From the success of Bridge over the river Kwai, David Lean settled on the story of Colonel T.E Lawrence or Ned to his family and friends, with which to once again captivate and entrance his cinematic public. Perhaps Mr Lean did not anticipate the size of the task that awaited him as if had it might have put him off.
It was a risk for Mr Lean and his backers, after all this was a story that was surrounded in mystery, controversy and conflicting testimony, with the enigmatic Lawrence at its centre. The times had moved on and audiences were demanding big names and new cinema, David Lean had the big names(Alec Guiness, Jack Hawkins & Anthony Quinn) but the two central characters (Lawrence and Ali) were played by two relatively unkown actors, Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif, a big gamble for any director with such a fantastic story to tell.
For the British in the first half of the century, the story of T.E Lawrence was a romanticised narrative, far departed from the hellish western front. He became much more than an intelligence officer in the British Army, he himself knew the power of propoganda and so did his political and military masters, not to mention the editors of papers back in England and the USA, for which Lawrence was a much needed "breath of fresh air" for the depreseive trench warfare reading of the first world war.
David Lean's film while not strictly historicaly accurate (depending upon which version of Lawrence's life you believe) is a master piece of cinema. The cinematography is ground breaking and the scale of production magnificent. This means that it feels "real" for the audience. No computer graphics here, so when you see the hundreds of arabs charging into Aqaba with sabres raised, those ARE real actors all charging hell for leather into a town (constructed entirely by Lean's team, another fantastic acheivment). This size of staging has to be admired and works beautifully in the film.
Perhaps the fascinating thing about Lean's film is that it does paint a balanced picture of Lawrence. Despite the conflicting testimony of his life and actions by many biographers and Lawrence himself, Lean rightly decided to air those darker sides of Lawrence's war time life along side his projected golden media image. This is summed up beautifully at the start of the film when a British hack asks an American journalist (who had met Lawrence during the Arabian campaign) for a few words after the remberence service for Lawrence at St Pauls. The American journalist gives only complimentary rhetoric (on the record) and then when the hack moves off delivers a cutting slur against Lawrence's character. Perhaps this is why the film works so well, it does not paint Lawrence as a "superman" who is above all vices and cleaner than clean, something American cinema did so well and continues too. Lean presents Lawrence as a great man, nevertheless a man with demons who had a darker side, it shows how he was used to achieve those ends decided by his superiors as much as he used others to get what he wanted.
Peter O'Toole is a genius in the role, the cast as a whole all perform so well that you forget that they are actors and they become the characters they potray, this is surely what every actor and director hope to achieve but rarely do they. Lean and Co have created more than a film, its a ripping yarn, a master class in acting, directing, production, editing and casting. This reviewer recommends Lawrence Of Arabia with no reserevations.