“We can’t all be lion tamers.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Airing at 11PM EST

Let me begin by saying this: I am well aware that this film is more than three-and-a-half hours long. That’s a big commitment to make late on a Monday night. That being said, if you do not yet possess the magical mystery device known as the DVR, it’s well worth staying up to catch this movie anyway. Without a doubt, this film qualifies under the category, “Movies You Must See Before You Croak.”

The story, based on Lt. Colonel T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is a snapshot of Lawrence’s life, focusing on his time in World War I-era Arabia (largely Egypt). Lawrence assists the Arabs in their rebellion against the Turks, leading them in guerrilla warfare designed to return the territory to their own control. A combination war film/historical epic, the movie uncompromisingly shows the spoils and stark realities of war while glossing over some of the more controversial aspects of Lawrence’s character and adventures (including his purported homosexuality … of course, this was 1962).

Lawrence of Arabia marks Peter O’Toole’s first major leading role, and he does a magnificent job of portraying the somewhat arcane title character (plus–let’s face it–he’s pretty. Sorry, but it’s so true. Check out those eyes).

This was the role that should have won him the Oscar–and would have, had he not been forced to compete against Gregory Peck’s flawless performance as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quinn, and Claude Rains round out an effective supporting cast, with Sharif scoring a much-deserved Oscar nomination for his turn. But, truth be told, the star of this movie is the setting.

If ever a movie absolutely required widescreen viewing, it’s this gorgeous cinematographic masterpiece. As Michael Mann says in TCM’s wonderful featurette about letterboxing: “If you pan-and-scan Lawrence of Arabia, you lose the desert.” And that would be, in all senses of the word, a disaster. You need the accessibility of widescreen in order to capture the essence of the story, to envision (literally) just how much loneliness there is in this man’s soul, reflected right there in front of him in the north African desert.

The landscape of that desert is so breathtaking, and so realistic, you really feel as though you’re standing right there in the hot sun with O’Toole and company. Thank God for on-location filming. And thank God for a director such as David Lean, a veritable expert at filming the accessible epic (for further evidence, see also The Bridge on the River Kwai and Doctor Zhivago). Brilliance all around.

This is the version that I own (mine actually has the limited edition cloth-covered case … yes, I’m a film nerd), and it has some excellent special features, with several intriguing documentaries and specials about the making of the film. It’s a little pricey, but there are less expensive one-disc versions with the same widescreen specifications (I don’t think anyone would dare sell a fullscreen version of Lawrence of Arabia, but it never hurts to double-check).

Oscar checklist:

Wins: Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Score, Best Sound, Best Picture

Nominations: Best Actor (O’Toole), Best Supporting Actor (Sharif), Best Adapted Screenplay

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One thought on ““We can’t all be lion tamers.”

  1. Pingback: SUtS: Peter O’Toole | True Classics: The ABCs of Classic Film

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