Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Director: David Lean

Starring: Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, José Ferrer, Anthony Quale, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy

The man, the myth, the legend. I’m speaking of course of the late Peter O’Toole, who departed this life on December 14th, 2013 at the age of 81. I would not presume to speak of O’Toole as though I knew him, nor having ever met the actor, but there are certain actors whose careers we follow with great interest to the point of gaining a sense of familiarity. O’Toole was a rather brilliant screen talent, one that only graces our presence once in a great while. Among his many works, eight of his roles earned him Academy Award nominations. Sadly, he was denied each time, making him the most nominated actor never to win the Oscar. O’Toole’s reputation as a drinker probably hurt him in several of his opportunities, as did bad luck. “Lawrence of Arabia” was the first of those eight nominations, but when your competition is Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” you can hardly be blamed for coming up short. O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence, like the movie, is quite grand in scale. O’Toole was always good at playing larger-than-life characters, and this was the one that made him a star.

Upon T.E. Lawrence’s rather undignified death by motorcycle accident in 1935, the ensuing memorial service for him serves to demonstrate how much the attendees truly did not know the man. Rather, most of them merely had an image in their minds of the man they believed Lawrence to be. American reporter Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) seems to have some idea, referring to the deceased as a “shameless exhibitionist.” This serves as a great introduction, because you don’t know how much of what these people have to say about Lawrence will actually turn out to be true. He may have been a great revolutionary… or he could have been just another average human being who thought too much of himself. The rest of the nearly four-hour epic is as much our journey to learn who T.E. Lawrence was as it is a series of life-altering events for Lawrence and others in his company.

Perhaps the one character who changes the most is Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). When we first meet him, he kills a man of another Arab tribe for drinking out of his well. For this action, Lawrence labels Ali a barbarian. As the movie progresses, it is Ali who represents the audience. We watch the deeds and misdeeds of T.E. Lawrence through Ali’s eyes, and this “savage” is altered so much in witnessing the bloodlust of his friend that he contemplates leaving one “greedy, barbarous and cruel” life for another, that of a politician. One example of Lawrence’s changing morals, and maybe the defining moment of the movie, comes when the two tribes he has brought together are about to wage war on one another. Someone from Ali’s tribe has killed a member of the other tribe. Seeing as he has no allegiance to either side, Lawrence volunteers to carry out the man’s execution. When the man raises his head, Lawrence realizes it is the same person he just risked his own life to save a few scenes earlier. Lawrence shoots the man dead, and then later admits to his British superiors that he “enjoyed it.”

In 1962, we were still decades away from CGI animation. Thus, when you are watching the great battle scenes of “Lawrence of Arabia,” you are looking at large groups of extras. Not something cooked up by a computer, but real actors and stuntmen. This along with the set/costume designs and the unforgettable music score only adds to the appreciation one has for the work that went into the project. The contrast between the Arabian desert and the stuffy military base is another strongpoint. We find, the same as Lawrence does, that the movie is the most fun when we are traversing through the scorching hot, barren wastelands than when we visit the ordinary British officers. We also are reminded of how difficult it can be to establish a democracy in countries which have no experience with it, as in the Arab Council scene in Damascus.

The death of Peter O’Toole does mean the end of a fantastic and extraordinary career. It does not mean that we cannot continue to revisit or discover the best of his films, and there is at least one film still left to look forward to, 2014’s “Katherine of Alexandria.” I am reminded of a scene early on in “Lawrence of Arabia,” in which T.E. Lawrence extinguishes a match with his fingers. A fellow British officer tries the same thing, and reacts in pain. Lawrence responds, “Of course, it hurts. The trick is not minding that it hurts.” If only it were that easy with the extinguishing of a human flame.

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