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The Long and Short of It: ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

by on February 24, 2017
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Illustration by Jenn Marie Harmeson

In “The Long and Short of It” series, Sam Watermeier writes concise reviews of long epics he’s been putting off watching for years. These are the movies that came in bulky two-tape boxes back when VHS was all the rage. This bi-weekly series isn’t about watching Sam torture himself; it’s about watching him experience long-beloved films for the first time.

Big things have small beginnings. “Lawrence of Arabia” started with director David Lean’s determination to capture a speck in the desert slowly revealing itself to be a man. This shot embodies the overarching theme of the film — that of a man swallowed up in a majestic setting and proving his significance amid the vast ocean of sand.

The film follows the British soldier, T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), while he serves as a military liaison in the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. “The real war is being fought against the Germans, not the Turks, and not here but on the Western Front in the trenches!” a fellow officer tells him. But the desert lures Lawrence into its grasp, sucking him in like quicksand.

Above all else, the film aims to sweep us up in its exotic world. Like Lawrence, we marvel at how voices echo across canyons and the way the wind sculpts sand into mountains. It’s an immersive experience that opens our eyes to the magic of nature and the massive scope of cinema. It takes us to a faraway land — and deep into the heart of its hero.

In an indelibly intimate moment, Lawrence confesses to enjoying an execution and fearing his own power. This flash of moral ambiguity signals the segue from the “Golden Age” of movies to the gritty direction of New Hollywood — from popcorn spectacles like “Ben-Hur” to searing character studies like “Taxi Driver.” Seven years after “Lawrence” swept the Oscars in 1963, the Academy honored the X-rated urban drama “Midnight Cowboy” with the award for Best Picture. With its seamless blend of style and substance, visuals marvels and portraits of vulnerability, “Lawrence of Arabia” paved the way for a more progressive, powerful form of cinema.

The spirit of “Lawrence” and Lean surges through all of the other films featured in this column so far. You can feel it in the bloody battles of “Braveheart,” the grandeur of “Gandhi,” the sun-bathed shot of a biplane soaring over sand in “The English Patient.” “Lawrence of Arabia” is the standard against which all other epics are judged. It’s a cinematic achievement of the highest order. But in the end, in the midst of all its technical wonders, it’s anchored by O’Toole’s tender, multilayered performance.

In lesser hands, Lawrence could easily be a standard warrior. But O’Toole shows the fear behind his ferocity, the madness beneath the machismo. He’s a force of nature as wild as a sandstorm. We see him caught in the whirlwind of the Arab conflict, losing himself in the culture and the mysterious landscape. He eventually dons the white robes of a desert sheik, turning from a timid soldier into a larger-than-life figure. This character arc evokes the same sense of wonder as the expansive setting.

“Lawrence of Arabia” is roughly four hours long. It’s a butt-numbing feat to endure. The trick, dear readers, is not minding that it hurts. And with this film, that’s not a difficult trick to pull off.

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