Lawrence of Arabia (1962) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The moviemaking team of producer Sam Spiegel, director David Lean and actor Alec Guinness had already made one of the greatest films in history (The Bridge on the River Kwai) when they announced their plans to spend five months in the desert sands shooting an epic about the English soldier-adventurer T.E. Lawrence. The cast and crew that followed them into the 130 degree desert got far more than they bargained for. The scheduled 150 days of shooting lasted 800 days, and the film became a four hour epic, shot on 70mm film. Lawrence of Arabia is about a singular Englishman who organized the Arab tribes in a battle to drive out the Turks around the time of World War One.

Unlike most sweeping epic adventures, there is no romance of any kind in this film (no women, in fact), and the specifics of the plot really don't matter much. As for the details of the military strategies, and who won what when, it is mentioned, but none of that really matters to the filmmaking, either.

Then what does matter? Two things.

Lawrence himself is half of the story, the desert is the other half. 

Lawrence was a strange one, to be sure. My impression is that T.E. Lawrence was probably as mad as any man can be and still function outside confinement. Crazy or not, he was a mass of contradictions.
  • Just as often as he served the English, he organized the Arabs on behalf of themselves against English interests. Neither side was very comfortable with him. Because of various peculiarities in Lawrence's nature, such as the sheer madness in his merciless "no-prisoners" slaughter of any enemy brigade, both the Arabs and the English feared him, and both were ultimately glad to be free of him.
  • Lawrence ended up a soldier, but was educated as a historian, and was a poet and a scholar of the literature of both the east and the west. One of his books is a translation of the Odyssey.
  • He committed sadistic acts, but longed to be a pacifist.
  • He was also a masochist, or at least he often had himself flogged.
  • He was also an extraordinary man who sometimes longed to be recognized for his achievements, yet also occasionally longed to be ordinary. This ambivalence is demonstrated by some fascinating real-life stories that didn't make the movie. After his adventures in the WW1 era, of which he was his own most avid publicist, Lawrence decided to hide from publicity entirely. He enlisted in the RAF under a false name, and for four months the great Lawrence of Arabia worked as a humble mechanic!

Lawrence's famous book, "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" seems to have been written by several different people at once, some of them pragmatic, some mystical.  In one of the most memorable performances in screen history, a young Peter O'Toole brought this contradictory man to life quite effectively, tempering Lawrence's rages with a certain softness and sensitivity.

Ah, yes, the forbidden subject. Let's get it out in the open.

The claim of Lawrence's homosexuality first surfaced in the mid 50s, and this film was made in 1962, when the argument was still fresh, so the idea may have seeped into the film, but only subtly if at all. Although the film ultimately left the subject of Lawrence's sexuality to the imagination, there were some hints. O'Toole played Lawrence with a soft feminine voice dripping with permanent irony, with grand gestures as he manipulated his flowing robes, and with impeccable grooming for his locks. The first time we see him he is making punctilious water color flourishes in his job as a military map maker. He also has two young boys who attend his every whim. None of this presumably authentic detail blatantly asserts his sexual preference, of course, but it does create some imagery that the people of 1962 might have associated with a homosexual man.

It was not until twenty years after his death that Lawrence was first rumored to be a homosexual. There was never hard evidence to support that contention. No lovers ever came forward, nor did Lawrence express sexual longings of any kind in any public forum. The source of the rumor was probably the fact that Lawrence acknowledged being the victim of homosexual rape when he was captured by a Turkish potentate in 1916, but this incident was certainly not his choice and he never expressed any joy in male contact. I don't remember getting any impression at all that Lawrence was homosexual when I was forced to read his book for a literature class back in the sixties, but I have to admit that the book is a draining read, and I never did get all the way through it. Here is a more intelligent discussion of the subject than any I can offer, written by someone who did get through that book, as well as many other words written by and about Lawrence. The author concludes, "There is no concrete evidence of him having had an intimate relationship with anyone male or female."

The desert plays its part as impressively as O'Toole played his. I think you probably don't realize how beautiful sand can be until you've seen David Lean's team photograph it, recording sunset and sunrise, or capturing the mirages caused by the day's heat. I have to admit that I did tire of the desert imagery before David Lean did. He just loves the panorama of the camel riders making their way through the desert in parade fashion, and he shows the patterns they form from various distances, overhead, 3/4 overhead, etc. I was impressed, but after I saw the shots I tended to fast forward to the next time something actually happened, while he lingered on the formations. But I guess that's my personal preference showing. 

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1, enhanced for 16x9 screens, on two disks

  • four featurettes and a longer documentary

  • interview with Steven Spielberg

  • the original trailers and some footage from the premiere

  • DVD-ROM features: map of the Arabian campaign, and historic photographs



None. For all practical purposes, there are no women

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: four stars. Ebert 4/4, Maltin 4/4.

  • did one of their comprehensive treatments of this movie, and I recommend it if you want to know everything there is to know about the film.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 8.6, among the top 25 of all time. 
  • With their dollars ... Produced for $12 million (about $120 million today), it grossed six million in 1962, but far more in subsequent rentals and re-releases. (Rentals are reported to be $20 million)
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B or better. It is popular both with film buffs and general audiences, although the four hour running time keeps it from being an easy watch.

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