Sixty years on and David Lean's mythic of conqueror turned conquered still holds a spot as one of the best on-screen case studies of British imperialism and its impetus to irrationality...
Director: David Lean
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Alex Guinness, Jack Hawkins
Running Time: 228 minutes
A three-and-a-half-hour feature film detailing the descent into a madman's melancholia as examined over the enormous expanse of the Arabian desert. After sixty years, you’d think it would be a little tired, without the same marvel as it once inspired, but Lean’s uniquely fluid integration of desert and despair does not waver once. Truly a cinematic spectacle that withstands the test of time.
Immediately greeted by the death of our titular character, Lean opens with a memorial sequence inside of St Paul's Cathedral. A group of high-ranked Military men stand around discussing Lawrence’s character:
"He was a poet, a scholar and a mighty warrior"
"He was also a shameless exhibitionist"
Right from the very beginning Lean makes it abundantly clear that the film's focus is not the action and atmosphere of war, not the grandiosity of British imperialism, but of the layers of identity that unravel throughout.
It would be impossible to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of Lawrence of Arabia without paying homage to the phenomenal scope of its primary setting - the desert. With its expanse and fascinating mysticism taking on the role of a character itself. Steven Spielberg talks of how he couldn’t comprehend its enormity. Being ‘unable to digest it in one sitting.’
And in our modern, digital age of film with its consistent reliance on fantasy features and CGI this anniversary acts as a personal reminder that simply by utilizing the sheer wonder of the world around us, awe can be inspired.
A cerebral collapse on the grandest scale, that encapsulates the barbaric, beautiful brutality of war and identity.
As the film progresses, we see Lawrence oscillate from polite prophet to murderous messiah as he completely engrosses himself in the greatness and atrocities of war. But what remains salient throughout is the biblical component.
As we enter the third act, the climax, of the film. Arabian Sheriff, Ali, warns against embarking on a desert pilgrimage, to which Lawrence replies:
"Moses did it"
This really represents Lawrence’s idealism at its most irrational, he is no longer human but something deceptively holier. And in the flailing action that finishes the film, as Jerusalem is shelled by Britain, the audience can finally answer that question we were set out to answer: who really is Lawrence? There is no Lawrence anymore.
He has lost his true identity. No longer a British hero. No longer Arabian Savoir. But cast in the middle as a purposefully undefined shell of a soldier. Whilst this is not an overtly anti-war film - the psychological descent of the soldier speaks for itself. And whilst it does not lean into leftist rhetoric, it still acts as a quiet condemnation of the British Army and what the institution did to a very real man.
It is a 228 Minute film that is part technical masterpiece, part masterpiece of mind over matter. A cerebral collapse on the grandest scale, that encapsulates the barbaric, beautiful brutality of war and identity. Most importantly it is a film that is just as interesting and enjoyable on the commemorative rewatch as watching for the first time.
Did you know? Almost all movement in the movie goes from left to right. Director David Lean said he did this to emphasise that this movie was a journey.
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