So many films today use the term 'epic' that it's lost all its grandeur. No longer used to evoke a sweeping feel and scope, now critics, fans and the studios themselves employ the term for anything that costs over $150 million to make. I wonder what Hollywood would call Lawrence of Arabia today, a film that runs nearly four hours and contains no women, no love story, and surprisingly little action. Hell, they probably wouldn't call it anything other than a 'disaster' and would immediately shelve it in favor of yet another sequel to a franchise no one really likes.
Yet Lawrence of Arabia lives on as a stunning testament to the majestic capabilities of film, the boundless freedom afforded to a dedicated crew and a talented director. Though there are some truly marvelous battle scenes, there's little to entice the viewer on paper. But Lawrence is one of those films, like Kubrick's 2001, that sustains itself on pure spectacle., and it's all shouldered by newcomer Peter O'Toole, who appears in almost every scene and commands attention as if he'd been a star all his life. That this was first lead role in a major film is flabbergasting; not only is he thoroughly assured, but the simple fact that there was a time when someone would film a production of this magnitude without a star in the lead is unfathomable to this child of the Franchise Era.
O'Toole's Lawrence may be the most unlikely character ever get his own dramatic biography. Lawrence was indeed an important figure in modern British history; his rallying of the various Arab tribes to defeat the Turks was a major development of World War I. Yet the fact that he did so out of his inability to fit in with British society makes the whole thing rather perplexing.
O'Toole plays Lawrence with a flair for the insolent that would define his career. While other officers tread over polite words and diplomacy, Lawrence wins over Arab leaders with blunt honesty and brilliant strategy. Everywhere he goes he wins over a new ally with his abrasive style. His lasting friend through his journey is an Arab he meets early on, Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), the one man who remains at Lawrence's side.
But the characters, even Lawrence, seem secondary to the visuals. Freddie Young, who won an Oscar for his cinematography on the film, consistently achieves the impossible; not only did he manage to shoot through the heat waves and create crisp images, he kept the cameras working as winds constantly blew sand into every nook and cranny. Young earns a spot in film history with this work alone, although he also photographed some other famous movies like 49th Parallel and Lean's own Doctor Zhivago.
Though Lean's direction is perhaps too indicative of a stuffy late-empire Brit, you can't fault the beauty of the film. There's really no plot to hang a hat on, and certainly not one that demands 4 hours to do it justice, but not once does Lean lose our interest. Classic Hollywood epics are inevitably tied to the effects of their time, but the lack of action sequences actually helps Lawrence remain relevant; without bad stop-motion animation or cheap sets to distract newer generations, Lawrence of Arabia stands as an evergreen example of the true visual power of film, past all the explosions and battles and into the realm of art.