Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif
Written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
Directed by David Lean
Have you seen Lawrence of Arabia? No? Well then, you should probably put down the Internet and go watch it as soon as possible. Because it’s the internet, this review will be waiting for you when you come back (though it might be a little defaced). Go forth, and educate yourself!
(Don’t read this part until you’ve returned in about five hours.)
Wasn’t that a *pretty* movie? With a very, VERY pretty main character? Full admission — I didn’t actually see a movie with Peter O’Toole in it until Venus, so it was quite shocking to know that he was pretty much a fairy sidhe back in the 60s. It was almost as bad as finding out that Frank Langella oozed jellicle-cat charm in The Seven Chairs.
Peter O’Toole brightens up the desert as T.E. Lawrence, an actual British army soldier who embedded himself with Arabian allies to take on the Turks during World War I. Lawrence begins his career as something of a misfit, disregarding authority and his colleagues alike until he’s sent on what’s essentially a diplomatic mission to assess the prospects of a British ally aiming to claim the Arabian peninsula for himself and his kin. Once out in the field, Lawrence finds a wily yet effective manner that allows him to take whatever comes his way and use it to his full advantage. There’s a surprising amount of grit in him, too; when it really counts, he digs deep to find a reserve of it so he can do what’s essentially impossible. It’s through these feats that he gains the respect of his Arabian hosts and eventually comes to be considered one of them.
As Lawrence navigates the various groups he finds in the desert, he discovers a number of tribes that really don’t get along all that well. For different reasons they’ve been rumbling with each other for a very long time, and it’s only under his urging that they put aside their differences to combat the greater threat of the Turks. Maybe it’s for this reason (and subsequent military successes) that he comes to think of himself as something of a big deal for these guys. When he comes back to his British command post, it’s in traditional Arabian garb instead of his British uniform. The conversation he has with his superiors makes it clear that he’s flipped, and he’s representing the interests of the Arabians more than his home country’s.
When he returns to the warfront he launches a number of guerilla attacks on the Turks. The attacks aren’t without their toll, and one particularly bad episode leaves Lawrence fundamentally shaken. He and a lieutenant are captured by the enemy and beaten, possibly molested. After that point, much of the fight has gone out of him — it’s only at the insistent urging of an ally that he pushes on to the big prize of Damascus. Once British interests are fulfilled and it’s clear that the Arabians may know how to take a city but no idea how to keep one, Lawrence is dispatched back to England. His destiny, for all intents and purposes, has been fulfilled.
But what kind of destiny is that? Lawrence enters into the war a confident man just discovering the singular he abilities he possesses for success in it. When he leaves, he’s disillusioned, hollowed out and purged of any desire to touch those parts of himself again. There are a couple of episodes that force him to directly confront the violence of war, and both of these leave him disturbed. Interestingly, it’s not because he finds that violence distasteful — it’s because he loves it far too much.
The movie touches on a few things that are really fascinating, but doesn’t get too deeply involved with them. Was Lawrence something of a sado-masochist? There are a few details in the film that establish a through-line suggesting so. How did his capture and torture change him? What exactly happened there? He was already beginning to tire of the toll that war takes on a person, but that single experience actually broke him in a very real way. I wish we could have explored that fallout in greater depth.
But this isn’t really that kind of movie. It’s an epic of grand scale, full of massive set-pieces and intense, fascinating episodes that I don’t think I’ve seen in any other movie. This is the very first film that presents the desert as a thing of beauty — a harsh, austere one, but a beautiful landscape nonetheless. It offers us glimpses into the mindset of the people who call this place home, the various cultures that live there, the reasons why there hasn’t been a unified Arabia. What I find most impressive is that it does this without judgement or exoticization. The Arabians that Lawrence meets are flesh-and-blood people, not noble savages or Godless heathens. They have reasons for doing the things they do, an established perspective, and a code that they do their best to live by. In these highly-politicized times, it’s a really great thing to see.
Director David Lean clearly knows how to establish a unique, lived-in world. His previous entries on this list (The Bridge on the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago) are certainly a testament to that. Lawrence of Arabia is the most visually-striking of the three, because he sees how such a barren world can be attractive, worth fighting for — and he shows it to his audience quite well.
Ultimately, Lawrence is disappointed in the outcome of his Arabian adventure precisely because these people are just like everyone else. They can be selfish, stubborn and uncompromising. It’s the very same traits that set him apart from his British colleagues, only manifested in a different way. I have a feeling that perhaps he thought there would be the chance to do something special during his travels through the peninsula; when his war turned out to be pretty much like the other war he left behind, that really took the wind out of him.
But of course, my interest in the story lies with its people; this isn’t necessarily where Lawrence of Arabia shines. It is one of the finest (if not THE finest) epics put to film, set in a region that really sets it apart from anything else. It’s definitely worth seeing, for its cinematography and score for nothing else. Though O’Toole, Guinness and Sharif put in wonderful, magnetic performances, elevating the writing through their sheer charisma. Even though it doesn’t quite go to the places I’d really love to see, Lawrence of Arabia takes me to places I’d never be otherwise.
2 thoughts on “The AFI Top 100 Films: Lawrence of Arabia (#5)”
It is just such an astoundingly good movie, something that repays every single viewing. It’s astounding that way.
The portrayal of Lawrence seems emotionally true to the actual character, too. (Among other things that struck me, after the war, Lawrence did enlist again, pseudonymously, but as a private and he refused absolutely any position where he might be in charge of anyone, for anything.)
Really? Now that I didn’t know. It makes you wonder what drove him to go back to the war — especially since it seemed to be such a traumatizing, negative thing for him! But even though the movie goes for spectacle over character study, the acting in it is just amazing. I’m still not sure how Peter O’Toole didn’t get an Oscar for his portrayal.