Ranking: #58/111

Director: David Lean (Britain)

Genre: Historical Drama

David Lean’s fictionalised account of the career of archaeologist, army officer and writer T. E. Lawrence, famous for his role in the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918 against the Ottoman Empire, shouldn’t be seen as a historically accurate portrait. Rather, Lawrence of Arabia should be enjoyed as a work of cinematic art, as a highly imaginative and technically brilliant film.

The source material for the screenplay is Lawrence’s 1926 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, as interpreted by the British playwright and screenwriter, Robert Bolt, that is. Bolt invested his fictional Lawrence character with elements of the Shakespearean tragic hero, by which a great man is ultimately destroyed by a single flaw within his character. Having cast the central character in the role of the tragic hero, the film was obliged to exaggerate both his strengths and his tragic flaw to achieve the right dramatic effect. The Lawrence we see on the screen has oodles of magnetic charisma, but it is allied to a growing megalomania and self-love. Like Macbeth, too, this cinematic Lawrence is eventually enveloped by a blood lust.

Just as Shakespeare exaggerated characteristics of his tragic heroes, and other characters in his plays, for theatrical effect, so we can forgive Lean for the historical inaccuracies in the movie simply because the imaginative, sensory and emotional experience Lawrence of Arabia provides for its audience is just out of this world.

Shot in Technicolor and Super Panavision 70, and boasting a beautiful dramatic score from master film composer, Maurice Jarre, the film has produced some of the greatest, most stirring, scenes in film history. Freddie Young’s Super Panavision 70 cinematography helped to make this film succeed as a work of art. In Super Panavision, spherical lenses are used to create that unmistakeable widescreen effect, so beautifully apposite for the vast desert scenes and the battle scenes in the story.

This is an epic drama about a war taking place in the deserts of Arabia and about how an unusual, complex and imaginative man discovered an affinity for that harsh environment and the peoples who lived in it.

The acting must be praised because the film wouldn’t have succeeded as an epic without big performances across the whole cast. Peter O’Toole is mesmerising as Lawrence and Alec Guinness is imposing as Prince Faisal, while Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains and Arthur Kennedy are all convincing and engaging in their roles.

David Lean stated that the editing alone took a year’s work after filming was over. A big part of the editing for him was using sounds to orchestrate the imagery. He liked using silences, natural sounds, without too much dialogue, in addition to the soundtrack. The great British director and cinematic story-teller has explained in interviews that the script is the basis of any film but that it has to be interpreted visually by the director. “The audience needs to be excited by the images,” he has said. For him, making movies is telling a story in images. I get the impression he wanted his audiences to fall in love with his films.

Millions fell in love with Lawrence of Arabia and even today the film can move and excite an audience. The film won seven Oscars at the 35th Academy Awards in 1963, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Lawrence of Arabia has an emotional and visual impact which makes it impossible to forget, once its scenery and story have been seared into the memory.