Note: This is #42 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009.
Well. That was also epic. Actually, for film with such a large feel and a 227 minute running time, Lawrence of Arabia is fairly easy to summarize. It follows the life of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) as he rides back and forth over the deserts of Arabia during the early parts of World War I. Lawrence, initially seen as a bumbler and an overeducated fancy pants, is tapped to make an expedition to meet with some local Arabian tribal leaders and convince them to aid Britain in its fight against the Turks. Lawrence does so and as a result undergoes a transformation as a person --for good in some ways and for ill in others. That's pretty much the story.
There's a lot more to appreciate in the details, of course, but while Lawrence of Arabia does tell an interesting personal story about its title character (based on a real person, even), what I kept really appreciating about the film was how it was made. It feels huge, mostly because its makers seemed to go out of their way to get wide, sprawling shots that showed characters set against the forces of nature --particularly deserts. There's one scene where after making a near-suicidal trek across a desert with a band of Arabians Lawrence turns back just miles from water to retrieve a fallen comrade. His servant waits for him, and it's amazing to see a film maker have the guts to pace the scene so that we are staring at a huge, bleak sandscape for minutes on end, seeing Lawrence's returning figure grow from a barely visible speck to a full man (well, two men and a camel). This is the kind of pacing that permeates the whole movie, making growth not just a figurative payoff, but a literal and visual one. I don't think you'd see kind of thing in today's mainstream movies.
It should also be mentioned that Peter O'Toole did a pretty darn good job as Lawrence. He doesn't play the character as a straight-up, larger than life hero, nor does he play him as just a simple man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Instead, the performance balances on the small space in between those two positions, with Lawrence as competent and smart (particularly in how he understands the levers necessary to move the Arab people into action), but also awash in events that are larger than him. Even by the end of the movie, I wasn't ever really sure I had a bead on his character; some things about him were still private and unknown, no matter what we had seen.
So, good movie if you've got about 4 hours to devote to it. Bring something cool to drink.