To all my sci-fi and fantasy-loving pals who think they don’t like boring old ‘real-life’ history… you’re missing out! Lawrence of Arabia is currently in cinemas with a dazzling new print – and you have to go and see it while you still have the chance.
I know. You don’t believe you’ll enjoy it. You think you really can’t stomach actual Earth history: why have Wolf Hall when you can have Game of Thrones? Well, think again…
The desert planet of Arabia has for centuries been ruled by the iron fist of the alien Ottoman Empire – also known as the Turks.
The natives of the parched world have accepted their domination and squabble among themselves in petty tribal feuds, which the Turks exploit to ‘divide and rule’.
The self-appointed galactic peace-keepers of Gallifrey (also known as the British Empire) want the divided tribes of Arabia to end these internal squabbles and unite against their Turkish dominators (who, in a wider interplanetary war, are being supplied with magical new weapons, called ‘guns’ and ‘planes’, by a wealthy ally planet called Germany).
Knowing the task is a challenging one, the Gallifreyan peace-keepers enlist their most charismatic agent to travel to the planet Arabia, unite the bickering natives and defeat their Turkish overlords.
This agent is T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), who is an expert in the ways of the planet, having studied them as a young man. But despite his knowledge of its culture, conditions on Arabia are hostile and full of peril, and he recruits two young companions to help him.
He inspires fierce loyalty in them. With an irreverent sense of humour, a brilliant, quicksilver mind, and being far more intelligent than his masters, Lawrence is something of a wild card whose genius brings him close to the edge of madness.
The bickering Arabian tribes are led by Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness) of the Hashemites, and his fiery brother Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), who have to overcome their hatred of the Howeitat tribe, led by Auda (Anthony Quinn), a mercenary, who fights for money, not causes.
Can the Time Lord control his dangerously erratic character, unite the tribes of the planet Arabia and lead them in the overthrow of the evil Ottoman Turks?
And can he trust the intentions of his masters, the self-appointed ‘peace keepers’ of Gallifrey? Do they want to topple the hated Ottoman empire simply to rule the planet Arabia themselves?
You have to go and find out!
Star Wars fans, this film makes the Tatooine sequences from your favourite film look like an afternoon on Camber Sands. The camels are real-life taun-tauns. It also (genuinely!) includes a Sarlac pit sequence, and Anthony Quinn’s ‘I’ll fight on the side of whoever pays me most’ presages Han Solo at his most mercenary. There’s also, of course, a valiant rebellion against an evil empire – including the exploiting of a weakness in the empire’s most deadly weapon (see the guns of Aqaba sequence)
For Star Trek fans, the film features people boldly going where no man has gone before, as well as dodgy alien make-up (Anthony Quinn looks very like a Klingon, though it’s the nose rather than the forehead that’s been swathed in prosthetics).
Please, please give this film a chance. In the cinema. In BFI Screen 1. If you love Hitchcock, there are Hitchockian sequences. The camera placement. The editing. The music. The sculpting of image and sound to create an emotional effect.
There are at least six major set-pieces which will make you gasp on the big screen. Every main character is introduced in their own unique and memorable way (I won’t give away these delightful and sometimes jaw-dropping surprises).
Yes, it falls off in the second half, a little – that’s the way the story goes. But the price of admission is worth it for the first astounding two hours.
You have to go and see this film in the cinema, where it belongs, before it’s too late. It won’t be the same in front of your television, even though you think it doesn’t really matter, and you might give it a whirl the next time it’s chopped up in bits on ITV4.
You’re wrong. It does matter.
Peter O’Toole’s performance is astounding. Omar Sharif’s beauty and passion will bring tears to your eyes. David Lean is – was – a genius. The love that drips from every frame of this film make it a work of art.
Yes, it is a glorified British view of events. I’m not pretending it’s a definitive statement on the Arab Revolt. I’m just saying it’s a collage of sound and image that’s created with such love, it’ll make you weep with joy. I blubbed about three times.
There’s not a lot of time left to reassess this film – that you THINK you don’t like – in the cinema. Get down there tomorrow.
BFI listing for the film – check your local cinema(s) to see if the reissue is on there soon!
Have I missed any other Larry of Arabia/sci-fi comparisons? Leave your comments below…