause for the violent change in Lawrence’s demeanor. Lawrence now officiates a “no prisoners” massacre at Tafas, which is explained as a retaliation against the Turks killing innocent Arab children. In time, things take a turn in Lawrence’s fortunes, as at the conclusion of the desert saga is the anti-climactic fall of Damascus. This ends Lawrence’s dreams of unity for his Arabs and his legions dwindle and, in the end, his noble attempt at overseeing the formation of a united Arab Council in Damascus collapses. With that, he receives a promotion to colonel and returns to Britain an exhausted and mysterious figure (it’s never certain if Lawrence was motivated by a genuine belief in Arab self-determination, or merely his own self-aggrandizement).

Maurice Jarre’s breathtaking score helps one get through some of the arid desert scenes. As for its historical accuracy, the film like most Hollywood projects took poetic license and is far from accurate. It was disavowed by Lawrence’s brother, who sold in 1959 the film rights to his brother’s book. But, nevertheless, the film holds up as a great piece of spell-binding cinema that was intelligently and passionately conceived.