Big Things Have Small Beginnings

Lawrence of Arabia may be the most influential epic in Hollywood history. Considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made. When I decided to watch every Best Picture winner, I knew Lawrence of Arabia would be the most daunting. I already watched Gone with the Wind when I was younger, but I took my time with Lawrence of Arabia. Even though it was one of the last critically acclaimed classics I still hadn’t seen. My parents would often bring up how long the movie is. At around 3 hours & 42 minutes, Lawrence of Arabia is the longest Best Picture winner of all time.

Though Gone with the Wind is just about equal in runtime, I knew I was more guaranteed to be invested in the story. For years I thought Lawrence of Arabia would be boring, but I was fully invested from beginning to end. Lawrence of Arabia was a major influence for some of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood. It’s iconic desert setting was the basis for many action, adventure, fantasy, and/or science fiction stories. Much like his previous epic The Bridge on the River Kwai, British director David Lean took a lesser known historical conflict and gave it a massive scale…

Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence readies Ali, Auda, and his Arab army for battle

Lawrence of Arabia is based on the life of T. E. Lawrence. A British Army officer known for joining the Arab Revolt during World War I. Most of the movie is based on his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Except for his death in a motorcycle accident shown at the very beginning of the film. Which goes to show that even a man who takes part in a devastating conflict can die an ordinary death. Lawrence of Arabia has often been called a masterpiece, but I know Lawrence’s life story isn’t entirely accurate. Regardless of how they portray him, Lawrence of Arabia is meant to be a larger than life epic that emphasizes its production value.

Lawrence of Arabia is shot in crisp technicolor with Super Panavision 70 cinematography and a powerful score composed by Maurice Jarre. It’s the music you think of when exploring the desert by camel. Speaking of desert, a big reason for the massive runtime are several lingering shots of sand that are beautiful especially when the sun starts to set. Lawrence of Arabia also includes an overture, intermission, and exit music. The first half recounts Lawrence’s life before his untimely death. I was already familiar with his early days in Cairo since the movie Prometheus features the famous lines: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts” and “Big things have small beginnings.”

The cast is not so surprisingly boys only without a single speaking part for women. Since there’s no romance, some people think there’s overt gay subtext, but I don’t really see it that way. The all-male cast is brilliant no matter how much screen time they’re given. Screen legend Peter O’Toole got his big break playing T. E. Lawrence. His blonde hair and piercing blue eyes contrast his mostly Arab comrades. Lawrence thinks his Arabian assignment to find Prince Faisal will be fun, but he soon finds himself drawn into their war against the Turks. O’Toole is great at portraying Lawrence’s heroism, aversion to violence, and conflicting ideologies. The movie leans into Islamic territory, but there are Christian themes as well.

After winning an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai, Sir Alec Guinness played the Arabian prince as convincingly as he could. He doesn’t have a ton of screen time, but he makes an impact whenever he does appear. Faisal’s viewpoints directly contrast with Lawrence’s British superior General Allenby played by Jack Hawkins. Anthony Quayle assists Lawrence later in the film as Colonel Harry Brighton, and an aging Claude Rains represents the more political side of the conflict as Mr. Dryden. Lawrence’s most complex relationship is with Arab leader Sherif Ali. Omar Sharif made a major impression as one of the only Egyptians in the main cast. Ali’s entrance is iconic as he very slowly approaches Lawrence and his guide at a well. The scene is excellent at building tension.

Lawrence and Ali have many ups and downs, but they remain loyal to one another. They first earn each other’s respect when Lawrence risks his life to save a fallen comrade. Lawrence also gains two young Arab servants who follow them on their journey. Hispanic actor Anthony Quinn also convincingly plays Auda Abu Tayi, leader of a rival Arab tribe who’s mostly in it for money. When they eventually seize Aqaba, Lawrence seeks weapons and assistance from the British. Unaware that they plan to take over the country when the war ends. Lawrence slowly acclimates to the Arabian lifestyle by wearing the traditional robes and headdress, but it’s in the second half that he truly shifts allegiances. Arthur Kennedy plays an American journalist tasked with turning Lawrence into a hero of the war. He photographs an epic train attack against the Turks that ends badly for some of Lawrence’s men.

Lawrence and Ali get to know their enemy better when they find the Turkish Bey played by Josรฉ Ferrer in a small but memorable role. As the revolt continues, Lawrence becomes more and more disillusioned. He finally ends up on a road to Damascus where he leads a massive Arab army. Lawrence goes too far in an iconic scene where he cries out for “No prisoners!” and proceeds to slaughter most of the fleeing Turks. It’s an impressive battle that gets surprisingly bloody. They form an Arab council in Damascus, but it doesn’t last. The movie finally ends with Lawrence returning home and seeing a motorcycle that foreshadows his eventual fate. Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Actor for O’Toole, Supporting Actor for Sharif, and Adapted Screenplay. Winning 7 Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Art Direction, Cinematography, Film Editing, Music Score, and Sound. Lawrence of Arabia left an impact on cinema.

Lawrence of Arabia 2

Ali slowly approaches Lawrence and his guide

6 thoughts on “Big Things Have Small Beginnings

  1. I too had the same thoughts that Lawrence of Arabia would be boring, but I was glad to be completely wrong as it was engaging from beginning to end. The all star cast all offer amazing performances in this film, especially O’Toole and Sharif in star making turns. Anthony Quinn is one of acting’s best chameleons, he can fit into whatever role you give him. It’s easy to see why T.E. Lawrence was a controversial figure, it’s hard to tell whether war was too much for him, or if he was always a ruthless character that managed to hide for years.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lawrence sits on my list as the best of the Oscar picture winners. It also features in my submission for Sight and Sound magazine’s 100 Greatest Films Ever if they ever come knocking looking for my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

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