Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

It seems strange to call Lawrence of Arabia concise, considering it’s one of Hollywood’s longest films at over three and three-quarters hours. But director David Lean made some unconventional decisions for an epic: he cut out all extraneous biographical details and unnecessary exposition. For the most part, the time frame is only two years (1916-1918) and the main character is kept at the center of practically every scene. Such focus is needed, for T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) was a complex man, one capable of both audacious bravery and repulsive bloodlust. Screenwriters Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson fashioned his story as a tragedy–Lawrence is passionate and sincere about his adopted cause, yet his own arrogance and egotism continually work against him.

The film opens with Lawrence’s death and funeral in 1935. Immediately, the contradictory nature of Lawrence is established. Jackson Bentley (Arthur Kennedy) declares him both “a mighty warrior” and a “shameless exhibitionist.” General Allenby (Jack Hawkins) gives an even more telling assessment. Despite having worked with Lawrence, Allenby admits that “No, I didn’t know him well…” For some, Lawrence’s motives and personal demons remain a mystery. The rest of the film chronicles his participation in the Arab Revolt against the Turks during World War One. A minor functionary in Cairo, he is dissatisfied and anxious to put himself to better use. When finally given the chance to venture into the desert, he boyishly exclaims, “It’s going to be fun.” Dryden (Claude Rains) cautions him that the desert is for “Bedouins and gods, and you’re neither, ” which proves to be a prophetic warning.

The movie features three major treks across the desert as Lawrence attempts to unite the disparate Arab tribes. Unlike other movies, there are no obligatory montages meant to give the mere impression of a journey. Lean is confident enough to slow the pace down considerably but it’s never boring. Freddie Young’s justifiably celebrated cinematography does the seemingly impossible, making emptiness look spectacular. The use of 70mm stock gives the film a deep focus, allowing texture to become as important as composition. Like the main character himself, Young’s desert both allures and repels. When Lawrence conquers the desert, it feels like a true accomplishment, one deserving of the iconic white robes given to him by Ali (Omar Sharif) and his men. This reward allows Lawrence to shed the British uniform he’d conflictingly worn and recreate himself as a faux Bedouin.

Convinced that “nothing is written,” Lawrence exaggerates both his importance and his abilities (with the help of reporter/myth-maker Bentley). After being shot while standing on a derailed train, Lawrence falls to the ground whispering “Good! Good!,” only too aware of how it will add to his image. He quickly recovers and, standing atop the train while his guerrilla fighters cheer, Lawrence is framed silhouetted against the ever-present sun. It’s only one of many moments in which Lean relies on image instead of dialogue to convey information, something that too few Hollywood films of that era were willing to do.

Lawrence is continually sideswiped when he puts too much faith in his own press. He compares himself to Moses before setting off across the Sinai, only to have his confidence shaken when one of his young aides is literally swallowed up by the desert. Later, he recklessly enters a Turkish-held town, mistakenly thinking himself impervious to capture. So keen is he to prove that he’s “not like other men” that Lawrence is naively surprised at how easily he breaks when tortured by the Turks. Nevertheless, like a good tragic figure, Lawrence is compelled to follow his own self-defeating urges, in his case to elevate himself. Consequently,in a climatic attack on a Turkish column, what could have been a great triumph turns into a moment of personal depravity. It’s a scene that still has the power to shock, given that Lawrence’s actions are likely not the result of atrocities recently committed by the Turks.

It’s a shame that such a great film can’t be wholeheartedly recommended for home viewing. Lawrence of Arabia was and still is a rare film, one not only shown but shot in 70mm (many subsequent 70mm movies wereactually 35mm films that had been enlarged). The pan and scan version is a travesty, but even the widescreen version, watched on a large plasma screen, doesn’t do the film justice. On the other hand, it’s important not to let the cinematography overshadow the writing of Bolt and Wilson. The screenplay is elegant and literate, with none of the melodrama or staginess that sometimes mars older films. David Lean’s best film, Lawrence of Arabia is a mature work about a man who doesn’t learn who he is so much as whom he isn’t.

– Paul De Angelis