An epic of majesty and terror whose massive storytelling scope does not extend its meticulous filmmaking reach, Lawrence of Arabia truly is one of the best films ever made. That statement is true in the classic sense of Hollywood cinema, where technical film exists only as a platform to tell stories. But its true in a technical sense too, that even if you were to remove all characters and plot from “Lawrence of Arabia,” the sweeping images of the desert with the bright blue sky layered above are some of the most breathtaking images you’ll ever see in your lifetime.
That credit is owed to director David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young. Their team effort effectively creates mirages, both as plot devices and visual splendors for viewing, where its unclear just how far away certain characters or dangers are. Shooting in the sand, let alone a massive desert, is intimidating, but its clear hours upon hours of planning and effort went into each shot. One shot in particular is after a successful Arab attack on a train, with Lawrence jollily dancing on top of a busted car. He moves and we see the sun following behind (or at least a light source we’re to believe is the sun). Lawrence is effectively cast in shadow, his friends and supporters able to see his joy, but not his true intentions. I have to be honest, even trying to figure out how that shot was executed is tying my brain into a knot. But the fact that I was struck so much by it only reiterates the mastery of these two men.
Peter O’Toole deserves a significant amount of credit for bringing the story to life as well. His take on Lawrence is sensitive and complex. O’Toole makes us admire and worry for Lawrence, and his arc almost seems, fairly predictable from apathetic soldier to passionate savior. But that concept gets turned on its head later through the film with O’Toole diving deep into Lawrence’s vanity and trauma, a character whom has become a stranger in a short three hours although he started off as our friend at the beginning. It’s one of the most believable and praise-worthy transformations of acting I’ve ever seen. Lawrence effectively goes from object of our pity to object of our admiration to finally object of our indecision. He becomes the type of character you’d agree to go to a friendly group dinner with, just as long as you didn’t have to sit directly next to him.
It’s a transformative movie-watching experience. It’s a movie that not only pulls down the cloak to show what is possible in film-making, but also shows how that possible has already been accomplished. Like Lawrence dancing on the train, we’re fascinated and delighted but also cloaked in darkness, wondering if a movie of this scale could have been made in 1962, what future delights are lurking in that cinematic desert under the sun.