Lawrence of Arabia ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The Arabian desert; an absolutely brutal, pitiless, and unforgiving landscape, the ruthless, scorching daytime sun beats down on it relentlessly, as a veritable ocean's worth of sand stretches out to the horizon, seeming to go on for an eternity and beyond, creating one of the harshest, most inhospitable places on the planet. Even more endless than this desert, however, are the sheer complexities of the human soul, both in its capacity for good as well as evil, and in almost no other person were these inner depths and contradictions explored deeper and further than in Thomas Edward Lawrence, whose wartime exploits in Arabia were immortalized in David Lean's 1962 classic Lawrence Of Arabia, one of the last (and one of the best) "hurrah!"s of the old-school Hollywood historical epic, and also just one of the best films of all time, period.

The film tells the story of "T.E. Lawrence", a British military officer who, during World War I, was dispatched to Arabia to serve as liason between his government and the Arab rebels who, at the time, were not only struggling for their independence against the brutal dominion and oppression of the Ottoman Empire, but also against the ancient, bitter tribal divides that still threatened to tear them apart, even in the face of far greater, more urgent crises. And, if you're familiar with the history of the real "Lawrence Of Arabia", you already know that he was fairly successful in his quest to guide the Arab Revolt; he made alliances with various Arab tribes, leaders, and even royalty, helped lead them in numerous successful raids against the Turkish Army, and even oversaw the captures of the strategically vital outposts of Aqaba and Damascus, the capital of Syria. However, the main question that David Lean poses to us in Lawrence Of Arabia isn't whether or not Lawrence succeeded in his physical journey (although the overall fate of the Arab world post-war poses that question naturally), but rather, at what price did that success cost his soul?

Over the course of Arabia's near 4-hour(!) running time, Lean compellingly tells the story of Lawrence's journey, both in a purely aural/visual sense, as well as in the inner, personal struggles of the man himself; Maurice Jarre's majestic, sweeping score still stirs the soul just as much even half a century later, while Frederick Young's breathtakingly epic cinematography fully captures the harsh, impossibly expansive beauty and majesty of Arabia, with its ugly, jagged rock formations, and disorientingly vast, incredibly parched stretches of sand that often threaten to swallow the characters whole, both visually and literally. As for Lawrence himself, Lean methodically captures every defining moment in his quest, painstakingly displaying the journey he takes from being a borderline insubordinate, restless intelligence officer stewing away in a "nasty, dark little room" and lusting to experience some sort of excitment in the desert, to a cynical, world-weary adventurer, disillusioned both by the bloody reality of front-lines warfare, and the self-serving, behind-the-scenes ambitions of the nations waging such wars.

Peter O'Toole's star-making performance as Lawrence is still one of the all-time greats, perfectly capturing the man's initial, seemingly insatiable hunger for adventure, followed by his gradual but confident winning of the admiration of various, vitally important Arab tribesmen after they're initially suspicious of the foreign "Englishman", before his initial vision of an independent Arabia is dashed by the colonial ambitions of European powers, including those of his own country, and his extended exposure to the true, ugly horrors of tribalism, colonialism, and of course, war, transforms his innate self-masochism slowly but inevitably into a merciless outward bloodlust. O'Toole's portrayal here is as vivid as you could expect from any actor, past or present, with his piercing blue eyes and intensely emotional, quivering facial expressions combining to create one of the finest, most unforgettable embodiments of a historical figure on film, and one of the greatest tragic heroes in the history of cinema as well.

And finally, despite having one of the longest runtimes in the history of non-experimental film, Lawrence Of Arabia still manages to feel its length in the good sense of the phrase, alternating between lengthy but (almost) never tedious physical travails across unforgiving, awe-inspiringly HUGE expanses of the Arabian desert, mixed in with scenes of strikingly personal, intimate character development and political maneuverings, not merely with Lawrence himself, but for just about every character around him as well, whether it Sherif Ali's tug-of-war between his hopes for Arab independence fighting against his innner xenophobia against Arabs of other tribes, the "slim customer" Mr. Dryden's naked, unashamed desire for future colonial exploitation of the Arabian peninsula, or Jackson Bentley's journalistic eagerness to find an idolistic figure to "sell" the war to his readers being dashed by his discovery of what kind of man Lawrence really is (or at least, the kind of man the war has turned him into), is a multitude of rich characterizations that just wouldn't be possible with a running time cut to be "friendlier" to general audiences. In all of this and more, Lawrence Of Arabia truly proves itself to be an epic to end all epics, and if it had to be one of the notes that the Hollywood of old was meant to go out on, what a magnificent note it was, indeed.

Final Score: 10