Steven Spielberg says that he watches Lawrence of Arabia again before starting shooting any new movie. “It pulverized me”, he recollects when thinking of when he saw the movie at the theater. Even though the effect on a young spectator like me was not as intense as what Spielberg must have experienced back then, I can definitely understand what he’s talking about. A lot of it has to do with the sheer visual power of the movie. It is a cinematographic masterpiece on a massive level.
First, there is the desert, which is vast, which has beautiful sand dunes and giant sandstone buttes. The cinematography embraces this display of nature on a very impressive way. You can feel the weight of the frame. Then, there are battle scenes with hundreds (if not thousands?) of extras, charges with lots of horses, etc. All of this is of course done for real without digital effects, and is edited in long, well-composed shots. Finally, there are all the little details, either in cinematography or editing, which ices the cake. The mirage on the horizon in the incredible well scene, the cut from the matchstick to the sunrise. All those fundamentally visual elements is what I found really striking in the movie.
As for the story itself, I found it rather interesting and easy to follow, but not extraordinary. I was afraid of the runtime, 4 hours, but it turned out to be okay. There is an interesting take in the story, though, which is the delusion in which Lawrence falls as he progressively thinks of himself as a prophet. From a movie from the early 60s, I expected a proper display of the white-savior trope, but the story is smarter than that. In fact, I could have guessed right from the personality of the lead character, Lawrence, which is a sophisticated, a bit exuberant, academic lieutenant, and not your traditional big guy from the army. Now, in spite of the screenplay’s best effort at being smart, I wouldn’t be surprised if the depiction of Arabian tribes happened to be rather cliché and awkward. I’m not knowledgeable enough to say.
Lawrence of Arabia belongs to a kind of cinema that is now dead. No production company would actually shot in the desert in the green screen age, nor would they hire hundreds of extras now that we can use GCI. They wouldn't allow a charge scene to be edited in one long shot, because that would mean wasting the 5 other camera angles. A movie cannot last 4 hours anymore, because then it means you cannot screen it enough times in the day to win all the dollars. It is said that director David Lean only filmed master shots, so that he had indirect power over the editing (what else than the master shot are you going to use if there is no coverage), so in fact I think David Lean wouldn't be allowed to walk on a film set today. We have contemporary directors like Christopher Nolan who try to apply some recipe for epic films (no CGI, shooting in film instead of digital, etc), but seeing Lawrence of Arabia, it really doesn't come close. So even if the movie doesn't get to me as much as my favorite modern movies can, there is still this weird feeling that I'm watching some incredible, grand movie, that is basically untouchable.