Reel Matt

This blog started as my movie marathon — watching a movie a day for a whole year — and has continued as a place for me to write reviews about movies, TV, and various other items.



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Lawrence of Arabia

Film #191


Epic rumination on a flamboyant and controversial British military figure and his conflicted loyalties during wartime service.

Year 1, Day 188

BEFORE: David Lean’s followup to yesterday’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is the sprawling epic Lawrence of Arabia. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won seven including Best Picture and Director. According to Wikipedia, Lawrence of Arabia holds the record for longest film to win Best Picture (beating out Gone with the Wind), but based on IMDb and my own copies of the films, it seems I have finally run across an incorrect fact on the source of human knowledge. While it may not be the longest Best Picture winner, Lawrence of Arabia still puts up a good fight clocking in at 227 minutes (I’ll be watching the Restored director’s cut which is five minutes longer than the original 222 minute runtime).

AFTER: One thing is certain: David Lean certainly knows the word epic. If I had to describe Lawrence of Arabia in one word it would be epic. Think about films today and a few might come to mind in this category. Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars all have that epic nature to them: a grand scale, monumental action, and a long story. Not surprisingly, these films are the big blockbusters of today, films that fans flock to see the latest in visual effects and a spectacle that must be seen in theaters. Well over fifty years ago in 1962, Lawrence of Arabia was that kind of film with one big caveat: it’s all real - no visual effects.

For the entire film it was as if I was in a state of shock. I just could not wrap my head around how shots like this could be pulled off, shots that would not even be attempted in real life today, they would just go straight to the animators in the VFX department. To give some sort of reference to what I’m talking about, here is one scene for example. Everything you see on screen was actually there in front of the camera; no computer simulations, no digital doubles - everything is tangible. In just the first few seconds you hundreds of townspeople running away and numerous tents set in a sprawling location. The next shot you see Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) leading his fellow Arabs to the town far off in the distance. Next shot you cut closer to the approaching Arabs and you get a better sense of how large the company is. Hundreds of people with horses and camels, swords and guns, costumes, and a bunch of other props. Just take a moment and think off all the planning that has to go into not only making the costumes and the props, but organizing all the stars and extras and coordinating everything so it looks good on camera. You may think it’s impressive but still not see how amazing it is because you see things like this all the time (this battle from The Return of the King for instance). Just for the shear size and scope of Lawrence of Arabia alone it’s worth it to watch.

But visuals aren’t everything, the story is as well. For the most part, the time just seemed to fly by. Even long drawn-out scenes in the desert where there’s no talking, just the men riding their camels through the extreme heat and vast expanse of sand are entertaining. You don’t really feel bored or waiting for something to happen; you just go along with it. The story itself is also an epic bringing to mind ancient tales like The Odyssey. The length of the film is just another aspect to the film. Seeing the same film condensed down into two hours, story issues aside, just wouldn’t feel the same. These broad visuals need a similarly grand story behind it. Sure, the runtime can be a bit long and it impedes casual, spur-of-the-moment viewings, but when you plan to watch Lawrence of Arabia and are ready to devote four hours to the film, the length will be reasonable.

Lawrence of Arabia is an interesting film for me. I very much enjoyed watching it and think is a landmark in terms of filmmaking. The incredibly large and epic visuals combined with an equally elaborate story is enough to shock and amaze you. But now it comes time for my rating and recommendation. For my previous twenty-eight 5 star films they are all films I could easily watch over and over again at any moment. If someone asked me to watch one of those films with them, I wouldn’t hesitate. With Lawrence of Arabia however, I don’t feel that same draw. I’d gladly watch the film again, and will at some point in the future, but that eagerness won’t be there. Still, I urge you all to plan on watching Lawrence of Arabia; it’s quite a wonder to behold.

RATING: 5 out of 5