Director: David Lean
Asst Director: Roy Stevens
Producer: Sam Spiegel
Script: Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
From the memoirs Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
Cinematography: Freddie Young
Special Effects: Wally Veevers and Cliff Richardson
Production Designer: John Box
Art Direction: John Stoll
Music Score: Maurice Jarre
Filmmaker David Lean has directed some of the best epics of all time. He set the standards so high that most filmmakers find it almost impossible to live up to Lean's sheer epic, cinema craftsmanship. Lawrence of Arabia was his best. This is a chapter in the life of Captain T. E. Lawrence, a troubled man who wasn't as comfortable with his own eccentricities but certainly made up for them by becoming a charismatic leader of armies that changed nations and the world. Soon he does, but the action in which he is involved changes him. The movie is about how Lawrence grows from an idealistic young man to a battle hardened man who discovers that he likes killing, and yet is repulsed by it.
The film describes how Lawrence was one of the principals involved in Arab independence, and the movie is about some of the seminal moments in the uniting of many of the Arab tribes. The movie also provides as much imagery about Lawrence's psychology as it does about his actions, because his psychology, from being able to put out a match with his bare fingers to calling for the elimination of a fleeing column of Turkish troops with the taking of no prisoners, provides insights into the complex psyche of the person of T. E. Lawrence. He was an adventurer and a historian who just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be useful to, the British army who were trying to drive the Ottoman Empire from Arabia, and the warring Arab tribes for their uprising in the desert lands.
The appeal of David Lean epics has always been his ability as a director to maintain equilibrium between the scope of his films and the characters in them. Character development is never sacrificed to massive set pieces or knock-your-socks-off action sequences. This film has these elements too, but at heart it's a character study of one remarkable man. Lean seemed to understand that impressive landscapes alone are not inherently interesting; but if you place a fascinating character among those impressive landscapes, you can have movie magic. Lawrence won many Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Photography. It was Peter O'Tooles first film and a great beginning for the career of Omar Sharif who went on to star in David Lean's next film: Dr Zhivago.
The battles are exquisitely executed. The fights are extremely well choreographed, and I admire the stamina and dedication of the hundreds of people involved in the creation of this movie as they created this movie in desert temperatures. Given the care that is taken with safety in modern films, I believe this movie would be extremely difficult to film in the same way today.
One rarely sees characters filmed from anything closer than a medium shot, and usually the background is stuffed to overflowing with garish art direction. Everything feels static and wooden. But in "Lawrence," Lean keeps his frames constantly alive by juxtaposing huge landscape shots with extreme close-ups of actor faces. In one especially brutal scene, after a battle that results in the slaughter of many people, the action cuts to a close-up of O'Toole, looking panicked and crazed, gripping a bloody knife in his hand as if he's reluctant to drop it, obviously both disturbed and titillated by the carnage he just witnessed. It's moments like that, not just an impressive battle scene but a character's reactions to the results of that scene, that sets this film apart from other standard epics.
I have always found David Lean a compelling story teller with his images as well as the dialogue. Here, the images are so beautiful, powerful, and vast that they never leave the memory. They become part of our visual language. Who doesn't get thirsty when the Nefud is being crossed? Whose heart is touched when Lawrence comes out of the Sinai into the officers club with the boy? Who doesn't feel a mix of blood lust and revulsion in the battle scenes - especially at the train and the slaughter of the Turks on the way to Damascus?