A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
What a bold, mad act of genius it was, to make “Lawrence of Arabia,” or even think that it could be made. In the words years later of one of its stars, Omar Sharif: “If you are the man with the money and somebody comes to you and says he wants to make a film that's four hours long, with no stars, and no women, and no love story, and not much action either, and he wants to spend a huge amount of money to go film it in the desert--what would you say?”
The impulse to make this movie was based, above all, on imagination. The story of “Lawrence” is not founded on violent battle scenes or cheap melodrama, but on David Lean's ability to imagine what it would look like to see a speck appear on the horizon of the desert, and slowly grow into a human being. He had to know how that would feel before he could convince himself that the project had a chance of being successful.
There is a moment in the film when the hero, the British eccentric soldier and author T.E. Lawrence, has survived a suicidal trek across the desert and is within reach of shelter and water--and he turns around and goes back, to find a friend who has fallen behind. This sequence builds up to the shot in which the shimmering heat of the desert reluctantly yields the speck that becomes a man--a shot that is held for a long time before we can even begin to see the tiny figure. On television, this shot doesn't work at all--nothing can be seen. In a movie theater, looking at the stark clarity of a 70mm print, we lean forward and strain to bring a detail out of the waves of heat, and for a moment we experience some of the actual vastness of the desert, and its unforgiving harshness.
By being able to imagine that sequence, Lean was able to imagine why the movie would work. “Lawrence of Arabia” is not a simple biography or an adventure movie--although it contains both elements--but a movie that uses the desert as a stage for the flamboyance of a driven, quirky man. Although it is true that Lawrence was instrumental in enlisting the desert tribes on the British side in the 1914-17 campaign against the Turks, the movie suggests that he acted less out of patriotism than out of a need to reject conventional British society, choosing to identify with the wildness and theatricality of the Arabs. There was also a sexual component, involving his masochism.