Lawrence of Arabia: The Epic of All Epics is Still Epic

Lawrence of Arabia the 1962 epic film

Billed as the epic of all epics, it took us 38 years to finally catch up with Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The British epic historical drama was directed by David Lean (1908-1991) and starred a then unknown Peter O’Toole in his breakout role.

Despite being almost four hours in length, we were enthralled by this one. It absolutely swept us along in its vast adventure, stunning cinematography, and unforgettable performances.

Camels, Deserts, and English Accents in Lawrence of Arabia

Prior to this production, David Lean was already famous for epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

But Lawrence of Arabia was his most ambitious project, with an enormous production schedule and a remarkable budget of $15 million. Huge for 1962.

The film is about T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), a British archaeologist, army officer, diplomat, and writer. Here’s the bloke in action back in 1918.

Portrait picture of T.E. Lawrence

His book Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), alongside contemporary journalistic reports of his adventures, turned him into something of a legend… Lawrence of Arabia. The man, the myth, the legend.

And it required 210 minutes to tell the story, split across two parts.

Part I

Lawrence of Arabia begins with the witty, but insolent, army lieutenant Lawrence out in Cairo. A well-educated misfit, he has a casual superiority complex that doesn’t sit easily with his peers. Like when he does stuff like this.

Despite being unpopular with the higher ups, he’s eventually sent out into the Egyptian dessert.

This is so he can address the situation with Prince Faisal (1885-1933, the King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria) as he leads a revolt against the Turks (Ottoman Empire).

Early scenes really set the breadth of artistic integrity Lean was aiming for—note the now legendary cut to sunset.

In the early stages of his trip, Lawrence soon makes friends with his inquisitive guide Tafas (Zia Mohyeddon, who sadly just passed away in February 2023 at the age of 91).

Lawrence notes his own, peculiar way with people doesn’t seem as at odds with this way of life. All to the backdrop of some spectacular desert scenery.

We mean, some of the cinematography in the thing is beyond belief.

Notably with the legendary screen entrance of Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish (Omar Sharif), which is still enough to make jaws drop even now—emerging from a mirage to make his presence known.

Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish rapidly becomes one of the film’s main protagonists, having a proper bromance with Lawrence.

Even if things get off to a rocky start.

The pair butt heads from time to time, but on the whole the development of their friendship is very endearing and memorable. And Sharif brought an impressive intensity to his performance.

Initially rejecting Sherif Ali, Lawrence heads out further into the dessert and locates the British station there.

This is where he meets Prince Faisal (played by Alec Guinness… done up as an Arab. Hmmmmm…), whose voice shifts suspiciously between that of an Arab’s and that of Alec Guinness’.

Like a precocious child, Lawrence is outspoken to the prince and makes recommendations in their war effort. Some of these start to pay off and Lawrence is increasingly held in a high regard by the tribesmen of the desert.

And this wasn’t uncommon, as the whole story did remind us quite a bit of intrepid explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs (1964). He also integrated into their society with immense success.

Lawrence’s tale isn’t dissimilar. Except he’s more involved in a war effort, where the fate of many are at stake.

There follows the famous trek across the Nefud Desert. An exhausting journey, it’s a life-or-death attempt to steal an advantage over the enemy. It also results in one of Sherif Ali’s men, Gasim, becoming lost during the night.

Lawrence defies Sherif Ali and heads back into the desert to try and save the man.

These actions are the making of him, as Lawrence’s lyrcial stance of “nothing is written” proves a point to the Arabs about… British fortitude (or something).

Sherif Ali, amazed by Lawrence’s heroics, promptly dumps his normal English clothes into a fire. And he’s presented with Arab robes to wear the next morning, cementing his newfound position in their society.

From here, Lawrence of Arabia takes on themes of its lead’s emotional struggles due to the traumatic nature of war. Which is set alongside his burgeoning sense of egotism, relishing being the centre of attention.

His sense of divided allegiance between Britain and his Arabian comrades in various tribes also leaves him battling his sense of priority.

But his legend continues to grow. His conquests, even, take him to the status of a God amongst men. With the first part of the story ending with Lawrence back amongst the British back at Cairo, where his deeds out in the desert are celebrated.

Once a pariah amongst his own folks, now he’s celebrated. Despite Lawrence’s state of mind becoming more disturbed by some of his experiences, he’s ordered to head back out across the sand to achieve greater things.


French composer Maurice Jarre’s (1924-2009) memorable soundtrack manages to add a sense of awe even to the INTERMISSION. His music dominates the film and you’ll know that one from a mile away.

However, and yes… an intermission!

We can’t see these without thinking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) with its casual mockery of a sudden and unexpected intermission.

Now, we get this was more of a thing back in the 1950s and 1960s. And we knew there was one in Lawrence of Arabia, so were expecting it.

It’s just so out of step with modern cinema, from our experience, over the last 30 years it was a big surprise. Of course, it’s not really any different from an advert break now. Or one of those unskippable ads on YouTube that pop up.

Many would argue in favour of an INTERMISSION return, so you get a well-timed trip to the toilet. The likes of Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) would benefit from that at over three hours in length.

However, we suppose the argument now would be it’d take you out of the immersive experience. Hmmmm… well, so does needing to go and take a leak.

Either way, this was a curiosity from the past we welcomed. As we can imagine many a cinemagoer in 1962 quickly upping from their seat to head out to the toilet.

Part II

The second half of Lawrence of Arabia deals with Lawrence’s general descent into chronic egotism; almost despot-like antics.

He endures an unpleasant incident at the enemy-held city of Deraa, where he’s mocked and flogged in a scene similar to that one near the start of Midnight Express (1978). This badly affects Lawrence, whose behaviour takes a turn from the worst.

Sherif-Ali witnesses this decline, including when Lawrence initiates something of a bloodbath, and realises the Englishman has lost his way.

In shock about this outcome, Lawrence attempts to regain his standing. After his men take the city of Damascus, with the desert tribesmen left to debate over what to do with the city’s population.

There they bicker and make no progress whilst Lawrence attempts to help them restore order. But his standing has taken a knock.

Ultimately, as the British forces take control of the city, Lawrence is promoted to colonel but dismissed from the region. His usefulness now complete.

And that is how the film ends. Lawrence of Arabia, heading back to gloomy England, no longer a God amongst men, his face obstructed in the final shot leaving us to guess (probably correctly) about his mood.

It’s a bittersweet ending for Lawrence (and the viewer). Something of a downer, you could argue, as he’s accomplished so much.

Yet also triggered a terror incident, was tortured, and saw his friendship with Sherif Ali end on a sour note. In fact, the Arab marches off out of Lawrence’s life in tears after blowing him a graceful, farewell kiss.

To note, at the start of the film Lawrence is depicted dying in a motorbike accident (which is what happened to T.E. Lawrence at the age of 46). As the viewer, we’re party to what’s ahead to the man. Worth keeping in mind as the credits roll.

An ignominious end after all his dramatic tales of conquest.


God. What a film! We must admit, we went into this one not really expecting much. Some classics from Hollywood’s golden years haven’t aged very well when placed alongside the way modern cinema works.

However, despite its vast length, Lawrence of Arabia is a cinematic treat. A total masterpiece, we think, and one that completely warrants its near four-hour running time.

We appreciate not everyone will agree with that. Or may have an issue with how stupid Alec Guinness looks… and why didn’t they just cast someone from the country!? But it was the late ’50s when the shoot began, which exposes the nature of the time (warts and all).

What’s left to look at now is a landmark work that really pushed the boundaries of cinema with its narrative scope.

It’s complex, moves from one place to the next at a pace, and through it all there’s Peter O’Toole’s magnificent performance.

Perfectly complemented by Omar Sharif, who almost upstages the lead.

We loved the thing. Yes, it’s vast. It’ll take up your entire evening. But it’s one for the history books over 60 years after its release. And you can see its influence on so many films, from Dances With Wolves (1990) through to The Last Samurai (2003), to James Cameron’s Way of the Water now.

We think Lawrence of Arabia could well be the epic of all epics.

The Production of Lawrence of Arabia

Off its $15 million budget, the film went on to make $75 million worldwide. It was a critical darling, receiving some 10 Oscar nominations, of which it won seven. It should have been 11 nominations, but someone forget to send the nod off for costume designer Phyllis Dalton.

As you might expect, the film wasn’t easy to make. It had a lengthy production that went on for almost three years.

Filming locations took place across Jordan, Spain, and Morocco. The crew were largely welcomed by the local governments who seemed delighted to have them there.

After its launch, there were contemporary criticisms of the film.

Including those of historical accuracy, Lawrence’s representation, and other character depictions of real life people.

General Edmund Allenby’s depiction (played by actor Jack Hawkins) caused his family considerable outrage and they lodged a complaint to Columbia studios. Descendants of Auda abu Tayi and Sharif Nassir even sued the studio, with the case lasting almost an entire decade before being dropped.

A modern criticism highlights a more baffling issue…

Despite being almost four hours in length, Lawrence of Arabia does not feature a single woman saying anything onscreen! In fact, we can’t even remember seeing a woman throughout the whole thing.

What?! Also, we believe this is an all-time record—the longest film where a woman doesn’t say a bloody thing.

Not once. Nothing. We mentioned this to our two female colleagues earlier today and they were shocked by that statistic, but not surprised. The film is from 1962. And it also depicts a British Empire era of history and, yeah, women just wouldn’t have been around much. And if they were, it wouldn’t have been to talk in important military discussions etc.

Despite these issues, it caused those involved no hindrance to their careers.

Peter O’Toole (1932-2013) got the role after Marlon Brando refused to do the film, despite being director David Lean’s first choice. Allegedly, Brando didn’t want to spend a year in production on the back of a camel.

Albert Finney was next up, but dropped out of the role after quite extensive early screen tests with him. O’Toole then picked up the tab and stepped in, becoming an international star in the aftermath.

The handsome SOB took the opportunity with both hands. His performance is terrific in the film, no denying that. The complexity he brought to Lawrence is far in excess of some movie star looks guy standing there and brooding. It’s heavily nuanced and very compelling to watch.

Although Noël Coward still remarked to O’Toole his prettiness in the film should have had it renamed, “Florence of Arabia”.

His main co-star was the young Omar Sharif (1932-2015).

He was 30 at the time and already spoke five languages: Arabic, English, French, Italian, and Spanish. Happily, he and O’Toole got on extremely well off-set and became lifelong friends after Lawrence of Arabia.

They even starred in several more films together. And he’s now regarded as one of Egypt’s legends of cinema.

A final nod must also go to cinematographer Freddie A. Young.

He was responsible for making them all look as epic as possible. Let’s take a moment to enjoy the beauty of his work here.

The heat brims off the screen in Lawrence of Arabia—a fitting tribute to a classic of cinema.

Dispense with some gibberish!

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