Lawrence of Arabia

Fri, Nov 23, 2012, 00:00

Directed by David Lean. Starring Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Anthony Quayle, Arthur Kennedy, Claude Rains Club, IFI, Dublin, 216 min

TO USE Philip Larkin’s famous formulation, David Lean’s much-lauded semi-clever epic – now celebrating its half-century – emerged “between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”.

One is tempted to suggest that Lawrence of Arabia now seems stranded in that post-Suez sump of compromised patriotism and sexual repression. Consider the evidence.

The film addresses the Arab question through the vehicle of an Anglo-Irish Oxford graduate who points the natives – “a little people, a silly people” – away from their petty factionalism and towards a very British class of martial discipline. Alec Guinness is allowed to play an Arab monarch. Jose Ferrer plays a Turk. Homosexuality manifests itself as a class of post-traumatic psychosis.

Can it be only 50 years? Well, three decades later, with Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner won an Oscar for proving that white men make better Native Americans than any natural-born Sioux. Such ugly myths still lurk about contemporary cinema.

It is, moreover, difficult to be too harsh on a film that gleams with such spooky lustre. Robert Bolt’s dialogue now seems almost as plodding as the leaden aphorisms he penned for A Man for All Seasons. But Freddie Young’s wide-screen cinematography has a yawning scope that should still overcome even the most resistant Marxist student of post-colonialism.

Later a victim of his own brown-voiced presence, Peter O’Toole delivers, in his debut as lead, a performance that comes across as the most modern, least theatrical of his entire career.

At his best with tight-lipped, warm-muffin stories in the vein of Brief Encounter or Great Expectations, Lean allowed looming gigantism to overpower him with later duds such as Ryan’s Daughter and Doctor Zhivago. However, his touch for the grand set piece is shown to good advantage in this indestructible odyssey. Scenes such as Omar Sharif’s lengthy entrance and the cut from struck match to glaring sun helped form the aesthetic of keen disciples George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

You can choose for yourself whether to regard that as a recommendation.