Lawrence of Arabia review – David Lean's sandy epic still radiates greatness

Peter O’Toole’s impossibly charismatic debut performance remains a mesmeric marvel in this digitally restored version of the exhilarating historical drama

David Lean’s magnificent and sensual 1962 epic is back at London’s BFI Southbank in a 70mm print. Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson’s terrifically bold adaptation of TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a movie with all the sweep and antique confidence of a cavalry charge.

Lean demonstrated a mastery of storytelling structure, scale, perspective-shifting, the intense closeup moment, the colossal widescreen panorama – epitomised by the film’s most famous coup de cinéma: having accepted his commission to go out to the Middle East with the Arab bureau in the first world war, and allowed audiences to savour his marvellous profile, Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence blows out a match and the scene changes to the burning desert at sunrise. The screen is ablaze. The dunes undulate in the heat, and Maurice Jarre’s score ululates along with it.

It is Lawrence’s destiny to unite warring Arab tribes to fight the Turks and the Ottoman empire in the British interest. But Lawrence’s own loyalties become divided, and he falls in love with the Arab nations and all their fondly (or condescendingly) imagined ascetic martial heroism, perhaps the way Byron did with Greeks during the war of independence a century before. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars became a key text of orientalism, and the movie intuits its romantic grandeur, while amplifying its absurdity and conceit.

As for O’Toole, he made one of the most outrageously charismatic debuts in film history with his performance: a Valentino for the 1960s, one of the working-class young lions like Caine and Finney. He is physically beautiful, with mesmeric eyes of china blue. His long, handsome face was that of a seducer, a visionary, an anchorite, a sinner or a saint, and is entirely comfortable with the ambiguities of his sexual nature, about which the movie is reasonably frank.

It is an oddity that there are no women characters: Lawrence’s love affair is with the desert, with the pan-Arab nations and, well, with Arabs themselves. Omar Sharif is superb as his ally Sherif Ali – he made almost as much of a career-defining splash as O’Toole – although it is uncomfortable now to see Alec Guinness cast in blackface as the wily Prince Feisal. An exhilarating, immersive experience.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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