I wish I could have watched this movie at the cinema, or at least on one of those enormous TV screens they taunt you with at JB Hi-Fi, because I don’t think my TV did it justice. This is a big fat epic of a film, so epic in fact it actually has an official intermission in the middle of its nearly four-hour running time. It’s interesting that, while TV series binge-watching is a fairly normal thing nowadays, that kind of episodic viewing still doesn’t have the same feel as watching a very long feature film.
Directed by David Lean, the film is based on the true and quite incredible story of T. E. Lawrence, a British military officer during WWI who ended up participating in and sometimes leading an Arab revolt against Turks. Which didn’t end so well, with the British and French eventually carving up Middle East between themselves. As presented here, Lawrence is a peculiar, eccentric figure, an outsider both among his countrymen and Arabs, but possessing a weird blend of charisma, confidence and craziness that makes other people’s willingness to go along with his seemingly mad plans, like crossing a desert previously thought uncrossable, seem credible.
I haven’t seen Peter O’Toole in many other roles, but in this movie he is one of the most strangely beautiful (and I mean beautiful, not just “handsome” or “hot”) men I’ve seen onscreen, with vivid blue eyes that sparkle like sapphires and facial features that are sculptured and slightly odd and yet produce a stunning effect. He really has the presence and look of an extraordinary person – in his white-and-gold desert wear, he seems like something out of a myth. Even though Lawrence is the focus of the story, it’s more of an adventure rather than a biopic, and its hero remains something of an enigma, even to the allies and friends he wins along the way. One of these desert leaders, Prince Feisal, is played by Alec Guinness in what is a distracting piece of casting – even setting aside modern political correctness and use of make-up, it took me out of the movie, despite Guinness’ strong performance. Not enough to ruin the film though.
I have a fascination with desert landscapes and there just aren’t enough superlatives to describe the film’s cinematographic achievements and the elegant framing and compositions. The sheer vastness, harsh beauty and scorching heat of the desert looks amazing even on my measly home TV screen, and the shots of Wadi Rum reminded me that I really need to make it to Jordan during my lifetime. But it’s no mere pretty travelogue – the epic landscapes serve the character and story first and most.
P. S. It was also fun catching up on the scenes and moments referenced in the other films and books. Most notably Prometheus, with its blond android character modelling himself on O’Toole’s Lawrence, and Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, which among other things spoofs the “trick is not minding that it hurts” scene.