Lawrence of Arabia. To the hero-happy public he was a guerrilla genius, the Galahad of World War I. To his military superiors he was a popinjay. To the Arabs he was Sheikh Dinamit, the spirit of the wind who led them to victory over the detested Turk. To Biographer Richard Aldington he was a cad and a boundersado-masochistic, hemi-homosexual, selfpublicizing charlatan whose actual role in the Arab revolt was small and whose subsequent career as a technician in the R.A.F. was merely a theatrical gesture of humility. To Winston Churchill he was "one of the greatest beings alive in our time," a man of vast abilities who could write (Seven Pillars of Wisdom) as well as he could fight.
Such men are the stuff of legends, and since his death in 1935 the legend of Lawrence has inspired scores of books. Now for the first time it has inspired a film, and quite a film it is. Produced by Sam Spiegel and directed by David Lean, the men who made The Bridge on the River Kwai the best war picture of the '50s, Lawrence of Arabia is a cinema colossus that takes four hours (including intermission) to see, took 15 months to film, cost more than $10 million, employed 1,500 camels and horses, 5,000 extras, six famous performers (Alec Guinness. Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy) and one comparatively obscure young man (Peter OToole) who will soon be as famous as anybody in show business. And though Lawrence falls far short of Kwai in dramatic impact, it nevertheless presents a vivid and intelligent spectacle.
The script, written with considerable address by Playwright Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons), foreshortens but does not falsify the story as Lawrence told it. Sent to Arabia to scout the forces rising in revolt against Constantinople, Lieutenant Lawrence (O'Toole) impetuously leads a party of picked men across a notoriously impassable waste that is known as "the sun's anvil," and seizes the seaward-sighted cannon of Aqaba from the rear. Stunned, the Turkish garrison surrenders. Startled, General Allenby (Hawkins) offers the young hothead guns and gold, and before long Lawrence and his Arabs are blowing up Turkish trains and garrisons from Medina to Damascus. Then Allenby strikes north from Aqaba, and Lawrence leads 3,000 tribesmen in triumph to Damascus.
Lean is a gifted director who works with confidence at epic elevation, and in Lawrence he also works with a sensitivity to form and color that he has never shown beforeit is as if the desert, like a gigantic strap of white-hot steel, had burned away a northern mist that has always obscured his vision. Time and again the grand rectangular frame of the Panavision screen stands open like the door of a tremendous furnace, and the spectator stares with all his eyes into the molten shimmer of whitegolden sands, into blank incandescent infinity as if into the eye of God. It is a mind-battering experience, an encounter with an absolute, and after it too much of the film seems merely human.