Lawrence of Arabia

Nov 7, 1989

If you had to choose one movie to have with you while stranded on an island, the choice might well be Lawrence of Arabia. Considered by many as one of the greatest films ever made, it received seven Academy Awards in 1962, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Score, for composer Maurice Jarre’s unforgettable music. A visual masterpiece and an auditory feast, it was co-produced by Sam Spiegel and master director David Lean, whose works include Brief Encounter (1946), Great Expectations (1946), Oliver Twist (1948), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Doctor Zhivago (1966), and A Passage to India (1984).

Lawrence of Arabia is a remarkable production achievement and a thrilling event for audiences. It is an epic adventure with an intriguing plot and original characters set against the breathtaking images of the vast endless frightening desert landscape, which becomes a blazing metaphor for the mysterious spiritual struggle of a man grappling with his distant unknown destiny.

T.E. Lawrence was a flamboyant minor British officer who helped to weld together disparate tribes of Arabs and led them successfully in guerrilla warfare against the Turks who were then allied with the Germans during World War I. The filmmakers were aware of the dangers of biographical trivialization and conscientiously created a controversial and often contradictory character. Lawrence was a man who wanted to be great. As observed in the beginning of the film he is described as a “poet, scholar, mighty warrior and shameless exhibitionist.” He “was a man who wanted to be somebody else” continually balancing his desire to be extraordinary and his need to be ordinary. Peter O’Toole, the young Shakespearean actor cast as the insouciant, awkward and debonair lead in this his first major film, said: “There isn’t one Lawrence—bastard Irish aristocrat, latter-day Victorian, would-be empire builder—he tried to find his identity with another race. He was in love with the idea of liberating a country and the Arabs just happened to be it.” Director Lean was quoted saying that Lawrence “honestly thought he was working for a cause and discovered subsequently that his motives were vanity and ego. He couldn’t forgive himself.” Like other ambitious and imaginative men, he was the unwitting pawn of a greedy power fight by imperialist leaders who in this case wanted to control the Middle East.

To mount this spectacle was an enormous undertaking. Years in preparation, it took over 300 days to shoot in four countries—Jordan, Morocco, Spain and England. It was an exhausting endeavor. The crews went to places without names or markings on the maps. Conditions became so absurd that they were refrigerating thermometers to keep them from bursting in the 125 degree heat. One observer noted that only three things brought westerners to these desolate areas—oil, war and moviemaking.

Under the perfectionist leadership of director Lean, they returned from these demanding locations with astounding images that had never been seen on the screen before. Said Lean: “I like to be excited when I go to the movies. I like to be touched. And I like a good yarn.” He achieved all these goals in making this outstanding adventure.

To write about this cinematic masterpiece will never approach the experience of the film. It is meant to be seen and heard. Its very opening sequence is pure sight and sound, no dialogue. This is true of many of its most effective scenes. Yet this doesn’t belittle the imaginative, intelligent, intricate and innuendo-filled screenplay written by playwright Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons) and derived from Lawrence’s own book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. This was Mr. Bolt’s first screenplay. He called writing it a “rugby scramble.” The witty script is charged with quotable lines as when Dryden the English diplomat (played by seventy-year-old Claude Rains), having already been told “there may be honor among thieves, but there’s none in politicians,” chides Lawrence: “If we’ve told lies, you’ve told half-lies. And a man who tells lies—like me—merely hides the truth, but a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

This laserdisc presentation of this exceptionally stirring movie is a rare re-creation of director Lean’s original version of the film. One of the great disappointments for American filmmakers and audiences is that the artists who make the movies do not retain creative control over the released prints. For this economic reason, contrary to films made in other countries, the movies distributed in the U.S. are often re-edited according to the wants of the financiers. In recent years the “colorization” of black-and-white masterpieces has become another process of altering the filmmaker’s original intention. But this special laserdisc edition of <I>Lawrence of Arabia</I> has been produced under the supervision of Robert Harris, who painstakingly restored twenty minutes that was missing from the distributed film. What you are about to see is a superb presentation of a legendary film. Enjoy!