Bold cinematography makes Lawrence of Arabia (1962) worth watching. Although its plot and characters are riveting, it is the film’s cinematography that stays with you. Director David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young use the desert landscape to provide a sense of scope in this epic. Briefly, the film centers on the actions of T.E. Lawrence, a WWI British Army officer. Both a charismatic hero and near-delusional narcissist, Lawrence attempts to unite various Arabian tribes and convince them to establish a nation, to fight the Turks and (perhaps) to resist British colonial interests.
You should watch this film because of and not despite its nearly 4-hour running time, especially if you consider yourself a cinephile. (I can’t believe it took me this long!) The length provides the film with its depth and the audience immersive experience in the visual (and aural) experience of cinema; I’m just sorry to say I saw it at home on DVD instead of in a theatre. There are so many beautiful shots that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’ll mention one that has been touted by many: the jump cut between Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) and the desert’s rising sun is stunning. As addeed incentive to see the film, many directors—among them Scorcese & Spielberg (and who were instrumental in restoring this film to Lean’s original vision)—have been influenced by the film.
Also worth noting is the bold characterization of Lawrence and others, notably Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), Prince Feisel (Alec Guiness) and Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn). Lean and the actors provide us with rich, complex performances, made all the more compelling by the fact that these characters are not drawn in the blockbuster-heroic mode. They are alternately inspiring and repulsive, capable of both high- and small-mindedness. They are altogether contradictory and maddenly all-too-human and, in Lawrence’s case, rather unlikeable. These performances makes one appreciate the film’s ideological choices even more, because they highlight Lean’s critique of colonialism, of war, of discourses of heroism and nationalism. And for those interested in issues of historical accuracy and of authenticity, these decisions reflect the contradictory responses to the real-life Lawrence. True, there are debates about elements of Lawrence’s life that are alluded to or rendered as subtext—such as his sexuality, being raped in a Turkish prison, or questions of his death as a suicide—but these elements are legible to the experienced film viewer.
The film deserves its status on best-films lists and its label as a masterpiece. You deserve to watch it.
Goal: 43 films
To Date: 26 seen
Remaining: 17 films