When my dad took me to see this film at the cinema in Mexborough (South Yorkshire) my tiny schoolboy mind was much puzzled that nobody else noticed the glaring continuity error. Within seconds of the curtain going up, Lawrence dies on his motorbike at the beginning of the film. And yet, unperturbed by his own death he goes off to fight a guerrilla campaign in World War I in the desert . . .
Throughout the war, young lieutenant T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) keeps returning to Cairo and complaining that he won’t go back to the desert because he’s not fit. Then someone gives him a drink or a cigarette and off he tears again into the sand to kill more Turks.
He does this three or four times until everyone gets so pissed off with him that they send him back to England so he can ride motorcycles around all the time (even though he actually killed himself doing this very thing at the beginning of the film).
There are also several thousand camels, miles of sand and loads of big explosions. Add a bombastic Maurice Jarre score, pumped-up Technicolor and a few dignified thespians to brown-up as Arabs (Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn) and you have a package designed for Oscars to be flung at.
Of all the cinematic epics captured on 70mm (rather than on 35mm and then blown up), few come as grand and successfully realised as Lawrence of Arabia. Ambitious in every sense of the word, David Lean’s Oscar-grabbing masterpiece makes most movies pale in comparison and has served as an inspiration for countless filmmakers, most notably technical masters like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The latter eventually helped restore Lawrence of Arabia to its proper length and lustre alongside fellow enthusiast Martin Scorsese.
Designed for 70mm projection, the format enhances the film’s minute details, from star Peter O’Toole’s piercing blue eyes to the sun beaming down on the constantly shifting sand. Lawrence of Arabia’s famous images and set pieces, such as Omar Sharif’s appearance out of a desert mirage, the famed cut from a lit match to the sunrise, and the mind-boggling assault on Akaba, look spectacular and, indeed, unrepeatable.
The $15 million picture was three years in the making (the 14-month shoot lasted longer than the Arab revolt itself) and – unsurprisingly – won seven Oscars in 1962, including Best Film and Best Director.
Auda Abu Tayi