Lawrence of Arabia

He was responsible for the death of one of history's most remarkable personages: Lawrence of Arabia. No wonder he looked so unhappy, that red-faced old man avoiding my gaze from inside the pages of the National Geographic, some decades earlier the young boy Lawrence fatally swerved to avoid – a scene recreated for the opening of the film.

I had a similar expression on my face as I flipped through another magazine recently, Entertainment Weekly, which named Peter O'Toole's portrayal of Lawrence the greatest performance ever committed to film.

My facial muscles only fully relaxed after a hasty umpteenth viewing of this 1962 classic, after which I was able to reach a compromise with the magazine's editors: O'Toole's Lawrence is the greatest debutperformance ever committed to film.

What strikes you about O'Toole's Lawrence is the actor's innate sense of how to act for the camera. O'Toole was able to instantly recognize his visual assets and make maximum use of them: the ice blue eyes, the skeletal angularity, the fey fire within. Using these tools, O'Toole is able, for all of the literacy of Robert Bolt's screenplay and the supreme craftsmanship of David Lean's direction, to give the film its only true weight: the eternal struggle of Man and Superman; Lawrence's realization of his mortality in spite of his Godlike grasp.

It's all the more remarkable that O'Toole is so able, throughout the film, to suggest Lawrence's complicated inner life when he is forced to act within the confines of an epic, a form made up largely of wide and medium shots; even the close-ups usually push the central figure to the right or left of frame in order to accommodate as much scenery as possible.

Then, of course, there is his use of language; like all great actors, O'Toole instinctively defies expectation, going with the soft where most would go hard, setting himself roaring when most would whisper.

He is surrounded by actors with far more film experience, yet none of their styles fit the medium as perfectly as his – not Anthony Quayle's plain-faced frustration, Donald Wolfitt's old school blustering, Claude Raines' scene-stealing underplaying, Alec Guinness' pointed dreaminess, Anthony Quinn's coarse clowning, or Arthur Kennedy's broad, American posturing.

Yes, it's a truly great performance. But God's gift to screen acting? No. Calling it that is simply further proof, as Lawrence himself discovered, that Gods aren't what they're cracked up to be.

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