Fifty years on from its original theatrical release, how has David Lean's desert epic endured?
In December 1962, Lawrence Of Arabia premiered to a standing ovation from 2,000 esteemed guests, including Queen Elizabeth II. The band of the Royal Horse Guards provided the fanfare and the Welsh Guards band played the national anthem. It was an incongruously military launch for a film that promotes liberal humanism and depicts the decline of the British Empire in the East.
'Good flick?', the Duke of Edinburgh asked director David Lean. 'I hope so, sir' came the polite response, Lean inwardly skeptical that the Royal ballyhoo on this special Arabian night was for Colonel TE Lawrence and not for his flick. Lawrence has been regarded as a national hero, a self-aggrandising charlatan, an autonomous leader and a nihilistic war criminal – all at the same time, by the same people, during the two years of his life the film covers; his liaison involvement in the Arab Revolt in World War One. Re-released nationwide in an immaculate 4k digital restoration on November 23, the controversial subject of British interventionism in Arab affairs remains worryingly contemporary.
In his visually ravishing end-of-Empire works, which also includes Ryan’s Daughter and A Passage To India, Lean acts as a gravedigger and a pallbearer for the British Empire. The epic reach and scale of his films coupled with his penchant for historical revision appealed to British audiences and gave Lean an aesthetic freedom few directors ever were afforded.
Shot in breathtaking 70mm Super Panavision by cinematographer Freddie Young, Lawrence Of Arabia marked a stunning and ambitious new direction for the personal epic, surpassing the likes of Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, Anthony Mann’s El Cid and Lean’s own The Bridge on the River Kwai. From the moment Lawrence blows out a half-spent match, as if his breath were the khamsin, the sun breaching a crest of blood-orange sand, Lean found a new way of capturing an old style.
In the early '60s, however, when the French New Wave, British social realism and Italian neo-realism were having a profound impact on the cinema landscape, Lawrence Of Arabia seemed to threaten a premature return to the classical Hollywood hegemony and the oversized sartorial epics of Cecil B DeMille.
In his seminal auteurist manifesto, 'The American Cinema', Andrew Sarris concluded his assessment of Lawrence Of Arabia with a pun: 'Too little literary fat and too much visual lean.' Sarris gave it the lowest possible rating ('poor') in the same spring 1963 Film Culture issue in which his polemic first appeared, with Peter Bogdanovich only marginally elevating it to 'fair', and Bosley Crowther of The New York Times declaring it 'just a huge, thundering camel-opera...barren of humanity'.
Lawrence Of Arabia can be viewed as a deliberate response from Lean, who always had a combustible relationship with critics, to emerging critical favourites such as Jack Clayton’s Room at the Top and Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey, which, incidentally, was Crowther’s favourite film of 1962.
On its 50th anniversary however, when films of such strikingly magnificent and barely concealable beauty have been virtually lost, and critical debates now surround the longevity of celluloid as an efficient and sustainable form, Lawrence appears to be a divine rebirth of cinema today.
The blazing red Arabian dawn; sun-drenched dunes, sheets of heat; a lone figure emerging on the infinite horizon – these enveloping and all-consuming desertscapes prompt a sensual awakening that can only be felt on the cinema screen. Space and history elucidate story and character through pictures, magnifying the larger than life image of TE Lawrence, a man who fed off his public cynosure to create the hero that the age demanded.
The legacy of TE Lawrence, the enigmatic half Man of Destiny, half British imperial agent, is a mirage: no one ever really knew him. As conceived by writers Michael Wilson and Robert Bolt, Lawrence is loyal to England and to 'other things': to a people that will never entirely be his own, to the metaphysical ambiguity of his destiny and to the heroic romance of his myth making. Magisterial, compassionate, sophisticated, liberal, brilliant, narcissistic, imperialist, mysterious: Lawrence, like the film, is all things to all men.
Played by Peter O'Toole, the wistful blueness of his eyes becomes like water against the vast, arid desert backdrop. They swirl and glisten against the ethereal sunlight and his gold-trimmed white native dress, symbolising his Nietzschean identity crisis: the altruism and the hubris in his messianic quest to lead the Arabs against the Ottoman Turkish Empire.
The ambivalence embodied in Lawrence comments on the position of David Lean himself as the absolute authoritarian man of vision. Like Lawrence, Lean is the commanding lieutenant, directing strategy, leading armies of people and reflecting on the ambiguous conditions of his megalomania.
Edward Said, author of 'Orientalism' – the highly influential critique on the legitimacy of the West to govern, speak for, and shape the meaning of the East – believes that Lawrence was 'a British imperial agent, not an innocent enthusiast for Arab independence', and that the film underlines his 'unmistakably imperialistic' vision that 'serious rule was never meant for such lesser species, only for the white man'.
Even putting to one side arguments surrounding the efficacy of Orientalist criticisms in the age of global modernity, perhaps the honest depiction of British occupancy and paternalistic oppression mounted a challenge to the reigning Anglocentric hierarchy and her menopausal Empire.
Lean casted white Englishman Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal, much to the distaste of Said, but as Guinness showed in Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which he played all eight members of the aristocratic D'Ascoyne family, he was always the right choice for any part, even if it was the primary Arab authority figure in a film about British interference in Arab self-rule.
Lawrence Of Arabia is full of doubt and contradiction: triumph and tragedy, old and new, Empire and post-colonial, weakness and strength, history and psychology. Today it can be seen as the prototype of the contemporary blockbuster, but it possesses levels of historical density, political torque and psychological meaning that surpasses its many influences.
It is the mightiest of movies, without comparison in grand ambition and epic imagining to this day, and wants only to be talked of in superlatives. 'Good flick' was hardly ever enough.
Now read our Lawrence of Arabia review.