Lawrence of Arabia | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Lawrence of Arabia

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David Lean's 70-millimeter spectacle about T.E. Lawrence's military career between 1916 and 1918, written by Robert Bolt and produced by Sam Spiegel and released in 1962, remains one of the most intelligent and handsome of all war epics. It is also one of the most influential--films as diverse as Patton and Apocalypse Now, and even The Green Berets, Star Wars, and Dune, have all borrowed liberally from it. And as one of the first "thoughtful" blockbusters built around ambiguity, it also helped pave the way for such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Combining the scenic splendor of a De Mille epic (enhanced by Freddie Young's remarkable desert photography) with virtues of the English theater--including literate, epigrammatic dialogue and superb performances--Lean endeared himself to English professors and action buffs alike, and the film won seven Oscars, including best picture and direction. What seems apparent more than a quarter of a century later, however, is that the ideological crassness of De Mille and most war epics is not so much transcended here as given a high gloss: the theme is still basically the White Man's Burden--despite all the ironic notations on the subject--with Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif called upon to represent the Arab soul, and Jose Ferrer embodying the savage Turks. The all-male cast helps to make this one of the most homoerotic of all screen epics, although the characters' sexual experiences are at best only hinted at (it being 1962). Maurice Jarre's score is excessively bombastic and repetitive, but in most other respects the craft here is a bracing rebuke to 80s filmmaking. This new version, beautifully restored to its original length as well as fine-tuned in the editing by Lean himself, is 216 minutes long, not counting the overture, intermission, and exit music. (McClurg Court)

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