I wonder if we will ever witness a popular cinematic moment as monumentally larger-than-life, mesmerisingly poetic yet dramatically convincing as when Sir David Lean filmed the greatest epic film of all time in the sands and vistas of Morocco, Jordan and Spain, without the need for so much as even a quaint rear-end projection screen, let alone the latest surfeit of computerised effects. Other directors after Lean have tried ambitiously (Stanley Kubrick, Richard Attenborough), amateurishly (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Mel Gibson) and even a little insincerely (Ridley Scott, with his artificially rendered cityscapes and gladiatorial arenas and Peter Jackson with his digitally created Middle-Earth) to come even in visible distance of this eye-widening, visually sublime film and yet, at one point or the other, their ambition, amateurishness and creative compromise got the better of them. As for directors here in India, well, the closest that we got to even making an epic of half that size was sixty years ago with Mr. K. Asif's Mughal-E-Azam, a film more memorable, it seems, for spoken romance and theatrical drama and songs than for scale. After that, our directors have made only period films (and not epics, as often thought) – a few admirably intelligent (Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Junoon), many bogus swashbucklers and as for Mr. Sanjay Leela Bhansali's cacophonous carnivals of theatricality, awash with effects and extravagance, they are only "epic" in terms of the money spent on ensuring that their heroes and heroines are dressed as wastefully as their unrealistic sets.
So, let's forget all those films and let's agree, willingly, for the umpteenth time that while we are alive, or probably even after that, Lawrence Of Arabia will remain as the only epic film that one really should watch, be it on a humble or on a magnificent silver screen, if one is fortunate enough. The viewer will then witness the timeless quality of the film's spectacle: spectacle, not merely in the terms of the numerous extras that Sir Lean commands and directs with such skill that they canter and gallop in glory with the gusto of an actual infantry with the passion for freedom or the meticulous yet never explicit attention to nuance and detail, be it in the languid atmosphere of the military headquarters at Cairo or in the nomadic commune of the Arabs, camping for safety in the refuge of night at Yenbo.
No, what distinguishes this as an epic film is the masterful sweep of its storytelling, just as in great and voluminous works of literature, even those not concerned with a military campaign or a hero, the reader is entranced and mesmerised by the skilful ways in which a great author tugs us into the ebb and flow of a narrative, into both its big and small incidents and reveals and moments of reflection. It is this seamless orchestration of the key episodes in Thomas Edward Lawrence's mission to aid and bolster the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks that aid us in understanding him as well as the other characters in the narrative that the director accomplishes so flawlessly. Even as it runs for nearly four hours, the length of two or even three films taken together, not a single reel of it seems to be spent in anything even remotely indulgent or wasteful. The rousing scenes of victory like the successful charge at Aqaba or the anarchic chaos of the massacre of the Turkish corps at Deraa never overtake the significance of the near-suicidal trek through the sun-drenched desert of Nefud or the eerie howling of women that accompanies the otherwise confident march out of Wadi Rum, portending an ill omen. Nor is the point of view merely confined to the action and intrigue of combat; the characters are etched with the same brushstrokes of conviction and fleshed with such a lifelike semblance of morality, hope and even dignity that they linger in one's mind just as much as the painstakingly filmed vistas and the scenes of peril, not merely of war, that have become such iconoclast moments of cinematic legacy today.
We ought to give some of this praise to the writer, Mr. Robert Bolt, for his dexterity in mixing fact and fiction creditably and to our uniformly excellent actors – Mr. Guinness, a favourite of the director, cast cannily as the regal Prince Faisal who nurses his dream for "the gardens of Cordoba" in his sad, wistful eyes; Mr. Quinn gamely making the theatrical Howeitat warrior Auda Abu Tayi his own with irreverent glee and, of course, Mr. O'Toole who gives us in the eccentric and enigmatic Lawrence a hero worth believing in. But better wisdom dictates that all credit should go to Sir Lean and with good reason. We should not forget that an epic, of all films, belongs to the director and his cinematographer and Sir Lean and his cameraman Mr. Freddie Young use the motion picture format with the same ingenuity as a writer wields his or her mastery of perspective.
One will praise, of course, the rise and swell of those dunes, the simmering heat of the Nefud, the welcome relief of water and shade at an oasis and, of course, the always thrilling sight of those gallant men and their camels galloping to glory. But one should also not forget the quietest and most haunting of scenes; Mr. Sharif's shrewd Sherif Ali emerging with sinister grace into coherence from the haze of a mirage, poor Gasim plodding on in the inexorable heat and shedding his vestments with every step forward and a flawlessly executed shot that encapsulates the brutal, shameful reality of the war in the desert in one moment without ever lingering on the brutality or shame gratuitously. Nor is the indelible impact merely that of horror or disquiet. Mr. Maurice Jarre's score, as it would again linger with Doctor Zhivago, floats like a symphony of divine glory and sublime romance in our senses. Has there been a more sensuous shot of triumph than the titular hero of the conquest of Aqaba cantering tranquilly on the beach as the sun sets over the sea? As I said even before, there will be no film like this, indeed.