A snuffed-out match turns into a blazing desert floor. Later, a large-scale slaughter involving a great many scimitars will be dwarfed by a Maurice Jarre score and a sprawling landscape and cloaked in eddies of dust. “Big things have small beginnings,” says Claude Rains’ memorably cynical Arab Bureau Chief, but really, very little is small about Lawrence of Arabia (1962), David Lean’s epic that aspired to chronicle the high adventures and devastating disappointments of military officer T. E. Lawrence in Arabia during World War I, his allegiances caught between his rather awful Great Britain and his adopted brothers within the Arab Revolt against the Turks.
I say “aspired,” because any dozen of the restored version’s 228 minutes exudes a preference for myth over historical fact. Which doesn’t exactly mean a whitewash—even if there’s something uneasy about seeing Obi-Wan Kenobi in brown-face. The film does not pander, nor is it disrespectful. Let’s suppose that back in the day Lawrence made filmgoers all over the West think about what it might mean to be an Arab, at least for a few hours. It’s just that grandiosity has a way of quashing nuance, even in performances from actors as abundantly charismatic as Omar Sharif and the late, great Peter O’Toole, in whose memory Edmonton's Metro Cinema has scheduled a string of Lawrence screenings. I’d argue that this is far from O’Toole’s finest or most interesting screen-work—for that try The Ruling Class (1972) or The Stunt Man (1980)—but it was the one that made him a star, which one can’t but think was something O’Toole was always meant to be.
If you haven’t seen Lawrence before, the biggest screen imaginable is definitely the way to experience it—to watch it at home is merely to study it. And don’t be put off by the runtime, which is suitably as vast as the deserts that our hero, the director and his brilliant cinematographer (Freddie Young) obviously love. Duration is key to entering the world of this film, to getting just a hint of the time it really takes to travel across formidable distances on a camel’s back, or to identify a figure approaching from miles away, a dark blur quivering along a seemingly liquid horizon. But so is sound, which for so much of Lawrence’s time in the desert is reserved to a limited palate. “The desert is an ocean,” Lawrence says at one point, quoting the Koran, and moments later you can see those tents sway and hear them creak like masts on a galleon.
But let’s get back to O’Toole. He is indeed the star, but I think his Lawrence is meant to remain a mystery. The film opens in flashback, with his death, and with characters describing him as poet, scholar, exhibitionist, or barmy. In the middle of the film a man on motorbike calls out, “Who are you?” to Lawrence from across the Suez Canal. He doesn’t seem to know how to answer. And by now his baby blues are framed by the flowing white robes of another culture. The real Lawrence was famously ambiguous with regards to his sexuality, but I believe O’Toole the most here when he’s with Sharif’s Sherif Ali. Their meet-cute involves murder, but the film gives them plenty of time to make up and become great pals. I recently heard a radio interview in which O’Toole fondly recalled nights spent drinking and gambling away small fortunes with Sharif. It sounded like genuine love to me, from one bon vivant to another, and whether or not that love was meant to translate into something other than platonic on-screen doesn’t seem to matter much. What matters is that it still reads as real, even when surrounded by so much expensive movie splendour. That alone makes Lawrence worth seeing.