Some $15,000,000, around three years in time, much hardship, and incredible logistics have been poured ito this kingsize adventure yarn. It is the first film from Sam Spiegel-David Lean since they launched the Oscar-winning “Bridge On the River Kwai” five years ago. Shapes as an equally vivid, smash b.o. success. Made in Technicolor and Super Panavision 70, it is a sweepingly produced, directed and lensed job. Authentic desert locations, a stellar cast and an intriguing subject combine to put this into the blockbuster league.
It had best be regarded as an adventure story rather than a biopic, because Robert Bolt’s well written screenplay does not tell the audience anything much new about Lawrence of Arabia, nor does it offer any opinion or theory about the character of this man or the motivation for his actions. So he remains a legendary figure (“I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time. I do not see his like elsewhere,” said Sir Winston Churchill) and a shadowy one. Was he a mystic or charlatan, a brave one, an exhibitionist, fanatic, opportunist or simply a half-nut case? Many people have a theory. Nobody has been able to do more than guess. And one of the film’s faults is that cinemagoers who don’t know about the Lawrence legend may be confused. The pic starts, for instance, with his fatal motorcycle crash in England. This could seem a puzzling, irrelevant scene for those who do not know how this strange soldier met his end. Another cavil is that clearly so much footage has had to be tossed away that certain scenes are not developed as well as they might have been, particularly the ending. But to turn to the many credits.
The David Lean touch gilds everything. It has clearly helped with Boll’s screenplay, which deftly pinpoints part of Lawrence’s amazing lifestory, and is marked by telling dialog. It shows in the cutting, where Lean has obviously worked closely with Anne V. Coates. And he has helped to bring out some superb photography by F. A. Young. The film has every evidence of dedication by Lean, Spiegel, and their entire technical crew.
Storyline concerns Lawrence as a young intelligence officer in Cairo in 1916. British Intelligence is watching the Arab revolt against the Turks with interest as a possible buffer between Turkey and her German allies. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is grudgingly seconded to observe the revolt at the request of the civilian head of the Arab bureau. Lawrence sets out to find Prince Feisal, top man of the revolt. From then on his incredible adventures begin. He persuades Feisal to let him lead his troops as guerrilla warriors. He tackles inter-tribal warfare but still they arduosly take the Turkish port of Aquaba. Lawrence is given the task of helping the Arabs to achieve independence and he becomes a kind of desert Scarlet Pimpernel. He reaches Deraa before the British Army is in Jerusalem, he is captured by the Turks, tortured and emerges a shaken, broken and disillusioned man. Yet still he takes on the job of leading a force to Damascus. But, though he takes Damascus and sets up a United Arab Council, the natives are already at each other’s throats. He finishes a beaten man, unwanted by Arabs or the British Army. All his idealistic dreams have crumbled in the pitiless desert sands.
Subtle clashes between individuals mark the events but, from the filmgoer’s viewpoint it will probably be the scenic and dramatic highlights that will impress most. A ferocious attack by Lawrence and his Arabs on a scattered bunch of retreating Turks, during which Lawrence suddenly becomes fanatically smitten with the desire to shed blood; a sweeping sandstorm; a moment when Lawrence has to become executioner and shoot a native whose life he has saved; the surging, frightening camel attack on Akabra; the slow, lonely drag through the snowy desert in winter. These are interwoven with wily scenes of politics in high places.
Lean and cameraman Young have brought out the loneliness and pitiless torment of the desert with an artistic use of color and with almost every frame superbly mounted. Michael Warre’s musical score is often overlooked but is always contributory to the mood of the film, and artwork, second unit lensing, costumes and locales seem always completely right.
Peter O’Toole, after three or four smallish, but effective, appearances in films, makes a striking job of the complicated and heavy role of Lawrence. This young Irishman, as and when the screenplay demands, skillfully handles Lawrence’s many moods. His veiled insolence and contempt of high authority, his keen intelligence and insight his gradual simpatico with the Arabs and their way of life, his independence, courage flashy vanity, withdrawn moments, pain, loneliliness, fanaticism, idealism and occasional foolishness. O’Toole has a presence which will attract women tab buyers and convincingly builds up a picture of the Mystery Man. Spiegel’s gamble with this newish British screen actor has rousingly come off.
The title of the film is its star, but O’Toole has been surrounded by thesps of top calibre. Jack Hawkins plays General Allenby with confidence and understanding and Arthur Kennedy provides a sharp portrayal of a cynical, tough American newspaperman. The two top support performances come from Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal and Anthony Quayle as a stereotyped, honest bewildered staff officer. Guinness has a particularly well written role and plays it with shrewd, witty intuition. Jose Ferrer as a sadistic, homosexual Turkish Bey, Omar Sharif as an Arab chief and Claude Rains, playing the civilian boss of the Arab bureau, a curiously inexplicable role, also lend valuable assist. Only Anthony Quinn, as a larger-than-life, proud, intolerant Arab chief seems to obtrude over-much and tends to turn the performance into something out of the Arabian Nights. Michel Ray, Donald Wolfit, I. S. Jofar and Howard Marion Crawford also chip in with strong support.
But, all in all, this is predominantly a Sam Spiegel and David Lean achievement. It was a big bold project and has turned out a big bold film. The occasional sluggishness in action and looseness in the screenplay are blemishes that can be forgiven in the sort of eye-taking motion picture that is designed to bring people back to the cinema and certainly deserves to.
1962: Art Direction (Color) — Art Direction: John Box, John Stoll; Set Decoration: Dario Simoni, Cinematography (Color) — Fred A. Young, Directing — David Lean, Film Editing — Anne Coates, Music (Music Score–substantially original) — Maurice Jarre, Best Picture — Sam Spiegel, Producer, Sound — Shepperton Studio Sound Department, John Cox, Sound Director, Writing (Screenplay–based on material from another medium) — Robert Bolt, Michael Wilson
Nominations: Actor — Peter O’Toole (“T.E. Lawrence”), Actor in a Supporting Role — Omar Sharif (“Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish”)