There was once a time when young Generation Xers would balk at the notion of having to see a film in black and white, their parents rushing them through the annals of cinematic history with the assured belief that what once moved them would now move their progeny. Now, I suspect, using anything so dated as the Technicolor process that died with 1976’s Suspiria would encounter similar levels of flippant derision. But let’s forget about that for a moment.
52 years ago this month, Lawrence of Arabia first debuted in London. The sprawling epic, focused on the real-life exploits of the eponymous British officer made a hero by his World War I campaign to deliver the Arabian Peninsula, would go on to be the longest film to win Best Picture in Oscar history at 222 minutes. Last year’s winner, 12 Years A Slave, considered long and laborious by many, clocked in at 134, grossed $187 million, and took home two other trophies for Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actress.
By contrast, how did Lawrence of Arabia fare? Nearly $550 million and seven Academy awards. Not only was it a blockbuster, but it cleaned up as many trophies as Gravity, a feat even more impressive since some of Gravity’s categories hadn’t been invented yet. And Lawrence might have had more, too; Peter O’Toole could have taken home Best Actor and the screenplay, transcribed from T.E. Lawrence’s own Seven Pillars of Wisdom, could have taken Best Adapted Screenplay, if it weren’t for To Kill a Mockingbird, considered by many to be the best adapted material and the best performance by an actor in film history.
The importance of Lawrence of Arabia continues to spiral from here. Lucas, Peckinpah, Scorsese, Scott, and Spielberg mark it as an enormous influence. There would be no Star Wars if Lucas hadn’t copied David Lean’s visual style; indeed, Arabia, in this film, is your first visualization of Tatooine.
Can there be any doubts that this was an important film? Citizen Kane may have been the most influential film before this in terms of style and technique, but damned if you can watch it these days and stay awake.
The genesis for this film’s authority begins with director David Lean’s decision to make a biopic about one of the most legendary figures in English and perhaps even world history. Less than 30 years after the film’s real life counterpart passed away, and after several failed attempts at pre-production, the creative team crossed historical fact with a character study, relying on the elegantly written missives penned by the eponymous protagonist. By producing a film so quickly and choosing a subject who was a notoriously prolific writer, the film’s facts and characters remain untarnished by the sands of time.
On the production level, it’s hard to imagine anyone dreaming to outdo what has been done. The glorious wide-shots of the breathtaking desert, captured in their natural beauty by Freddie Young, cannot be imagined without Maurice Jarre’s soaring, romantic score that set a new standard for a film’s music giving it a voice. The expediency of this aural and visual meshing, where one constructed aspect of the film cannot be imagined without the other, represents the type of synergy that makes film an art form. And a visceral form. Something as inert as dunes, merely massive piles of dirt in a desert, give you chills as the pins fall into place and you realize that every visualization of the desert you’ve ever seen in any movie are derived from one moment in Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, it’s that overwhelming.
When moments like these have the time to breathe in a film that would be slashed to ribbons in the modern Hollywood system, you have the patience of the era and the editor to thank. Anne V. Coates is one of several legendary women in the business, and her work is nothing short of spectacular. How do you keep a four hour film interesting? By opening with a bang and drawing the audience in with the story elements most necessary for historical accuracy and Lawrence’s character development, the audience cannot look away. The much-discussed (in film circles, anyway) cut of our eponymous hero blowing out a match connected with the rising sun was unparalleled in a studio movie at the time. Even the longer moments that would have tempted the most discerning editor to break out the shears are allowed to breathe, creating an atmosphere that permeates.
All of these production elements would be nothing without the guiding hand of master director David Lean. His peerless skills dominate the film, but truly come to bear in the small moments. Take, for example, Lawrence and his guide being approached from a distance in the desert: it’s two men looking at what seems to be a mirage, a leviathan borne of war-time paranoia and bent rays of light. Then, it becomes clear it’s not an illusion. Then, the fear of being stalked sets in; it doesn’t matter how far away it is, you have no place to hide. This breathtaking capsule of time, space, and environment make the best use of all the tools at a filmmakers’ disposal.
The performances are great, but the notion that Lawrence of Arabia features the best acting of all time may be too antiquated to be seriously considered. Granted, the argument is easy to make since O’Toole’s performance in the lead is widely considered one of the best by most critics, but serious examination from a modern perspective exposes a certain theatricality to the proceedings that leaves many moments lacking in subtlety. Take, for example, Lawrence’s poncy jaunt through the desert once his Arab brethren furnish him with new garb, or the nearly Stanislavskian histrionics of any man shot in battle. These affectations have more to do with the standards of filmmaking endemic to the time; the ‘method’ approach was distinctly more American at the time and might have better served a sense of realism in the film.
In spite of any minor quibbles, Lawrence of Arabia is a film that must be seen. Anyone who wishes to cross a barrier from being a casual filmgoer to a burgeoning cinephile must put this on their list, as they cannot graduate to a higher level of analyzing film as an art form without it. It incorporates all the best elements of everything that came before it, and continues to influence the making of all films to this day.
And yes, it’s in Technicolor. Get over it.