Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

 I find it difficult to write about Lawrence of Arabia, yet I am compelled to do so. I have the overwhelming urge to share this amazing movie with others. I feel so humbled talking about it, because I am such an unimportant person in comparison to Colonel T.E. Lawrence and to the massive scale of this wonderful picture. This is one of the few movies in which I have a constant desire to watch again and again. This is not a review, but rather a reflection on Lawrence of Arabia, which I hope will succeed in spreading the word to others who have not seen it.

Lawrence is one of the most beautiful movies in existence, defining the word “epic.” It does have a rather strange structure though. There is not actually a lot of action or suspense and there is absolutely no romance (there aren’t even any women in it). It is nearly four hours in length with 4 distinct chapters. What draws me into this movie is the incredible realism. It is based on the actual events involving T. E. Lawrence in the Middle East during the first world war. In 1962, when this movie was made, they didn’t have the ability to rely on special effects to tell the story like many of today’s movies do. When you see a hundred men on camels riding across endless sand dunes, it is actually a hundred men on camels riding across endless sand dunes. What it isn’t, is a guy sitting at a computer manipulating a virtual desert with computer generated camel riders. This is part of what gives this movie its beauty. It is the definition of huge.

When I watched this film the first time, I watched it all the way through without stopping. I recommend you do this too, if you can find four hours to spare. The second time I watched it, I was able to watch it in four parts. This is another beautiful aspect of this movie. It is so enthralling that you don’t have to watch it all the way through. It is like a good book. You can put it down, then pick it up a few days later and become completely reabsorbed into the story. Not many movies I know of can have this effect, besides the original Star Wars trilogy (only because I’ve seen it so many times I have the dialogue memorized). I still love energy flicks like Die Hard, but try watching half of it and then returning the next day for the second half. It just won’t be the same. Perhaps it is because Lawrence doesn’t rely on adrenaline to keep you interested. You watch because you are intrigued, not because it gives you a rush.

Lawrence of Arabia begins with the death of T.E. Lawrence himself, played by Peter O’Toole. This seemingly odd way of starting off an epic, triggers a flashback to years before in a British base in Cairo, Egypt. Our main character, a well read map maker and historian is asked to go to the middle east to meet with the Prince of Saudi Arabia. The Generals basically see this as a waste of time anyway, so they send out the soldier they perceive as useless. He is considered a misfit by his peers and so he jumps at the chance to leave. He embarks into the desert on his camel; the beginning of his momentous journey. You will immediately be captured by the gorgeous shots of the desert. Whether it is sunsets, sandstorms or sand dunes, it is all photographed wonderfully.

Lawrence’s eventual meeting with Prince Feisal of Saudi Arabia (Sir Alec Guinness) sees him finally accepted as a person. He is more at home with the Arabians than his own people. He loves the desert and genuinely wants to see the Arabs unite and take down their Turkish rulers. Against the wishes of his British commander, he plans a strategy to take the nearest Turkish ruled city, Aqaba. Aqaba is a city on the coast of the ocean, with a large defense system that can prevent any attack from the sea…but not from the desert. Lawrence sees that it is possible to cross the unconquerable desert and attack the city from behind, where they would be practically defenseless. During the second act, he once again treks out into the desert, the place that he loves.

The attack on Aqaba is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. One shot follows the riders through the outskirts of the city and into its heart where they take control. The camera comes to rest giving us a view of the entire city from a large gun pointed out to the sea. It is, in my opinion, the best scene in any movie of all time. After the city is taken, Lawrence once again heads out into the desert, toward the Suez Canal and back to Cairo. He arrives in his Arab robes and is once again a misfit amongst the British officers, who don’t yet know of his accomplishment. The British military leaders are overjoyed when they hear the news and immediately want to send him out again to continue his reign. Although Lawrence is sickened by the killing, he agrees to return. This ends the first half of the movie and the first disc of the two DVD set.

The second half of the movie, and the third chapter, focuses on the attacks on the Turkish railways lead by Lawrence. It seems by now Lawrence has started to see himself as invincible and as a savior. After several successful missions he heads into the Turk controlled city of Deraa, trying to pose as an Arab. “I’m invisible,” he explains. It isn’t long before he is captured and tortured at the hands of the Governor. From this point on he is different. His love of the desert turns to hatred and his spirit is crushed. He returns to his superiors and for a short time to his old military life.

General Allenby persuades him to return once again and sets up the final chapter of the story. With a newly equipped force and a band of cut-throat bodyguards he sets his sights on the city of Damascus. On the trip to the city, they come across a slaughtered Arab village. Not far away is the Turkish army responsible. The once timid Lawrence decides against a path around them and with a cry of, “Take no prisoners!” orders the Arab legion into a bloodbath against the Turks. The man who had once been crushed by one man’s death, was now unaffected by a massacre. The Arabs prevail and move on to easily take over Damascus. With the victory against the Turks, old hatreds begin to resurface between the Bedouin tribes. With the constant bickering between them, overfilled hospitals and the failing of the city’s infrastructure it becomes clear that they cannot run Damascus properly. Lawrence, now an anti-hero leaves the desert for good, traveling to Versailles to represent the Arabs in a peace conference.

The picture and sound are fantastic, nothing looks fake and the locales are unbelievable. You cannot tell this movie is 40 years old. As you can probably tell, I love this movie. This is the grandest of the grand movies and will probably never be outdone in terms of size or magnificence. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you want to watch the best movie of all time or not. For me, viewing this movie was a life changing experience.

Matt Williams

Author of the Jak Phoenix Space Adventures at


2 Responses to Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

  1. Tracy Falbe says:

    You are absolutely right that this movie will never be topped. I love this movie. I never even thought about how unconventional its story structure was or how it does not conform to any of the typical action movie formulas. This movie is like a drug that enters the eyeballs and doesn’t wear off. Just thinking about it makes me want to watch it again, and I’ve even watched it within the past year. Perhaps I have a funny sense of fun.

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