Lawrence of Arabia is a movie about an actor named Peter O'Toole. It is very much like another British movie of a few years back, which also delineated the epic struggle of an effete young draftee to rise in the Army ranks. The difficulty is that, unlike Private's Progress, Lawrence of Arabia takes itself very seriously. As a result, it is dull, four-hours long, and costs $3.00. You cannot possibly help but dislike it, if you are headstrong enough to bother seeing it; and if the wee hours do find you emerging from the Gary Theatre, the following reasons for not having enjoyed yourself will be racing through your affronted mind.
1. Behind every dune of hitherto deserted Arabia lurks a lengthy exchange of dreary dialogue. These booby-traps are the work of Robert Bolt, formerly a play-wright of some note, whose screenplay is a gallimaufry of all the cheap movies and pulp novels you have never liked: John Buchan, Shane, etc., etc. Bolt's Bedouin farce is never, to be sure, intentionally funny, and everybody on screen somehow manages to keep a straight face when O'Toole (Lawrence) announces in one of the film's obviously epiphanal moments that he likes the desert because "it is clean." None of Bolt's characters is in any way real: all his Arabs are wily and brutal, all his English intolerant and brutal.
2. But the worst failing is the character of Lawrence himself. It's not that he is unhistorical (this may well be true): he is unbelievable. A curious amalgam of Joan of Arc and Alcibiades, this Lawrence passes through a succession of fatuous poses. He begins as a simple pacifist pan-Arab fanatic, and through a hilarious concatenation of Grade B events (he is forced to shoot two intimate friends and watch a third sink smoothly into quickland) comes to realize that his mission will involve him in shedding blood. This, however, comes rather to appeal to him ("I enjoyed it, I enjoyed it," he mumbles brokenly), and he takes to strutting around the roof-tops of dynamited Turkish trains in billowing native garb. His new-found joy, alas, is rudely shattered: he is mistreated by Jose Ferrer, playing a Turkish delight, and cozened by Jack Hawkins--that is, the Turks outrage his body, and the English his ideals. This double misfortune turns our Good Shepherd into an apocalyptic beast, who incites ("No prisoners!") a gratuitous massacre of fleeing Turks.
3. In so far as this confused and silly business is playable, it would take a strong and versatile actor to do it. Peter O'Toole is none such: his unvarying facade of quivering neurasthenia-cum-whimsy has less charisma than Ian Carmichael. He is that best of soporifics, up interestingly mad. Shame on the British Army forever drafting the poor thing.
4. Almost all of this exciting action takes place in the second half of the movie. The first half accomplishes what a silent movie would have done with the single title "Arabia!"--that is, it sets the scene, and sets the scene, and sets the scene. And not all the perfumes of Alec Guinness, who nattily impersonates the Arab Prince Feisal with obvious and engaging contempt for the whole business, can sweeten the arid piles of camel dung in which he is trapped. It is also good to see Claude Rains back in North Africa, still, as ever, the mysterious servant of a corrupt colonial power. But ditto for him.
5. As if this weren't enough, a pentateuchal plague of minor flaws will further beset your mind. The ships that plow the Suez Canal were all built after the second war to end all wars. The clothes that Arthur Kennedy (a newspaperman with about as much compassion and insight as the Mencken-figure of Inherit the Wind) wears are contemporary with the ships. The music that attacks you stereophonically from every angle is winningly simple-minded: four thousand strings equal desert motif; four thousand strings plus two harps equal sea motif. The beginning, which shows O'Toole meeting his death in a post-war motorcycle accident, is irrelevant to everything else. This of course makes the entire movie, minus about three minutes, an enormous flashback.
6. David Lean, who will win an Oscar for this movie, was its director.