I sat about five feet from the screen, so that the TV image filled most of my Field of View, and the effect of the landscape which unfolded before me was quite overwhelming. Anyone who says that the optical quality of a film is not important and that the story is the only thing that matters should have been sitting alongside me. I found it breathtaking, and there were several occasions during the evening when I could only gasp at the beauty what I was watching.
It’s a bit of a cliché, because only because it's true, but the landscape Lean captures on film deserves Star Billing alongside the actors. He captures the absolute nothingness of the place, its remorseless and unforgiving size, the searing heat of the Sun, and the insignificance of man’s place in it all, quite superbly.
Forget the story for a moment, and just ponder the unmatched cinematography (courtesy of Freddie Young), the inch perfect screenplay written by Robert Bolt (A Man for All Seasons was another of his), the editing (unsurpassed in my limited view) of Anne Coates, and Maurice Jarre’s musical score which surely sets the standard for epic films, and you almost couldn’t fail to produce a classic.
There are scenes in the film which I think will live with me for ever – two involving the humble matchstick, one in HQ in Cairo (see the YouTube clip below) and the other with O’Toole (Lawrence) and Claude Rains (Dryden - the superbly devious, suave and many faced symbol of the British Government in the Middle East) which ends in one of the greatest film transitions ever. One minute you are held in a close-up of Lawrence holding the last throws of a burning match and instantly you cut to the same orange of the flame except now you're looking at an orange, sand and sky only, burning shot of the desert, a couple of seconds before a shimmering sun rises for the day over the stark bare horizon, a shot which Lean holds for ages. If that’s not perfect film-making, then I don’t know what is. Even though it’s mid January here, I could feel the heat of the desert suddenly warming my room up.
I could go on and on about many other bits of the film which please and delight me.
Omar Sharif’s long drawn out first ever entrance into films starts with a microscopic dot of a man in black on a camel on the desert horizon and ends up with the death by shooting of Lawrence’s companion. “My name is for my friends” is Lawrence’s response, when Sharif asks him who he is. Best entrance ever? I know of no better.
The charge of Lawrence leading his men into Aqaba, having crossed the uncrossable desert, and taken the town from the undefended side - undefended because no-one thinks an attack could be mounted from that direction. The camera then swings round after seeing the cavalry charge which captures the town, to show a fleeting, momentary glimpse of the unmoveable guns installed to protect it all pointing uselessly out to sea. Nothing is said, but the camera’s image, no more than a second, tells us all.
The film is full of such moments, and even at nearly four hours long, for me it ends way too soon. Even so, it’s the series of conundrums in the underlying story in the end which binds it all together. The actors are, to a man (mainly because there are no women in it) all excellent, but it’s the enigma of Lawrence the man which digs away at you all the way through.
Terrorist or Freedom Fighter? Genius or Mad Man? Self serving publicist or One in a Million Soldier? Historian, archaeologist, linguist, writer, fighter, leader, embellisher of the truth? Some of the answers to this list are known, some not.
Ninety years later, with as much known about him as there probably ever will be, there are still conflicting views about him. Perhaps that’s why the story has so many twists and turns. Yes, the film has to be a work of fiction in the end. The dialogue is Bolt’s, the images are courtesy of Young and Coates, and the structure is David Lean’s and Sam Spiegel. But the start point and the end point of it all is Thomas Edward Lawrence – a fascinating and complex human being if ever there was one.