Of course it’s a cliché that for some movies no screen is big enough, and it’s true that you don’t want to watch this on your iPhone. The beauty and splendor, however—swept flesh-toned sands and distant mirages that turn into Bedouin warlords—aren’t lost as they sacrifice size, just distilled, and Spain and Jordan (playing the Sahara desert) must share billing with Peter O’Toole anyway, managing no better than a draw against the star’s mad sky-blue eyes and golden, otherworldly beauty. As megalomaniac T. E. Lawrence, the eccentric British intelligence officer who became a legend by uniting the Arab tribes against the Turks during the first World War and going insanely native in the process, the 29-year-old O’Toole is exasperating, preposterous, and impossible not to watch, his performance a line in the sand of biographical interpretation, an irrevocable subversion of hagiography. O’Toole doesn’t so much re-imagine Lawrence’s heroism as re-imagine the nature of modern heroism itself.
If neither director David Lean nor screenwriter Robert Bolt really understand their subject, on some intuitive level O’Toole fathoms and straddles whatever chasm in human psychosis divides misfit from messiah, while navigating the euphoria and doubt of self-invention with a result visceral rather than cerebral. Lawrence’s sense of destiny has an absurd theatricality about it, thrilling in its recklessness and so over the top that eventually there’s no top left, short of the lethal crackup on a motorcycle that opens the movie. The character’s obsessive imposition of himself on the same place and time from which he feels estranged is mirrored by the actor’s; we think of British actors in terms of the theater—even Laurence Olivier always seemed to be slumming in the movies—but O’Toole, who planned to be a journalist, was a born movie star (no one with a face like that could have been a journalist), coming into his own in a 1960s Swinging London where the market on star power was cornered by musicians named Jagger and Lennon. Paradoxically what energizes Lean’s film is how much it’s at odds with its star: Lean’s is a widescreen 1950s sensibility while O’Toole is the psychedelic ‘60s, everything about him buzzing.
Read them all:
The Essential Movie Library #12: Citizen Kane
The Essential Movie Library #11: Jules and Jim
The Essential Movie Library #10: My Darling Clementine
The Essential Movie Library #9: Double Indemnity
The Essential Movie Library #8: That Obscure Object of Desire
The Essential Movie Library #7: 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Essential Movie Library #6: Casablanca
The Essential Movie Library #5: The Lady Eve
The Essential Movie Library #4: The Third Man
The Essential Movie Library #3: The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Essential Movie Library #2: Vertigo
The Essential Movie Library #1: The Godfather Trilogy