“Undisciplined… unpunctual… untidy. Knowledge of music… knowledge of literature… knowledge of… knowledge of… You’re an interesting man, there’s no doubt about it.”
Lawrence of Arabia is widely heralded as one of the greatest epic films of all time, and it certainly is that, but it goes a level deeper with its exploration of heroism. Directed by David Lean (Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai) and starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Quinn, this World War I epic captures a unique little corner of history and makes an interesting comment on what heroism really means. This film really embodies what epics are all about, especially considering that this film was released in 1962 and uses all practical effects. It’s stood up well over the years, and this film could hold its own against just about any other epic film out there.
The plot follows T.E. Lawrence, an intelligence officer in the British army during World War I. Lawrence is carefree and undisciplined, so rather than send him to Europe, they send him to the Arabian Peninsula to see about recruiting some of the locals there to help take out some military targets. Lawrence succeeds in doing so and begins making military strikes against foes to great effect. But there’s a lot of work to be done in the Arabian Peninsula, including some that Lawrence could never have anticipated.
Truly, for some men, nothing is written unless they write it.
Lawrence of Arabia is an epic through and through, and it pulls this off exceedingly well. The vast shots of camels crossing an impossibly huge desert show how big this real land really is—no trick shots are needed because they went to a massive desert to shoot. The battle scenes are amazing, especially considering everyone you see was actually there for filming with some scenes containing hundreds of extras. Speaking of extras, most of them were played by actual soldiers from the Arab Legion. There are scenes that really take their time to set up how big the scale of the land and conflict are. It might feel a little slow in some parts, but this film wouldn’t be nearly as grand with the quick-cut shots that are popular today.
I went into this movie blind, and I’m sad to say some of the earlier scenes gave me a bad impression of the movie. There’s a fair bit of camp and bravado in the beginning as Lawrence sets out to be a hero and basks in the glory that heroism brings him. If you’re turned off by this, just keep watching. Lawrence has to learn in this story that his job is not all about heroics and nobility. He wanted to be a hero, but they didn’t need a hero—they needed a leader. Lawrence learned, just like I learned as a manager in an advertising agency, that being a leader often means making the hard choices and doing the shit jobs that no one else is willing to. He ended up being a hero, but he didn’t end up feeling like one. In fact, the task of leadership he carried out almost destroyed him, and he’s a much different man at the end of the film than he is at the beginning.
Lawrence of Arabia is a great epic film that doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to open discussion about the hardships and cost of leading others to create meaningful change, and it really succeeds on both levels: epic and biopic. The film definitely has a classic vibe to it, having been released in 1962, but it holds up well today, and I highly doubt that some of the scenes in this film would have been as epic had they been done with CGI and camera tricks. There have been some pretty entertaining epics over the years, but this is undoubtedly one of the most well-done. Epic filmmakers take note: this is how it’s done.
Director: David Lean
Genres: biopic, epic, historical